Another Dynasty Takes Shape at UCLA : Softball: Bruins have won three NCAA titles in a row and six of nine overall under Coach Sharron Backus.
Several players on the UCLA women’s softball team were talking to a reporter when Coach Sharron Backus came in.
“Sharron, open the candy drawer,” a player said.
Obligingly, Backus unlocked a large cabinet holding enough candy to keep a dentist drilling forever.
The players’ eyes lit up as they dug in.
“If you have a bad day, you can come in here and eat Sharron’s candy and she makes you feel good,” said pitcher-infielder Lisa Fernandez.
Fortunately for everyone’s teeth, the Bruins haven’t had many bad days recently. In fact, they just recently won their third straight NCAA title and have compiled a 162-19 record in those three seasons.
When you talk about UCLA dynasties, you start with John Wooden, who coached the men’s basketball team to 10 NCAA basketball titles. But Backus has built a dynasty of her own. Her teams have won six of the nine NCAA softball tournaments that have been awarded.
Altogether, her Bruins have won seven national titles, been second twice and third twice in Backus’ 15 seasons.
The Bruins’ success, of course, has created some resentment among opponents.
“It’s UCLA against everyone else,” said Yvonne Gutierrez, Bruin outfielder. “We make everyone mad. But they’re just jealous. Everyone would die to be in our position.”
UCLA extended its dynasty by defeating Fresno State in a rain-delayed game at Oklahoma City Memorial Day for the 1990 title.
With the Bruins leading 1-0, play had been halted in the third inning the previous day. Pitcher Heather Compton picked up where she had left off, giving up one hit and striking out five as UCLA completed the game, a 2-0 victory.
“It was tough because you had to warm up all over again and prepare yourself all over again,” Compton said. “It was like those first three innings didn’t count. It was really hard for me to go to bed that night and sleep on it.”
A freshman, Compton won two games in the six-game NCAA World Series. One of the aces of a superb Bruin pitching staff, she compiled an 18-1 record with a 0.36 earned-run average and 13 shutouts this season.
As a whole, the staff had a 0.42 ERA and recorded 45 shutouts in 68 games as UCLA set a school record by winning 61 games.
Senior Lisa Longaker, the Pac-10 player of the year in 1988 and 1989, led the staff with a 20-2 record. She had a team-high 131 strikeouts and compiled a 0.40 ERA. Longaker picked up a win and a save in the NCAA tournament.
In four years at UCLA, Longaker compiled an 89-12 record and was voted the Honda Trophy, awarded the nation’s top woman softball player, in 1988.
Freshmen DeDe Weiman and Fernandez also had strong seasons. Weiman had a 13-3 record with 11 shutouts, 112 strikeouts and a 0.64 ERA, and Fernandez was 11-1 with eight shutouts and a team-low 0.25 ERA.
“Having four good pitchers helped to pull us together, (although) everyone thought it would pull us apart,” Fernandez said. “It helps to have a variety of pitchers because we throw different pitches.”
Longaker, whose best pitch is her riseball, has excellent control and can work in and out of the strike zone. The hardest thrower on the staff, Compton attacks hitters. Weiman’s best pitch is the riseball, which results in fly outs, and Fernandez’s best is her dropball, which produces ground outs.
UCLA didn’t stop with excellent pitching, though.
Gutierrez led the team in hitting with a .384 batting average and 28 RBIs. Voted to the all-tournament team, she drove in two runs in each of the Bruins’ first two World Series wins.
“A different player came through in the clutch in every game,” Gutierrez said. “Everyone contributes.”
Fernandez, who also played third base, had a .310 average with 22 RBIs. She went three for three with a homer and two RBIs as UCLA beat Florida State in a semifinal game, 3-0.
Outfielder Shanna Flynn and first baseman Kerry Dienelt also hit better than .300. Flynn batted .307 with 13 RBIs, Dienelt .304 with 18 RBIs.
A junior from Darwin, Australia, Dienelt has won three NCAA titles in her three seasons at UCLA.
“I don’t know what it feels like to lose,” Dienelt said. “The first title was the most satisfying because it wasn’t obvious we were going to win it. We’d finished second the year before. Last year we were expected to win because we were ranked No. 1 all season.”
Although she has since built the Bruins into the nation’s most successful softball team, UCLA struggled when Backus arrived in 1975.
“People wanted to beat us badly in our formative years and we weren’t very good,” she said. “We lost some ballgames early in my career, 18-0 and 15-0. Everyone got up for us without knowing anything about us. They didn’t care if we could walk straight.
“But it was a good lesson for me. I learned that I had to get some ballplayers in here.”
Hampered by a small budget, UCLA played its games at city parks, where they were often bumped from fields by recreational softball leagues.
The team moved its games to the UCLA intramural field, then got its own field 10 years ago in Brentwood, on land that had been used as a heliport for school officials. Brentwood residents have put severe restrictions on the site, though, so Backus has plans for a new stadium.
After compiling a 44-20 record in Backus’ first three seasons, UCLA won its first national title in 1978, compiling a 31-3 record.
Unlike other teams, who wore knickers, the Bruins wore shorts, creating a bit of a controversy.
“When we first started, we were the underdogs,” said Sue Enquist, who played center field on the 1978 team. “We were that funny little team in shorts.”
After graduating in 1979, Enquist was hired as an assistant coach.
“Sue’s one of the most talented kids I’ve ever had,” Backus said. “She had a drive and a desire. You can’t beat Sue. She’ll bite your arm and your leg off. And I wouldn’t let her go.”
When Enquist received offers from several other schools, UCLA gave her a raise and named her co-head coach last year. She said sheplans to remain at UCLA for the rest of her career.
“For the first six years, my loyalty was here,” she said. “But then you reach as point in your life where you realize that loyalties are only going to take you so far in paying the bills. But now, I’m here for good.”
Backus, Enquist, who has been designated Backus’ eventual successor, and pitching coach Kirk Walker complement one another.
“Sharron’s the mother, Sue’s the aunt and Kirk is the big brother,” Gutierrez said.
Whereas Backus gets stage fright at even the thought of public speaking, Enquist is outgoing and represents UCLA at clinics and dinners. Enquist also serves as a buffer between the team and Backus.
Although Backus is the winningest coach in women’s softball with a 560-128-3 record, she’s reluctant to take credit for UCLA’s success.
“A lot of people misread her because she’s really shy,” Enquist said. “She won’t tell you how great her players are or that she’s the winningest coach in women’s softball.”
When she takes over the program, will Enquist feel like the coaches who followed Wooden?
“Sure there will be pressure,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve been a part of the program from the beginning. If you’re going to go into any successful program, wouldn’t it be good to go into one that you know so much about?”