OMAHA, Neb. – Progress can be defined many ways. For some teams, a winning season is progress, others count playing in the College World Series. There are a few that list playing for the national title.
UCLA is proud to be among elite company after playing South Carolina for the national title. The sting of finishing second is still strong, though.
In the days and months ahead, most of their pain will give way to a sense of accomplishment.
“Every player on our team now knows what it feels like [to play for the national title],” UCLA coach John Savage said. “We can sit here and be very proud of the entire program. The bar has been raised and we look forward to being back [in Omaha] soon.”
“This team can say they’re the best in UCLA history,” he added.” I’m proud of every person who has been part of this program.”
The usually stoic Savage had plenty of reason to be emotional about his team playing for the national title.
His team made strides many observers – particularly in California – thought weren’t possible even with a stockpile of talent.
The naysayers were proven wrong but it’s easy to see why the Bruins had doubters entering what they believed to be a promising campaign.
UCLA has a laundry list of past stars – guys like Jackie Robinson, Troy Glaus, Chase Utley, Todd Zeile and Eric Karros – but the program had lacked major success on the national stage.
The Bruins entered this season with just two College World Series appearances – 1969 and 1997.
In Savage’s five campaigns before this season, he guided the program to three regional appearances and a super regional in ’07 where the Bruins lost to Cal State Fullerton.
That changed after something clicked during fall workouts and sent the team into the season with a wealth of confidence.
Last fall the Bruins worked with renowned sports psychologist Ken Ravizza. The Bruins credit Ravizza with helping them get their priorities straight both mentally and on the field.
When the season started, it was obvious Ravizza’s plan had worked. UCLA was playing as a team, its attitude was fantastic and much more hard-nosed. And the confidence level was higher than ever.
The Bruins started the season with a school-record 22 consecutive wins before dropping the second game of a series against Stanford. The next day the Bruins fought back to beat Stanford 7-5 to win the series.
It was a sign of things to come.
The Bruins suffered another potential blow the first weekend of May when Arizona State strolled to Los Angeles for perhaps the most important series of the season. The Sun Devils crushed the Bruins, outscoring them 23-5 in a three-game sweep.
Many thought the Bruins would leave that series bruised and battered, struggling to find an identity among the nation’s elite. This team did the opposite. The Bruins swept their next three series against Washington, USC and California before beating Washington State two of three to close out the regular season.
After earning the No. 6 national seed for the NCAA tournament, the Bruins weren't rewarded with an easy road to Omaha. This team didn’t miss a beat despite a loaded regional. The Bruins used great pitching and timely hitting to beat Kent State, LSU and UC Irvine to advance to the super regional round.
Cal State Fullerton stood between them and Omaha. The same Fullerton that had been the Bruins’ nemesis.
The Bruins were in a hole early once again, dropping the opener. But in Game 2 of the series, Tyler Rahmatulla hit a two-out homer in the top of the ninth inning to give the Bruins a lead. The Bruins won that game and dominated the Titans in the series finale.
In Omaha, the Bruins didn’t have Rahmatulla because of a broken wrist, but Cody Regis, who moved to second base to replace Rahmatulla, more than held up his end of the bargain. The Bruins hit with consistency and used strong pitching from their Big Three of Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen to get the job done.
The Bruins faced South Carolina for the national title and fell just short of accomplishing their ultimate goal – the program’s first national title.
As South Carolina celebrated, sophomore pitcher Gerrit Cole – who turned down millions to go to college – was covered with tears. Many of his teammates were in the same shape, while others were stunned.
In reality, this UCLA team has nothing to be ashamed of. It fell short of winning a title, but this team changed the national perception of the program.
It did something many thought was impossible. It raised the bar.
“That’s something we’re really proud of and something came here to do after we signed our letters of intent,” pitcher Rob Rasmussen said. “Looking back on it [the season] I think we’ll be happy.”
- the Bruins
- Cal State Fullerton