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UCLA softball to seek redemption against Grand Canyon to open NCAA play

Senior utility Thessa Malau’ulu holds the bat. (Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

By Matthew Niiya

May 14, 2024 5:41 p.m.

This post was updated May 14 at 10:21 p.m.

The postseason unravels a blank canvas – an opportunity to etch your story into the history books.

Anybody can become a hero.

But for a star-studded Bruin senior class led by redshirt shortstop Maya Brady, it is its last chance to hoist the NCAA championship trophy.

“We love the senior class, and they’ve done such a good job at leading and directing the team to where we want to go,” said sophomore infielder Ramsey Suarez. “We just want to play for them.”

No. 6 seed UCLA softball (37-10, 17-4 Pac-12) will open NCAA competition against Grand Canyon (48-11, 23-3 WAC) in the Los Angeles Regional on Friday. The Bruins are also accompanied by San Diego State (31-18, 15-7 Mountain West) and Virginia Tech (39-12-1, 18-6 ACC) as they host a regional at Easton Stadium for the 10th consecutive year.

“Anytime you have a chance to be able to be at home in front of your own home fans and be able to be in the comfort of your own field is a great thing,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.

For UCLA, it was not a question of if it would hear its name called during Sunday’s selection show, but when.

The regular-season Pac-12 champions secured the conference’s automatic berth with a victory over Utah in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 tournament final. After securing three wins across three days in the conference tournament, UCLA will enter the NCAA tournament sporting an eight-game winning streak – a luxury it did not have a year ago.

“Being able to accomplish things builds confidence,” Inouye-Perez said. “It gets you to feel good, and it reinforces the trust of what we’ve talked about all year.”

An upset loss in the previous year’s matchup against the Utes kick-started a three-game losing streak that eventually knocked the then-No. 2 seed Bruins out of the NCAA tournament without a win to their name.

For a third consecutive tournament, UCLA will square off against Grand Canyon in the opening round. The Antelopes sent the Bruins to the elimination bracket of their own regional last year.

A pair of runs driven in by then-freshman utility Megan Grant was all the Bruin offense could muster against a trio of Antelope pitchers, as a three-run home run off pitcher Megan Faraimo proved insurmountable.

“Last year, they got the best of us, but this year, we’re a completely different team,” said senior utility Thessa Malau’ulu. “We’re just worried about our own game and making sure we play the best softball we can play out there.”

Even though the Bruins entered the new season as the No. 8 team in the nation, they struggled to find their footing. Early-season losses – including the worst in program history – dropped UCLA’s record under .500 and it slipped to No. 20 in the rankings.

During conference play, however, the Bruins flipped the script on their season. A 17-4 record against Pac-12 opponents accompanied UCLA’s journey back into the top 10.

The pitcher duo of freshman Kaitlyn Terry and sophomore Taylor Tinsley – both named to the All-Pac-12 First Team – pitched every inning of conference play on their way to claiming the regular season and tournament crowns. Despite its success on the campaign, the pitching staff is still untested in NCAA tournament play.

Though the circle will feature newcomers to NCAA play, the batter’s box will be loaded with experience, spearheaded by a pair of redshirt seniors in Brady and catcher Sharlize Palacios – who each logged 15 home runs on the season.

The lineup has produced six runs a game, good for second in the Pac-12, while the pitching staff has held opponents to under three earned runs a game, the third-best rate in the conference.

Already holders of a record 12 NCAA titles, the quest for No. 13 begins Friday evening.

“They believe that we can do anything together,” Inouye-Perez said. “It’s us as a unit versus anybody that wants to step on the field with us.”

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Matthew Niiya
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