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Nelson’s Noggin: New approach necessary for UCLA softball to solve Oklahoma Sooners

UCLA softball players huddle. The blue and gold fell to Oklahoma in a 14-0 rout on Sunday after suffering a 15-0 defeat at the hands of the Sooners to end their 2022 season. (Kaiya Pomeroy-Tso/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Jack Nelson

March 1, 2023 4:09 p.m.

This post was updated March 1 at 4:42 p.m.

One team has spent the better part of the last four years thriving in the role of playground bully, withholding lunch money and laughing at other kids’ futile attempts to take it back.

This bully has kept the pilfered greens in a safe inside a safe, carefully locked away so that the others are relegated to grieving about the cash they can seemingly never get back.

There have been attempts to dethrone well-entrenched No. 1 Oklahoma softball, but they’ve continued to prove fruitless, and the numbers tell quite the story.

The back-to-back defending national champions have assembled a 148-12 record since 2020, including a mark of 33-2 in Big 12 play alone. In their two Women’s College World Series appearances during that span, the Sooners have gone 11-3, most notably outscoring opponents on college softball’s biggest stage 64-17 in 2022 and suffering just three losses that season.

One of those three teams to upend Oklahoma – the only one to defeat it in the 2022 WCWS – faces the most pressure to crack the code and retrieve their money from the safe”

No. 2 UCLA, whose previous three completed seasons have each ended with Oklahoma in the opposite dugout, battled the Sooners in a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup of softball royalty last weekend at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. But as the cool morning succumbed to the sun overhead, the Bruins appeared more like jesters in the king’s court.

Having dropped below UCLA in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll earlier last week for the first time since February 2021, the Sooners proceeded to hose the Bruins in a 14-0 shellacking. It was domination by every metric – an emphatic message to poll voters that the top dog was still all that.

The blue and gold has now been shut out by the Sooners by a combined margin of 29-0 in the last two meetings between the powerhouses, dating back to last season’s WCWS semifinal.

And if the Bruins want to return to the pinnacle of college softball with a national championship for the first time since 2019, they’ll have to either solve the Oklahoma problem or bank on another team to solve it for them. If previous years provide any evidence, the latter option is not worth betting on.

It’s not that coach Kelly Inouye-Perez and her staff don’t know how to devise a winning strategy against Oklahoma. They’ve done it multiple times before, often with their season on the line.

In the 2019 WCWS, the Bruins notched consecutive triumphs over the Sooners – the first of which was a 16-3 blowout – to claim their 13th NCAA title.

In 2022, UCLA forced a second game against Oklahoma in the WCWS semifinals via a 7-3 stunner, the most runs given up all season by the eventual champions.

That giant-slaying formula has simply not worked in the previous two contests between the programs, as the Bruins have been outplayed and outcoached by a considerable margin. So what key variables hide in the preceding victories?

An output of power, for one. UCLA launched 11 homers across the three victories, as opposed to surrendering nine in its last two losses. Thus far in its campaign for a three-peat, Oklahoma has stormed around the base paths, currently ranking No. 1 nationally with a .682 slugging percentage and No. 2 with an average of 8.8 runs per contest.

Despite trailing the Sooners in each of those categories, to say the Bruins’ 2023 squad lacks power would be a serious understatement. Among seven eligible Bruins, five own slugging percentages above .500. Though just 13 home runs can be attributed to the group of seven, four have surpassed the 10-RBI plateau through 18 games.

The likes of redshirt junior utility Maya Brady, freshman infielder Jordan Woolery and freshman utility Megan Grant provide punch in this UCLA lineup, but at this point in time, they’re not in Oklahoma’s heavyweight class. The Bruins will have to take Sooner pitchers yard early and often, going punch-for-punch with the queen of college softball.

And after further examination of the Bruins’ three WCWS wins over the Sooners since 2019, it also becomes clear that a fresh approach in the circle may be in order.

Redshirt senior pitcher Megan Faraimo, who was heavily relied on by the Bruins in each of their previous two losses to the Sooners, has been hit hard both times around. The ace surrendered 12 hits and eight earned runs across 4.2 innings of work in those two outings.

It’s evident that after seeing Faraimo try to stifle her offense on four separate occasions, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso knows the pitcher’s tendencies. And she’s passed that knowledge onto her players – much to their success.

Suggesting that a team chooses anyone other than its ace to try and shut down its toughest opponent sounds preposterous. But again, the numbers tell quite the story.

The Bruins already know who they’ll have to supplant if they want to reclaim college softball’s greatest prize.

Sans a high-octane offense and a new approach in the circle, that prize will be all the more difficult to reach.

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Jack Nelson | Assistant Sports editor
Nelson is currently an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. He was previously a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. He was previously a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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