By Fred Altieri
Sports Reporter 

Bruins to Defend Softball Title in OKC

UCLA Ousts Virginia Tech in Super Regionals at Easton Stadium

 

Rachel Garcia is mobbed by teammates after UCLA wins Super Regionals over Virginia Tech

OKC Bound! The UCLA Bruins will travel to Oklahoma City to defend their 2019 NCAA National Softball Championship beginning this Thursday. After losing Game 1 of the best-of-three series in uncharacteristic fashion, the 12-time National Champions rallied in dramatic fashion to shutout Virginia Tech in the final two games this past weekend at the Super Regionals in Westwood. It was a just and fitting end for Rachel Garcia, Bubba Nickles and the five other seniors who enjoyed their last official game at Easton Stadium as Bruins.

"It's just crazy to think that this was my last game here as a Bruin. But, I'm super blessed to be a part of this... just to wear the four letters, to be a part of the Bruin bubble. I get to represent UCLA for the rest of my life," said two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Rachel Garcia. "After Thursday's game, I think we were a lot better prepared. We knew what we were getting. We came together as a team. We were playing for each other. Ultimately, we just stuck to our goal and our plans."


Second-ranked UCLA, playing in their record 30th Women's College World Series will take on Florida State this Thursday, 6:30 p.m. PT, at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in the opening round. The Bruins half of the draw is a virtual softball power-grid that includes Arizona and Alabama. Arizona has the second-most National titles with eight, third-ranked Alabama won it all in 2012, while Florida State won the WCWS in 2018. The top half of the draw includes top-ranked Oklahoma, fifth-ranked Oklahoma State, No. 22 James Madison and unranked Georgia.


"So, one of the biggest things I always tell this team is that things are going to happen and those aren't the defining moments. It's what you do next that is your defining moment," said PAC-12 Coach of the Year Kelly Inouye-Perez. "I'm super proud of this team because they just went to work. There wasn't a lot of emotion or frustration. It's just: what do we need to do next? And to be able to play better the next day and even better on this third day shows that this team is on a mission."

There was unchartered chatter in social media following UCLA's 7-2 loss in Thursday night's opener against the Hokies and their impressive pitcher Keely Rochard. She kept the Bruin bats at bay for the greater part of two games with a riser, backdoor curve and changeup as her arsenal. Meanwhile, Garcia had a rare off-night in the circle, yielding nine hits and four earned runs in four innings pitched. The usually very reliable UCLA defense exacerbated the evening by committing a season-high five errors.


"We walked out of that game obviously pretty frustrated," said junior shortstop Bri Perez. "But we looked at it as: Hey, that is not us. Every single infielder had an error. That's probably an NCAA record. Who even knows? But we were just like: that's not us. We watched film. The coaches gave us a lot of good advice and pep talks. We just trust ourselves, honestly. Try to play our game."

"We made an adjustment with her (Rochard) rise balls, took away her pitch so she kind of had to come down... But a lot of credit to her, she’s a great pitcher."

Enter sophomore pitcher Megan Faraimo, tabbed by Coach Inouye-Perez as the starter in Friday night's Game 2. Faraimo struck out the very first batter and never looked back as the Bruins won 2-0. The right-hander allowed only one infield single and two walks the entire game while striking out 11 Hokies in a command performance. The energy and execution she brought to the field was infectious and the key turning point in the series.


"When I get really fired up it's because I'm passionate about the game first and so I just want to give back that energy to my team so we can feed off each other," said Faraimo. "As a pitcher I try to tell myself it's a 0-0 ballgame but getting those two runs was huge and I'm super proud of the Bruins that we're able to do that."

Freshman catcher Alyssa Garcia caught all three games like a four-year veteran. She ordinarily hasn't been behind the plate with Faraimo in the circle this season but was called upon when Delanie Wisz was penciled in for third base duty. "It was fun. I've been working with Alyssa since last year... We were communicating a lot throughout the game, which I appreciate, and I think she did really good job catching for me back there tonight," said Faraimo.


Coach I: "I think the biggest game-changer for us was Megan Faraimo. Megan definitely is a beast. We know what she can do but she hadn't done that in postseason. And for her to perform the way she did last night, I don't care who the opponent was, she dominated. She pitched her A-plus game and I think that builds great confidence for us going back to OKC."


Outfielders Maya Brady and Aaliyah Jordan hit solo homeruns in support for the game's only runs. Brady's towering shot deep into the twilight sent a clear message across Virginia Tech's bough in the second inning. "I really wasn't looking to hit a homerun. I really just wanted to get on for my team. It ended up being a homerun, so that's always nice when it's effortless like that," said Brady. "I think we just had to transition into playing UCLA Softball and being ourselves tonight."

A highly vocal and entertaining limited-capacity Bruins crowd of players' family and former team members was also a factor in UCLA's 6-0 winning effort. For the first time all season, it felt and sounded like a full-house in Easton Stadium from Rachel Garcia's first pitch to her last, both swinging strikes. The faithful were a genuine extension of Faraimo's statement: "I really feed off my team and so I feel all eight of them behind me and they have my back."

Not to be underestimated was the very presence of Bubba Nickles in Saturday's starting lineup. Out of action for the greater part of the season due to injury, Nickles immeasurable contribution was noted by Coach Inouye-Perez: "When she left the lineup when she got injured it wasn't even necessarily just her softball because this team has a lot of talent, but it's her presence. It's her experience, her energy. It's her vibe. It's her positive there is no failure."

"She is nothing but positive energy. If you were to just step back and watch her, she is entertaining 24/7. She's dancing and singing and joking and messing around constantly. So, she changes the vibe... we're heading in the right direction, and I'm so fired up for her to have the opportunity to be able to play in OKC. Huge."

Garcia: "Just to even see Bubba out there this whole weekend, I knew she was waiting for that moment and she got a ball, and after that first catch, the entire team was super pumped for her, even for her to get her at-bat... I'm excited for her going into OKC."

Held to a mere seven hits in the first two games by Rochard, the Bruins scored a run in each of the first three innings to finally get some breathing room for the first time all weekend. In the bottom of the fifth inning Maya Brady put the game on ice for good with a three-run blast over the centerfield wall.

Rachel Garcia wrapped up the Super Regionals in style by striking out the Hokies side in the seventh inning. Pitching coach Lisa Fernandez re-emphasized another reason why she's considered softball's GOAT by calling a masterful game. Notable was an effective changeup that Garcia has added to her pitching toolbox, validated by Fernandez calling for the pitch multiple times as related by Inouye-Perez' postgame team meeting: "I turned to Rachel and I'm like: "Did you seriously go three changeups in a row? She said: "No. I actually went four," as the entire team erupted with laughter: "We were dying. We went crazy."

"I think Lisa Fernandez just did a great job of calling a great game and throwing their hitters off. Bottom line, what I got to see from Rachel is the defining moment wasn't for her on Thursday. The defining moment was today. For a team that has clearly studied her and had a plan against her, to put herself in a position to be a little different and come up with some critical pitches in big counts, that definitely threw them off."

Coach Inouye-Perez reeled off what the program has endured since winning the most recent Women's College World Series in 2019. It started with winning, to celebrating, to losing Bubba and Rachel to Team USA, to gaining new players, to watching the freshman perform and play very well in 2020, to getting that season cut short, to the awkward Zoom overload meeting moments of quarantine, and finally to being limited in the Fall when everybody else was playing, not to mention the injuries sustained by the Bruins.

"It's always special going to OKC," concluded Coach I. "Absolutely, it's been rewarding and our mantra this year has been: It's the Year of Fear. We're going to face everything and rise... I kept on telling them that our best has yet to come and good talent is flexible. But I credit this team for what they were able to do in the regular season with all the adversity."

Senior Malia Quarles holds up the Bruins winning ticket to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City

 

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