The UCLA softball team returns to Cathedral City Thursday for the second half of the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic this weekend, preparing for its sternest early-season test yet.
No. 11 UCLA (7-3) will face three nationally ranked teams throughout the remainder of the tournament, including No. 1 Florida (11-0) and No. 8 Georgia (9-0). Both the Gators and the Bulldogs have had outstanding starts this preseason, outscoring their respective opponents 90-4 and 98-5. Florida’s current top pitcher Delanie Gourley and Georgia’s Brittany Gray each have a four wins and a season ERA of 0.00, and the Bulldogs’ Chelsea Wilkinson already has five wins to her credit with a 0.64 ERA.
Although these matchups will be a challenge after UCLA’s inconsistent outing last weekend, it’s business as usual for the Bruins.
“That’s what preseason is all about; it’s just to get experience under our belt,” said junior shortstop Delaney Spaulding. “It prepares us for Pac-12s, and Pac-12s prepare us for the postseason.”
Along with sophomore second baseman Kylee Perez and junior left fielder Gabrielle Maurice, Spaulding was a key contributor for the Bruins in their final win over Pacific Sunday, driving in five runs with a pair of hits, including a home run. Perez, the current Pac-12 player of the week, had seven RBIs throughout the weekend, and Maurice is batting a hot .345 for the year.
UCLA’s offense has generally been productive, if not powerful. The Bruins average six runs per game, but do so mainly through the team’s self-proclaimed “get ‘em on, get ‘em over and get ‘em in” motto. In addition to Spaulding, Perez and Maurice, they have thus far leaned heavily on the fireworks provided by senior third baseman Mysha Sataraka, who leads the team in the early going with a .542 batting average, three home runs and 12 RBIs.
“We try to keep it very simple,” Maurice said. “We expect big hits, but just try to move the runners over.”
Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez is now counting on more than just the Bruins’ bats to win games, and would like to see them improve in other areas.
“Defense is the key,” Inouye-Perez said. “We’ve got to do all we can to stop the opposing teams from getting the opportunity to score runs, because offense isn’t something you can always just bank on.”
Poor fielding cost UCLA in a big loss to Notre Dame last weekend, where they committed four errors over the course of the game. The Bruins devoted much of their practice time this week to preventing such problems moving forward.
“We worked on our attention to detail,” Inouye-Perez said. “We had some issues on defense and we focused on how we can be better at communicating, executing and recovering.”
Fielding will not be the only obstacle that UCLA must overcome this weekend after its mixed results earlier in the tournament.
Sophomore pitchers Selina Ta’amilo and Johanna Grauer will have their work cut out for them against the offensive powerhouses of Florida, Georgia and No. 12 Oklahoma (7-3), as well as BYU (7-4) and Northwestern (5-4).
Ta’amilo has been consistently strong throughout her first few games, the lone exception being her first loss against LSU Sunday after giving up five hits and six earned runs after only 2.2 innings.
Grauer will look to right herself after suffering some early-season struggles in the circle, with one win and a 5.80 ERA to show for her efforts.
This weekend will provide many challenges for the Bruins both on the field and at the plate, but will also serve as an opportunity for the youthful squad to learn more about themselves by facing some of the best teams in the country.
“We have a young freshman class, but I think it’s good that they get the experience,” Maurice said. “As a team, we get the experience of contenders who may go all the way.”