UCLA softball will have to wait until next year
June 10, 2021
UCLA'sS softball quest to defend its National title fell by the wayside at the Women's College World Series last weekend in Oklahoma City. The 12-time Champions were eliminated by the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday night, 10-3. It's the same program the Bruins beat to take the 2019 crown. It was also the swan song for seven UCLA seniors, including U.S. Olympic team members, Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nichols.
"They (Oklahoma) straight up came up and threw punches back and beat us on the field tonight," said 15-year Bruins head coach and two-time WCWS, Kelly Inouye-Perez. "It wasn't the plan for us to meet up here in the loser's bracket, but things happen."
Two-time USA Softball Player of the Year Rachel Garcia remarked on her career at UCLA, "The Bruin Bubble is something unique and special. And just being able to represent these four letters for the rest of my life and to part of the Bruin Bubble for life, words can't describe how special it is."
Nickles doubled-down on Garcia's sentiments, "Just the alumni and just the culture of UCLA Softball, the tradition that goes through this program, it's incredible. And no one ever feels it until they experience it. It's amazing the support that us as players, we have from every single person that's a part of that Bruin Bubble."
Ultimately, the Bruins were unable to withstand the excellent pitching and lethal batting of the first and third-ranked teams in the nation, Oklahoma and Alabama. After advancing with a 4-0 shutout over Florida State in Thursday's Game 1, UCLA met their match the following night as Crimson Tide pitcher Montana Fouts threw a perfect game, while striking out 14 Bruin batters. Fouts, celebrated her 21st birthday by pitching the fifth perfect game in the Women's College World Series history.
"I'm so proud of this team, the way we came out and responded after last night says a lot about who we are," said Coach Inouye-Perez after her team was blanked by Alabama. "We came out. We were more focused. We were more dialed in. We had great quality at-bats. We were hitting the ball all over the place, playing UCLA brand softball."
UCLA bounced back early in Saturday's elimination contest when Garcia hit a three-run homer in the top of the third inning for a very temporary 3-0 lead. The Sooners responded with two runs in the bottom of the third inning, the first runs scored on Garcia in the tournament. It wouldn't be the last as Oklahoma scored two more in the fourth inning and finally slammed the door on the Bruins' season with five runs in the sixth inning.
"To be able to respond against a team like Oklahoma in the loser's bracket says who we are," said Inouye-Perez. "Throughout the game we continued to throw punches and bottom line, we weren't able to get it done. I'm proud of this team, though. I'm proud of Rachel Garcia. She chose to come back and do all she could to help this program. She was put in the position once again to have to do it all."
The Bruins tournament future looked bright after Garcia tossed a 5-hit, 11-strikeout performance while shutting out Florida State, 4-0, in the last of Thursday's four opening matchups. Excellent Bruin defense helped diffuse Florida State's offense, which failed to score despite having runners in scoring position in five of the seven innings. Anna Vines' backhanded, knee-throwing defensive gem and shortstop Bri Perez' diving catch to end the game were notable.
The Bruin bats finally reached Florida State pitcher, Kathryn Sandercock, when Vines drove in first baseman Kinsley Washington to break up the scoreless pitching duel in the bottom of the fifth inning. Sandercock had retired the first eight UCLA batters, including five strikeouts. Following third baseman Delanie Wisz' insurance RBI-double in the sixth inning, right Fielder Maya Brady sealed the game with a 2-run blast deep into the centerfield bleachers.
UCLA unexpectedly went to Oklahoma City without the services of sophomore pitcher Megan Faraimo, who injured her hand and didn't make the trip to the WCWS. Faraimo led the team with 19 wins this season and had the key win for the Bruins in the Super Regionals against Virginia Tech the week before.
"I think as a team we have to take it day by day and focus on us," said Garcia after the win over Florida State. "Obviously, there's some outside noise going on but as long as we keep it within the team continue one pitch at a time and one day at a time, we're going to be just fine. Megan's going to be with us in spirit."
Despite being eliminated from the Series, the Bruins remain as the all-time leader in NCAA Softball titles with 12. They also will be returning a very talented team next season, as Garcia and Nickles were the only seniors in the Bruins lineup starting the season. Nickles sustained an injury and didn't play for a full two months from late March until she had one at-bat in the Super Regionals and finally started again in the WCWS.
Nickles praised her teammates, "I want them to see the spirit that each one of these girls had. They made me selfless, and they taught me how to be selfless and to put them before myself. And I hope that when people think of my name or remember me, I hope they don't think of me, they think of those girls."
Inouye-Perez reflected on the seven seniors who played their last game for the storied program: Jenavee Peres, Jacqui Prober, Julie Rodriguez, Alana Snow, Rachel Garcia, Bubba Nickles, and Malia Quarles. "I'm more sad for the seniors that depart. So, I apologize that I'm late (to the postgame media conference) because we took some time because we didn't want the Bruin bubble to end in 2021.
"So, I'm proud of them. I will do anything for them the rest of their life. They will come back because they're proud and they want to see the younger Bruins succeed... My coaches couldn't be more proud. Kirk (Walker), Lisa (Fernandez), Coach Don (Slaught). We commit. We give. We love these girls. We will be back."