This past year, three freshmen emerged as top athletes "“ but faced challenges along the way.
Life hasn’t thrown rising sophomore infielder Stephany LaRosa many curveballs, as far as softball is concerned. The climb to stardom for UCLA’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and First Team All-American has been a swift and steep one since she first started playing at age 3.
Cruising through high school as one of the state’s best players and emerging with a bevy of awards, LaRosa entered UCLA with a wave of hype.
“She came out of 18 and under softball as one of the top, if not the top hitter, so I had great expectations coming in for her to be able to contribute in the lineup right away,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.
LaRosa didn’t disappoint, leading the team with a .436 batting average and 61 RBIs in her first year.
But in the Regional round of the NCAA playoffs, LaRosa faced the first true roadblock on her path to success.
With UCLA down to its final out and trailing Florida State 2-1, LaRosa had a chance to knock in the tying and go-ahead runs and send the Bruins to the NCAA Super Regionals, one step closer to the College World Series.
The stage was set for another batch of LaRosa’s heroics, but instead, she tapped a grounder to the shortstop and was thrown out at first to end the game and UCLA’s season. After the play, LaRosa fell to the ground, overcome with emotion.
“It’s definitely a feeling that will stick with me, but I’m glad it happened to me,” LaRosa said. “It was my freshman year, I have the experience now. I know what that feels like and it’s only going to make me work that much harder to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Hard work is what has brought LaRosa this far. She regularly shows up to practice early and stays late, working on fielding grounders and refining her batting skills.
“One thing about Stephany is her dedication just stands out from the rest,” rising sophomore infielder Sam Duran said. “She told me one time that you can do great, you can be great, but there is always room for improvement.”
LaRosa’s dedication to improvement has helped not just her, but also her teammates, as her extra work outside of practice sets an example for others to follow.
“For me as a teammate, it truly inspires me. It’s not just Steph getting ground balls, it’s Steph pushing us, so I need to push myself as well,” Duran said.
Inouye-Perez has also taken note of LaRosa’s extra practice, but believes there is a driving force behind her hard work.
“She’ll come early and get some hitting in. She’ll stay late. She puts the work in. But I think what separates LaRosa is she’s got a great approach,” Inouye-Perez said. “To be young and have the approach that she does, she has physical skill behind her swing, but she definitely has an approach that allows her to be successful.”
LaRosa considers her approach, which she uses as motivation to continue her hard work, to be quite simple.
“To just have fun,” LaRosa said. “I think a lot of people, when they come out here and they see the big stage and they’re playing for UCLA, they lose the fun of it. They make it bigger than what it is.
“It’s the same game I grew up playing and I think that’s where a lot of people lose their focus. They lose that aspect of it. So being able to come out here and just have fun is what ultimately it’s all about.”
While the fun of the game is what fuels LaRosa, her ability to translate that into wins fueled the Bruins to much of their success last season. Since many of the team’s key players from last season graduated, even more weight falls on LaRosa’s shoulders to carry the team next season. But after her stellar freshman year, opposing teams will be more prepared to stop her.
“If you’re Freshman of the Pac-12, then yeah, the expectations will be high and she got it done within the Pac-12 throughout the season. They’ll definitely be shooting for her next year and it’ll be a challenge. And with that, I think she’s up for it,” Inouye-Perez said.
But all LaRosa is focused on is keeping the same fun-loving attitude going forward.
“I think as long as I come out here next year with the same mind-set that I did this year, I think I should be OK,” LaRosa said.
As the new focal point of the Bruins’ offense, LaRosa is sure to have many more proverbial curveballs thrown her way. But this time, she’s ready to hit them.