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UCLA softball chasing title with 'perfect storm' of experience and young talent

UCLA's Maya Brady (7) celebrates after a home run during the third inning.
UCLA's Maya Brady celebrates after hitting a home run against Oklahoma in the Women's College World Series in June. The Bruins are hoping to once again challenge for an NCAA title this season. (Alonzo Adams / Associated Press)

Embarrassed isn’t the word UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez would use, even if the final scoreline was embarrassing.

The 15-0 drubbing by eventual national champion Oklahoma that ended UCLA’s season still lingers in the Bruins’ minds eight months later. The fact that the Bruins pushed the high-powered Sooners to an elimination game in the semifinal round of the Women's College World Series showed how close UCLA was to its goal, but how quickly the decisive game got away from the Bruins reminded them how much further they have to go. The bitter memories have been swirling ever since.

“We got a little fire in our gut,” Inouye-Perez said recently.

Fueled by "missed opportunities" of previous years, Inouye-Perez hopes to lead a mix of experienced Pac-12 transfers, talented freshmen and long-time stalwarts playing on pandemic borrowed time to UCLA’s first national championship since 2019. The No. 2-ranked Bruins start their season Thursday against Cal State Fullerton in the Stacy Winsberg Tournament at Easton Stadium.

While No. 1 Oklahoma is trying to become the first school to win three consecutive national titles since UCLA in 1988-90, the Bruins aspire to restore their own championship luster.

“We are respected, but I think at the same time, people have forgotten that UCLA is the most winning program in the history of this sport,” senior Maya Brady said. “There’s a reason for that and there’s a reason why so many great players keep coming here. … At the end of the day, the returners at least, I know we have a chip on our shoulder.”

With four transfers and seven freshmen, UCLA’s group of returners is smaller than in recent seasons, and there are large holes to fill. The Bruins lost first baseman Kinsley Washington, who drove in the national championship-winning run in 2019, and catcher/third baseman Delanie Wisz, who led the Bruins in batting average, RBIs and home runs last year.

The biggest vacancy is at shortstop, where Briana Perez patrolled for 162 consecutive games. The 2022 Pac-12 defensive player of the year and UCLA's leader in career runs scored sat out only four games of her five-year career. Even months after preseason workouts began, Brady was still struggling to imagine the program without Perez.

Brady, a former high school shortstop who moved to center field at UCLA, transitioned back to the infield as an option after Perez’s departure, along with freshman Megan Grant and redshirt junior Seneca Curo.

While Brady was working at both center field and shortstop leading up to the season opener, returning to the infield was an exciting homecoming, although it was a bumpy return at first.

Former Oregon pitcher Brooke Yanez is among the transfers who will be suiting up for UCLA this season.
Former Oregon pitcher Brooke Yanez is among the transfers who will be suiting up for UCLA this season. (Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

“It is such a big transition,” said Brady, who led the Bruins with 14 postseason hits last year. “I’ve kind of had to relearn the things that were just in my DNA five years ago, but it’s definitely like coming back to me very, very slowly but surely.”

Beyond Perez's iron-woman reliability, consistent hitting and steady fielding, the Bruins miss the five-year starter's leadership, pitcher Megan Faraimo said. The reigning Pac-12 pitcher of the year says she feels a responsibility to fill the critical void.

After beginning her career happy to go with the flow of the bullpen, Faraimo caught Inouye-Perez’s attention at a recent practice when the ace took over for assistant coach Lisa Fernandez and led the pitchers through extra conditioning, cardio, a ground-ball program and their mental routines.

“She’s always the best team player, but her mission is very clear,” Inouye-Perez said. “She wants to be able to help her team win a national championship.”

The pandemic derailed UCLA's hope to repeat in 2020 when the Bruins were ranked No. 1. The 2021 season, when a hand injury kept Faraimo out of the World Series, exposed UCLA's thin pitching staff. Last year, UCLA lost in the opening game and fought through the consolation bracket to the semifinal, where the Bruins knocked off Oklahoma in the first game but couldn't pull off the shocking upset twice in one day as the Sooners flexed their pitching depth.

The Bruins believe they have the depth to contend this year.

Three of their four transfers have previously earned all-conference acclaim, led by two-time All-Pac-12 first-team catcher Sharlize Palacios and former Oregon ace Brooke Yanez. Palacios ranked second in the Pac-12 in RBIs last year while helping Arizona to the World Series. Yanez, whom Brady called “the best pitcher I’ve ever faced,” was named first-team all-conference in 2021 before sitting out last year because of an injury.

The seven freshmen, led by Softball America’s No. 2 overall recruit Taylor Tinsley, are “probably the best freshman class I’ve ever seen,” second baseman Anna Vines said. With Faraimo closing her career this season, Tinsley is the heir apparent in the circle. The 5-foot-7 right-hander from Georgia is “fearless,” Faraimo said.

From freshmen turning 18 to seventh-year outfielder Aaliyah Jordan, Faraimo called the range of experience on UCLA’s roster “the weirdest mix ever.” It’s also what makes the Bruins perfectly suited for their title chase.

“We’re just a force to be reckoned with,” Brady said. “That mixture of experience here, new experience and the positivity, I think it’s the perfect storm almost."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.