This post was updated June 10 at 12:20 a.m.
Lisa Fernandez first met Rachel Garcia at a game in Garcia’s hometown when the redshirt junior pitcher was just a kid.
“I was lucky enough to be a bat girl, and I ended up on (Fernandez)’s team, and I got to run out her jacket when she was a runner on first base,” Garcia said. “So that was my very first memory of her … and I just remember being so intimidated by her.”
Fernandez has been responsible for working with Garcia and the other UCLA softball pitchers all year after coach Kelly Inouye-Perez made the decision to transition Fernandez from a general assistant to a pitchers-only coach for the 2019 season.
Inouye-Perez said Fernandez has used her prior experience as an elite pitcher to prepare them for harsh conditions and long games, a tactic the Bruins used during their 2019 championship run.
The former UCLA pitcher developed a conditioning program she dubbed “Champ Camp” to prepare Garcia and her fellow pitchers. One of the exercises involves pitching and exercising with layers of clothing on to add to the players’ fatigue, meant to help them prepare for long games in possibly harsh weather.
“The whole idea behind it is that if we’re fatigued in that moment, that we’ll know what the feeling will be like in the end,” Garcia said. “If we can get through that, we can get through anything.”
UCLA failed to advance past the semifinals in 2018 after Garcia gave up 12 runs in four Women’s College World Series games. So Inouye-Perez knew heading into this season that endurance would be the key to the team making it all the way to the end.
“Bottom line, I just wanted them to be tougher in 2019, and they are,” Inouye-Perez said.
This year, Garcia was able to pitch five games in six days during the WCWS – including both championship games just a day after a 10-inning marathon victory. Garcia said her performance was a testament to the workouts Fernandez put her through.
When UCLA was recruiting Garcia in 2015, Inouye-Perez said she saw the resemblance between Garcia’s style of play and Fernandez’s styles of play, from their control of multiple pitches to their ability to excel both in the circle and at the plate.
During Fernandez’s time as a player at UCLA, the three-time Honda Award winner led the Bruins to two national championships during her four years – in 1990 and 1992 – while finishing runner up in the other two years. And as a member of Team USA, Fernandez won three gold medals at the Olympics.
Garcia’s career is following a similar path, as she won the Honda Award in 2018 and is a finalist for the honor this year. And after winning this year’s NCAA championship, she will have the the opportunity to join the Olympic team for the 2020 Olympics.
Fernandez wrapped up her career as a player in the mid-2000s, and soon after that, Inouye-Perez was offered the UCLA head coaching job. Inouye-Perez said her first move was to hire Fernandez as an assistant coach – a position Fernandez said she didn’t hesitate to accept.
“I’m innately loyal … and when I had the opportunity to coach at UCLA, I speak from the heart, there’s no better place to be,” Fernandez said. “Why wouldn’t you want to represent your alma mater when you have the opportunity to represent something that you are so proud of?”
Fernandez is now 12 years into her UCLA coaching career, and she led the next generation of Bruins to a national championship this year.
Garcia said that throughout the season she and Fernandez have developed a bond beyond their partnership on the field. Garcia said the two love spending time just talking or watch horror movies together.
“One hundred percent I feel like she’s that person that I can always just pick up the phone and give a call to, when I’m just needing a chat,” Garcia said. “It’s funny, we bond by watching scary movies, and we’ll invite people to watch scary movies with us, or we’ll do haunted houses, so it’s the little things that often just make our bond stronger with her individually.”
In reflecting on Fernandez’s bond with Garcia, Inouye-Perez said she had never doubted that Fernandez would be a great coach, but the way that she has been able to build relationships with her pitchers has been a big part of what has helped UCLA succeed as a team this year.
“When she first started coaching, it was very much just focused on just the game.” Inouye-Perez said. “I think she’s now just well-rounded and one of the best coaches in the game … That’s where she’s had the most growth, I think in her personal relationships with the players.”
And with Fernandez staying on staff for the next season, she will have a chance to lead the Bruins to another championship in 2020.