Wednesday, February 20

Softball aims to use high-ranked, experienced players to earn NCAA title

Senior catcher Madeline Jelenicki is used to having talent surround her. As a freshman she was part of the first-ranked recruiting class in the country, just as this year's freshman class is. (Habeba Mostafa/Daily Bruin)

Senior catcher Madeline Jelenicki is used to having talent surround her. As a freshman she was part of the first-ranked recruiting class in the country, just as this year's freshman class is. (Habeba Mostafa/Daily Bruin)

With consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes bookending the roster this year, Bruins’ softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez will have a plethora of highly rated players at her disposal when the 2018 season gets underway Friday.

No. 4 UCLA returns to the diamond this weekend in the annual Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament.

Though UCLA softball used to lead the NCAA with 12 national titles, the program is in its longest championship drought, with its last winning in 2010.

“Every year is the year to pull it off,” Inouye-Perez said. “We have the right people in place that are going to allow the girls to continue to develop, and create a culture that’s going to allow us to win.”

Inouye-Perez said she believes this collection of players have the ability to contend for a national title.

The Bruins return all but three players from a team that reached the College World Series last season. They welcome a top-ranked freshman class to a team that already has four All-Pac-12 honorees and who, in previous years, were also highly ranked freshmen.

Redshirt sophomore Rachel Garcia is expected to lead the Bruins’ pitching staff after a freshman campaign in which she earned All-Pac-12 First Team honors and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, going 23-9 with a 1.87 ERA. Her talents, though, go beyond the circle – she’s hitting for an average of .325 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs last year.

Garcia was recently named to the 2018 USA Softball National Team, and assistant coach Kirk Walker said he is excited to see her development transpire on the field.

“She’s gotten better and now has the experience, made the national team  she’s an athlete,” Walker said. “To see her compete on the plate, on defense but certainly in the circle, is a special thing to see.”

Senior first baseman/catcher Madeline Jelenicki said she knows competition for a regular starting spot will be tough, but is adamant it will not affect the team’s chemistry.

“We understand how talented everyone on our team is,” Jelenicki said. “Anyone on our roster could be starting anywhere in the country, but we’re not worried about that.”

Several freshman are expected to step onto the field and compete for playing time, according to Walker. Freshman infielder Briana Perez, redshirt freshman outfielder Aaliyah Jordan, freshman outfielder Julie Rodriguez, freshman infielder Kinsley Washington and freshman pitcher Holly Azevedo are all poised to make an impact.

Perez, younger sister of All-Pac 12 senior infielder Kylee Perez, was the top-ranked recruit according to FloSoftball, and is setting herself up to succeed.

“(Briana Perez) is putting herself in the position to be a major player, a major impact offensively and defensively,” Walker said.

Holly Azevedo, member of the junior national team, is expected to get starts in the circle early on as senior pitcher Selina Ta’amilo continues to nurse an injury.

“Azevedo has been a really exciting addition,” Walker said. “The zest she brings, she’s open for new things, open for whatever challenges come at her, she’s ready to experience college ball and contribute.”

After redshirting her first year, Jordan will be in the lineup, according to Walker.

“With depth, you’re going to have options,” Inouye-Perez said. “I did share with them who’s going to be in the starting position and those who are going to be rotating and competing.”

The Bruins’ coaching staff will have the challenge of determining which lineup gives them the best opportunity to win.

“The underclassmen provide a lot of depth this season,” said sophomore utility player Bubba Nickles. “All of them could easily start anyone on the team really based off how skillful we all are.”

Nickles was recently named to the junior national team after a successful freshman campaign that saw her earn All-Pac 12 honors. She’s been working on her defensive skills and is expected to be staring out in center field this weekend.

“My goal is to make sure everyone is prepared and ready to do whatever they can for the team knowing that they have no control over the lineup,” said Inouye-Perez. “That’s my job – it’s a tough job, but it’s a great job, because we have so much talent. We have great players that are committed to do whatever it takes to win.”

With 56 regular season games on deck, they’ll have plenty of time to find the right balance within the team.

“Our goal from now until May is to find that right lineup,” said Inouye-Perez. “That’s our job, ultimately – to put us in the position to play our best ball when it’s needed.”

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