Bruins Ready to Defend Softball Title
February 25, 2021
"We say things like: pressure is a privilege. That means people are expecting great things from us. And that can only be a positive for us." (Kelly Inouye-Perez, UCLA Softball Head Coach. February 2021)
Some things are special. The defending National Champion UCLA softball team has successfully opened the 2021 season with five consecutive victories. After last season's remarkable 25-1 start was abruptly cancelled due to COVID, the Bruins have resumed defending their 2019 title with a surprisingly young team led by a core veteran group.
Along with four incoming freshmen, virtually every player has returned from last season. Fourteen students/athletes on the roster are either freshmen, redshirt freshmen, sophomores or redshirt sophomores. Five redshirt juniors, three seniors and three redshirt seniors. Seniors Rachel Garcia, two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year winner, and Bubba Nickles are both back after having missed the 2020 season due to Team USA Olympic duties.
Starting pitcher Megan Faraimo allowed only one hit in six innings as the Bruins shutout Fresno State, 7-0, in the season opener at Easton Stadium, Friday, February 12. Nickles' leadoff homerun followed by a two-run clout from Garcia ignited a six-run outburst in the bottom of the first inning. Faraimo, a redshirt sophomore, dominated the Bulldog batters, striking out 13, walking one while allowing only a one-out scratch single in the sixth inning.
Coach Inouye-Perez: "I was really proud of Megan Faraimo. She's always looking to be able to throw that perfect game or that no-hitter. It just showed how hard that is because she was doing a great job in stopping the opponent and was throwing some great pitches."
Nickles made a spectacular grab of a deep shot to center field in the second inning with a runner on first base and almost doubled the runner out with an excellent gather and strong throw to the bag. "She not only showed her ability to catch the ball that was hit pretty well but... had the strength in her arm and her decision making to be able to make that play. She got to showcase. That's why Bubba's so unique, why she's so special," said Inouye-Perez.
Two games scheduled the next day at home with Cal Poly were cancelled due to COVID protocol measures attributed to the San Luis Obispo team. The Bruins responded with early season resilience on Saturday, February 20, coming from behind in both games of a double header at Cal State Fullerton. The second game took two Bruin batters down to the team's last strike in the seventh inning while trailing 4-3.
Redshirt freshman Taylor Edwards delivered the go-ahead runs on a two-and-two count with a blooping double just inside the right field line. The Bruins continued to rally for seven runs in the seventh for a 10-4 win. Faraimo shut down the Titans in the last three innings to open the season with three consecutive pitching wins. UCLA won the first game 6-2 after overcoming a 2-0 deficit, both runs off of back-to-back homers with two outs in the first inning off of Faraimo.
Junior Aiyalah Jordan's two-run double tied the game in the third inning. The Bruins chipped in a run in each of the next four innings for the win. Sophomore Kelli Godin tripled and scored on Nickles' sacrifice fly in the fourth inning for the eventual winning run. Junior Briana Perez led the offense with two hits, including a triple, two walks and two runs scored.
However, Perez' work at shortstop is drawing rave reviews. Perez put on a brilliant display of fielding the next day during the Sunday morning/afternoon doubleheader with Loyola Marymount at Easton Stadium on the UCLA campus. Only one ball made it through the left side of the infield all day, and that banging hard chopper barely squeezed through. The Bruins made quick work of the Lions, again scoring six runs in the first inning and five runs in the fourth to cement the game, 11-1.
Starting pitcher Holly Azevedo got her first win of the season, allowing only two hits and one earned run that came in the fifth and last inning. She faced only two batters over the minimum at-bats on 55 pitches. Emphasizing the depth of the roster, two redshirt freshmen shared the catching duties in the opener: Alyssa Garcia and Taylor Edwards. Jordan and Delanie Wisz led the offense with two hits each. Jordan had four RBI's and Wisz knocked in two.
A freshmen pitching battery was featured in the 6-1 nightcap win. Redshirt freshman Lexi Sosa started and pitched five innings of two-hit, one-run ball. It was Sosa's first win of the season. Last season she won two games, including a shutout in six appearances. True freshman Thessa Malau'ulu caught the entire game including handling Faraimo, who came on to relieve the last two innings. Perez hit a homerun in the first inning, is batting .444 for the season and leads the team with eight total hits.
After UCLA hosts San Diego State this week, they will travel to Arizona this weekend to play Oregon and Utah on Saturday and Sunday. The games are being played at Arizona State in Tempe due to the less restrictions with regards to COVID protocol concerning athletic events in the State. Oregon has started the season undefeated at 7-0, including two solid wins at Fresno State this past weekend. Utah has also busted out of the gates with a 9-2 record.
"Arizona State and Arizona have been wonderful working together with all the PAC-12 to allow for those games to happen," said Inouye-Perez. "So, a lot of cooperation within the PAC and I'm very proud to be a part of this coaching group. Our goal always is to get as many PAC-12 teams eligible for the postseason. We're all working together to be able to do that. The Conference looks strong and there's high expectations for the teams in the PAC this year."
Six Bruins were also recently named to the USA Softball Player of the Year watch list: Garcia and Nickles, Jordan and Perez along with Faraimo and Kelli Godin. The Top 25 finalists will be announced on April 21, with the winner announced on June 1. Garcia and Nickles were also recently named as candidates for the 2021 Senior CLASS Award at UCLA.
"It's a great recognition to be able to say that we have so many players that are up for Player of the Year," said Inouye-Perez. "It speaks volumes to the players we're recruiting and what the expectations are of those players. I definitely credit Lisa Fernandez, our recruiting coordinator who goes out and finds the best talent. I truly think it speaks to the history and tradition of this program."
"We have an entire season to figure out who we are in 2021. We know we can play ball. I have a lot of talent. But it's how we play ball together and that's going to take a little of discipline and consistency to figure out the process. We're looking for quality at-bats. We're looking for consistent approaches. We're looking for hustle on and off the field. We're looking for energy and communication."
The Bruins' 144-14 record since 2018 blurs the analytic numbers. Inouye-Perez credits her coaching staff for the success: "Kirk (Walker), Lisa (Fernandez) and Don (Slaught) have done an outstanding job of organizing practices in this chaotic time can make clear about what's expected every day. In the chaos the only thing we control is how we manage it. Our coaching staff has done an outstanding job of that in every aspect of the game.
"The foundation of our program will always remain the same. We have a philosophy of how we keep our priorities straight. Family comes first. And then school. And then softball. So, we really take pride in the people that we recruit and they're here to get an education. And softball is what we love to do."