The NCAA tournament is a grab bag of competition. Teams can end up playing schools they had hardly heard of in pursuit of a title.
For UCLA this weekend, that’s anything but the case.
UCLA and Cal State Fullerton may not be a traditional set of rivals, but both teams’ success in Southern California for many years has made the matchup one that the Bruins look forward to.
“Fullerton’s been a top playoff team for the longest time and so have we, so it’s a little rivalry in So Cal between UCLA and Fullerton,” said junior shortstop Pat Valaika. “We expect that we’ll face them in the postseason because we know how good they are.”
The Titans have handled the Bruins easily this season both in Los Angeles and in Fullerton, with 9-6 and 5-2 wins.
They are also the resident national seed, and the Bruins know that the Titans are a tall order.
“They’re the No. 5 team in the country and they’ve played like it all season long,” said junior pitcher Adam Plutko. “But we’re up for the challenge.”
UCLA proved its ability to handle a challenge in last weekend’s regionals, when the team battled back from a four-run and eight-hit deficit to beat Cal Poly, 6-4.
Coming from behind like that proved that the Bruins are not a group that will be easily taken down in the postseason.
“It showed resiliency … We stayed in the ballgame, we caught a big break and we took advantage,” said coach John Savage.
That was at home, and while UCLA has time and time again proven itself on the road, the team will have to face one of the tougher home crowds in college baseball in Fullerton.
And while their familiarity with the Titans could help the Bruins, the Titans have that same familiarity with them.
“It’s just a matter of going out there and embracing that competitive environment,” Savage said. “It’s one of those things where both teams know each other – there’s no advantage.”
And while an away series might not be the most ideal situation, as Valaika pointed out, it just helps them toward their eventual goal of reaching Omaha.
“I don’t really think it being an away series (at Fullerton) matters that much,” Valaika said. “I don’t think it matters much because technically, our end goal is an away series in Omaha.”
Omaha might not be the most popular of tourist destinations, but for college baseball players, a ticket there is just about all they can dream of.
The Super Regional will determine who heads to Omaha and who watches the College World Series on ESPN – and while they are the lower-ranked team this weekend, the Bruins have dreams of heading to the storied stadium in Nebraska for a second year in a row.
Plutko will take the hill for UCLA’s first game of the weekend on Friday and hopes to round out his third year with another trip to the CWS.
“I think about it all the time. In the morning, I’ll put on a College World Series shirt and it’s all I think about all day. Once you’ve had a taste of it, you don’t want anything more than to go back,” Plutko said.
This year, the Bruins barely fell out of hosting a Super Regional, and for the first time in three years, they head away from their home at Jackie Robinson Stadium to battle for a spot in Omaha.
And Fullerton, as the resident national seed, will not make UCLA’s mission toward Nebraska easy.
“I mean the ultimate goal is winning a CWS. We work hard all year to get to this point … it’s not over yet,” Valaika said. “The end goal is the World Series and Fullerton’s in our way, and we’ve got to take care of our business and stick together.”