UCLA softball has reached the last stop of its regular season campaign: No. 22 Arizona State.
Traveling to Tempe, Arizona, for their final series, the No.10 Bruins (39-13, 13-8 Pac-12) currently are ranked fifth in the Pac-12 – out of contention for the Pac-12 title that the Sun Devils claimed last weekend.
“It’s not about the Pac-12 title, we want to win the big one,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. “It’s about being the last team standing at the end.”
The road to the national championship begins with one goal: attain the highest seed possible in the tournament bracket.
UCLA will look to add the finishing touches to its resume before the NCAA selection committee releases its final bracket for the postseason Sunday night.
Despite a middling conference rank, the Bruins are perched at 10th in the selection committee’s early rankings release.
The discrepancy is a testament to the Pac-12’s competitiveness, along with UCLA’s top RPI – a ranking system based on teams’ wins, losses and strength of schedules.
Boasting series victories against top-ranked schools like Oregon, Washington and most recently Arizona, UCLA ranks fourth in RPI. This weekend presents the team with another opportunity to improve or cement its RPI ranking.
“Any time you go into someone’s house and pick up road wins – it’s a strong statement,” Inouye-Perez said.
Picking up the road wins against a top-25 team means the Bruins must overcome the Sun Devils’ home-field dominance, where they have a 20-5 record.
“It’s very loud, the stadium and everything is on top of you,” said junior pitcher Selina Ta’amilo. “It’s a great home advantage.”
Arizona State’s offense will lean on its leading pair of seniors to overwhelm the visiting pitching staff. Shortstop Chelsea Gonzales and catcher Sashel Palacios anchor the offense with batting averages of more than .300 along with 11 and 10 home runs, respectively.
“Coach (Inouye-Perez) does a great job at calling pitches,” Ta’amilo said. “Just going there knowing we are prepared, we know that we can pitch to any hitter on their team.”
Gonzales and Palacios must take on the Bruins’ redshirt freshman ace, Rachel Garcia. Garcia sits at the helm of the defense with a 1.86 ERA and 150 strikeouts on the season.
Complementing the offense, the Sun Devils’ circle holds its own – owning a 2.02 team ERA.
UCLA’s offense, however, is no stranger to upending stout pitching staffs. Past opponents Oregon and Arizona each rank in the top 10 for team ERA – fifth and sixth, respectively. Yet the Bruins’ offense provided the hits necessary to propel the team to series victories.
“We look at it like any other weekend and just trying to get the sweep,” said freshman center fielder Bubba Nickles. “Just stay warm for the postseason.”
UCLA will take on Arizona State in a three-game series to cap off conference play and the postseason bracket will be revealed on the NCAA Division I Softball Selection Show on Sunday night after the conclusion of the series.