Bleachers for the Bruins? : Troubled UCLA Women Softballers Make Their Pitch for the Playoffs

Times Staff Writer

When the UCLA softball team won its second straight NCAA championship last year and its third in four years, opponents didn't need to raise the cry "Break up the Bruins."

The Bruins broke up from natural causes.

All-Americans Tracy Compton and Debbie Doom, who had given Coach Sharron Backus outstanding pitching for four years, had used up their eligibility after leading the club to the 1985 national title.

Midway through last season, sophomore Tricia Mang of San Diego, whose power hitting helped the Bruins win the 1984 NCAAs, came down with a virus that put her out of the lineup--and out of school.

A Double Loss

Losing Mang, now recovered and redshirting at San Diego State, was comparable to the Dodgers losing both Pedro Guerrero and Bob Welch. She was not only a heavy hitter but also a top pitcher who was expected to help fill the vacuum created when Compton and Doom departed.

Still, Backus was optimistic about 1986 after the end of last season.

The pitching replacements for Doom and Compton were to be redshirt freshman Monica Messmer, who starred at West Covina's South Hills High School, and top prep recruits Samantha Ford of Hart High in Newhall and Michelle Phillips of Norco High in Riverside.

So when she was asked last June if she thought UCLA could contend for the national title this year, Backus had pretty good reasons for saying, "Yeah, I do. It's not like they (Ford and the other pitchers) are coming in cold. They're all very good, and Sam was the most highly recruited pitcher in the country."

Messmer Lost

But Messmer, after turning out for pre-season practices, didn't come in hot or cold--in fact, not at all. Backus said that Messmer never played a game and "had to withdraw from school for personal reasons."

So if the Dodgers were in big trouble when Guerrero suffered a knee injury that put him on crutches, Backus must have thought trouble was her business with all her losses.

Like the Dodgers, the Bruins are getting good pitching from their aces, Ford and Phillips. Unlike Lasorda's Blue Crew, UCLA is getting hitting from its regulars--but usually not when it counts, with runners in scoring position.

At the start of the week, the Bruins had a 17-12 record and were facing the prospect of not being invited to defend their national title. UCLA was ranked eighth in the West, and only the top six Western teams will advance to the NCAA regionals.

Do-or-Die Series

In years past, playing an April double-header with Cal State Fullerton often meant that the Bruins and the Titans were fighting for recognition as the nation's top team.

When the teams meet Saturday in a twin bill at 1 p.m. at UCLA's Sunset Canyon diamond, the Bruins will be fighting for a playoff spot. If UCLA cannot sweep Fullerton, Backus and her team probably will be out in the cold.

And Backus and her players will need to find giant push brooms somewhere to take two from the Titans.

As the week began, Fullerton Coach Judi Garman's squad was No. 1 in the nation, had won four games in a row from Hawaii on the islands and was 42-5 overall and 17-2 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.

Fullerton junior outfielder Chenita Rogers has the team's best batting average (.362), but senior shortstop-catcher Terri Oberg, who is hitting .297, leads in home runs (3), doubles (9), triples (6) and runs batted in (37).

3 Bruins Hitting Well

Near the end of last week, UCLA's top hitters were freshman left fielder Karen Walker (.328), senior catcher Janet Pinneau (.314) and junior shortstop Sandra (Sam) Arledge (.286). But they have combined for only 30 RBIs, seven less than Oberg alone. First baseman Gina Holmstrom, who was batting .277, was leading UCLA in RBIs with 13. Until Arledge homered last Saturday, Holmstrom's two home runs were the only ones for the entire team.

The Titans have an All-American pitcher in senior Susan LeFevre, who is 24-4 with an earned run-average of 0.10 and 164 strikeouts. LeFevre, reportedly a second cousin of former Dodger second baseman Jim LeFevre, has given up just three earned runs in 201 innings.

LeFevre will start one of the games with UCLA, and either Connie Clark (13-1, 0.21 ERA) or April Jones (5-0, 0.29), both experienced juniors, will go in the nightcap.

Backus will counter with all the pitching she has: Ford, 10-7 at the start of the week and with an ERA of 0.69, and Phillips, 7-5 with an ERA of 0.58. Last Saturday Ford shut out powerful Cal Poly Pomona, 1-0, but Phillips lost to the Broncos, 5-1, in the second game.

'We Didn't Mature'

The split with Cal Poly was something of a good sign for UCLA. Earlier, the Bruins lost a twin bill to the Broncos, 3-0, 3-2.

Favorable omens have been scarce for UCLA this season. Backus said her team's off-year "has to do with a lot of little things. The chemistry has to be right, and we have so many new faces that the leadership didn't develop--we didn't mature.

"Eight of our losses have been by one run, and five of the eight went extra innings. We aren't making defensive mistakes, but we're just not scoring any runs. We're not delivering when we have runners on. Our on-base percentage is good, but we're just not getting them across home plate."

But Ford and Phillips have been around the plate with their pitches. For example, in a 3-0 win over Nevada Las Vegas last week, Phillips tossed a no-hitter and retired the first 20 batters--only to lose a perfect game when the 21st hitter got on base on an error.

Backus said that Ford and Phillips "have done everything I've asked of them (in terms of) coming from foreign programs, getting used to our system and learning how I want a game thrown."

If the UCLA freshman pitchers have learned a great deal this season, they may have to show they are capable of graduating summa cum laude if the Bruins hope to take two from Fullerton.

"We have literally dug a great big hole for ourselves," Backus said. "The kids know it, and we'll see what kind of character we develop from here on out."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World