For UCLA softball, it was a season that started with high hopes, yet ended like the two previous.
The Bruins advanced to the College World Series in Oklahoma City, one of their goals of the season. However, they failed to attain their biggest goal of the season – winning the program’s 13th national championship and UCLA’s 114th overall.
After starting the season ranked in the top 10, the Bruins struggled out of the gate in Pac-12 play when Utah swept them at home. Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez installed a litany of defensive changes.
Senior outfielder Gabrielle Maurice moved from center to left. Freshman Bubba Nickles moved from third to center. Sophomore Brianna Tautalafua moved from first to third. Junior Madeline Jelenicki moved from right to first.
The changes had an instant impact. After three straight nonconference wins, UCLA went on the road and won a series against Washington, a top-10 team.
Aside from a disappointing series loss to unranked Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon, UCLA won every series they competed in for the remainder of the season, including against Arizona and Oregon, teams that finished with No. 2 and No. 3 seeds respectively in the NCAA tournament.
“I think one thing that we’ve done an outstanding job of in the second half of the season is really focusing on living in the moment,” Inouye-Perez said. “We weren’t our best early in the season, so we learned that really early that we had to deal with adversity.”
The success continued in the postseason, as the Bruins swept the Los Angeles Regional with a 3-0 record and then swept Ole Miss in the Los Angeles Super Regional to return to the World Series.
Then the struggles returned.
UCLA lost to LSU in the opening game of the tournament 2-1. The game featured a controversial obstruction call that gave the Tigers the go-ahead run.
Facing elimination, UCLA beat Texas A&M 8-2. They then fell 1-0 to Washington, ending their season.
This marked the third straight year that the Bruins advanced to the World Series but were unable to advance past the double-elimination portion of the tournament. This extended the longest drought without a national championship in program history to seven years.
UCLA would have had to vanquish, among other teams, No. 1 Florida to advance to the championship round. The top-ranked Gators defeated the Bruins 9-4 in nonconference play and went 3-0 through their bracket to advance to the championship.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Inouye-Perez expressed pride in the way her team competed through adversity without their offensive coach.
“We have a lot to look back at, and I just told them that,” Inouye-Perez said. “Things didn’t fully go our way, and that’s life.”
The Bruins will lose three seniors in Maurice, NFCA second-team All-West Region shortstop Delaney Spaulding and pitcher Paige McDuffee. They bring in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, including the No. 1 overall recruit, shortstop Briana Perez. Perez is the sister of current Bruin softball and 2017 NFCA first-team all-West Region player junior second baseman Kylee Perez.
Pitcher Rachel Garcia, the NFCA National Freshman of the Year, expressed her confidence in the Bruins’ capacity to return to the World Series.
“I definitely think that coming into this year we were just – our mentality was a lot different,” Garcia said. “We stick to a plan and we bought into all of it, and we’re coming back next year, that’s for sure.”