UCLA softball starts their quest to repeat as champions

PAC-12 Champs and circle the Conference wagons. UCLA is hosting the 2021 NCAA Softball Los Angeles Regionals starting this Friday at Easton Stadium, on the heels of winning back-to-back PAC-12 titles. The Bruins swept all three Conference games at the University of Arizona this past weekend to win its 11th overall PAC-12 championship, tying them with none other than the Wildcats for most ever.

UCLA will face-off against Long Beach State this Friday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m., in the second game of the Friday Regionals. The University of Minnesota takes on Fresno State in the opener starting at 5:00 p.m. The Bruins have a recent history with all three programs. They opened this season with a 7-0 shutout over Fresno State and swept a doubleheader at Long Beach State two weeks ago. The Bruins opened their successful 2019 College World Series campaign with a 7-2 win over the Minnesota Gophers.

The NCAA Softball selection committee gave extra incentive to the six PAC-12 schools earning a berth in tournament. UCLA, the defending National Champions who ended the regular season ranked # No. 2 behind the Oklahoma Sooners in the national poll, were given the No. 2 seed overall. But, based on the other five PAC-12 schools rankings during the season, the nation's strongest Conference was slighted by the selection committee.

"I am so disappointed," said UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez speaking to ESPN reporter Holly Rowe. "All the years of being a part of this, to have the PAC-12 disrespected to this level, I'm shocked. There were four to five teams that were in the Top 8 for the majority of the year. And we played each other. And we actually played more games to strengthen our schedule against each other. So, I'm shocked."

Arizona, Washington, Arizona State and Oregon were all ranked in the Top 10 for a greater part of the season. However, once the teams began their Conference schedule their rankings dipped even though the PAC-12 has always been and still is the most competitive Conference from top-to-bottom in the nation. Washington finished ranked No. 7, Arizona was No. 10, Oregon was No. 11, and Arizona State was No. 13.

When the selection committee completed the 64-team bracket, Washington was slapped down to the final 16th seeded school, without a doubt the greatest insult handed down by NCAA Softball. The Huskies are one of only a handful of teams that would not surprise anyone if they won the entire tournament. Equally slighted were the Oregon Ducks, one of the elite programs for the past decade who were not even seeded to host the Regionals. Instead, they were sent on the road to play in the Austin Regionals hosted by Texas, a very surprising seeded team.

Arizona, who has won the second most National titles with eight, will host the Tucson Regionals as the 11th seed. Arizona State will host the Tempe Regionals as the 15th seed. Stanford was relegated to the Fayetteville Regionals hosted by Arkansas. Regardless, the games will be decided on the field by the PAC-12 schools who have won 24 of the 38 total NCAA Softball Championships to date. The Bruins swept the Sooners, 16-3 and 5-4, in 2019 to capture their 12th College World Series, the most by any school.

"But the best thing is, I congratulate all 64 teams that got in," said Inouye-Perez. "And now it's a brand new season. So, no matter where you are, I hope the PAC-12 comes and shows what they are capable of doing because it was a very challenging year and we have some great teams in the PAC."

UCLA took three of the four contests at Arizona to finish with a 19-2 PAC-12 record and 41-4 overall. Washington finished second with an 18-5 record, Oregon (14-10) in third, Arizona State (12-9) in fourth, Arizona (12-10) in fifth, and Stanford in sixth with a 9-12 record. Oregon State (7-17), California (3-11), and Utah (3-21) rounded out the 2021 Conference standings. The PAC-12 collectively finished with a 180-59 non-Conference record, a remarkable .753 winning percentage against the rest of the nation's softball programs.

The Bruins took the opener, 8-0, last Thursday night in Tucson as pitcher Rachel Garcia pitched a two-hit shutout while the team launched five homeruns against the Wildcats' formidable staff. Back-to-back-to-back home runs with two outs in the top of the first inning. Rachel Garcia, Delanie Wisz and Maya Brady set the tone for UCLA. Brady got her first two-homer game with the team including a monstrous blast in the fourth inning that disappeared deep into the Arizona night. Aaliyah Jordan added her seventh homer of the season, a solo shot in the second inning.

"Mariah (Lopez, Arizona), she's a great pitcher. We've just been watching a lot of film on her. We saw that she kind of throws up and that's one of this team's strengths," said Brady to PAC-12 Networks announcers Cindy Brunson and Kenzie Fowler immediately following the game. "I fouled off one before that felt pretty good. So, I kind of wanted that swing because it was a foul ball straight back. And so, when I think I saw that pitch up, yeah, I just kind of went for it."

"Maya's just a beast," said Inouye-Perez. "That was the farthest ball I've ever seen hit here at Arizona and I've been in a lot of games to be able to see it. But that was pretty impressive what she did tonight."

Pitcher Megan Faraimo improved her season record to 17-3 in Friday's doubleheader opener. Faraimo allowed only two late runs in the seventh inning to win, 6-2, while striking out 10 Wildcat batters. Garcia and Wisz both homered to rally the team for three runs each in the sixth and seventh innings. Faraimo, a junior, has a lifetime 46-8 record and a stingy 1.17 ERA with the Bruins. The win officially clinched the PAC-12 title for UCLA when Stanford beat Washington minutes earlier in Palo Alto.

Rachel Garcia officially wrapped up her four year PAC-12 pitching career with a 7-2 win in the series closer on Saturday. Arizona led 1-0 until the top of the sixth inning when UCLA opened the flood gates with seven runs, including Kinsley Washington's 3-run blast, her third homerun of the season. Faraimo pitched the last two innings to close out the Wildcats. Garcia finished the season with a perfect 14-0 record and her 95th career win.

"We have a chance to defend our title and that seemed like a long time ago," said Inouye-Perez. "But we're all onboard, we're building momentum, we're playing our best softball, and we're going to take it one day at a time. And I can't wait to get started."

Inouye-Perez continued to say, "I believe our strength is our experience. We have a great pitching staff. We have a great offense that is power and speed, and we don't rely on any one player. I think the best part about this is we'll get a chance to host here at home and I think those are always positives. Again, 64 teams are in and I think the best part of the new season is we are getting ready to go."

Brady concluded: "We're really determined and we're on a roll right now coming off a good weekend. So, I just think we're trying to keep that going but I just want everyone to know that we're not going to give up and we're going to fight to the very last pitch. We always talk about throwing the last punch. So, I think that's super important."


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