Bruins can’t bear focusing on past
Last year’s early exit is irrelevant as UCLA begins World Series full of confidence.
UCLA has long ruled the Women’s College World Series, making 27 appearances and winning a record 11 NCAA championships, but in its trips the last two years the Bruins went 1-4 on college softball’s biggest stage.
Last season, UCLA lost its only two games. However, painful flashbacks won’t be an issue when the Bruins (4713) face Louisiana State (4720) in their opener at 11:30 a.m. PDT Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
“I mean, that was 2016,” UCLA first baseman Madeline Jelenicki said last week when asked if the quick ouster was driving the Bruins to do better in their third consecutive appearance in the World Series. “We’re moving on.”
Jelenicki’s deadpan defiance drew laughter from teammates Rachel Garcia and Selina Ta’amilo as well as coach Kelly Inouye-Perez when the group met with reporters after UCLA eliminated Mississippi in a superregional.
“I love it,” Inouye-Perez said.
The coach went on to acknowledge that she had not put the disappointment from last season behind her as quickly as she would have liked.
“I’m going to be honest,” Inouye-Perez said. “I started in fall and I simply said, ‘We’re not going to start over a new season, we’re going to pick up where we left off,’ and that was a mistake. Maddie’s exactly right. That was 2016 and it took some time for us to find out who we were in 2017, but that’s what the season was for; it’s a journey.
“And what we came to is, instead of getting caught up on the past or what we did or needed to do, we kind of figured out who we were. And this team is better, stronger for it because the past is as old as dirt.”
The trajectory of UCLA’s 2017 season changed after the Bruins were swept by Utah in their first Pac-12 Conference series of the season. Inouye-Perez drastically altered her defense, juggling her entire outfield and making a handful of moves elsewhere.
The resulting alignment has made UCLA far more well-rounded than the team that tried to outslug opponents a year ago.
“I believe we have the best defense in the country,” said Ta’amilo, who started UCLA’s World Series opener last year but is now the No. 2 pitching option behind ace Rachel Garcia, the National Fastpitch Coaches Assn.’s freshman of the year.
The Bruins’ offense relies on contributions from top to bottom, with each hitter in the lineup having scored and driven in at least one gamewinning run this season. UCLA’s hitters also seems to possess the clutch gene, having driven in five runs with two out against Mississippi.
“We don’t rely on one person,” Inouye-Perez said. “If you don’t get it done, somebody will pick you up, and that’s how our team is so resilient and continues to be successful, because you don’t just ride the highs and lows or one or two people.”
UCLA has experienced only highs in recent weeks. The Bruins have won 18 of their last 19 games, including eight in a row and all five in the playoffs, in which they have outscored opponents 36-10.
“There’s a feeling right now, a culture, and all these things are a part of what allows you to be successful in the postseason,” said Inouye-Perez, whose program is seeking its first national title since 2010. “You’ve got to be able to be together as one, the culture has to be strong and we have to play for each other, and we ultimately will do whatever it takes to be able to bring that natty home.”