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UCLA

UCLA softball confident and energized heading into NCAA regionals

UCLA center fielder Bubba Nickles runs the bases during a UCLA softball game.
UCLA center fielder Bubba Nickles runs the bases during a UCLA softball game in May 2018.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

UCLA’s softball players know each other well enough to tell when they’re overthinking the game, when the dugout is too tense. The Bruins also know how to respond.

They dance.

Two players grab softballs and bang a beat against the dugout bench. The rest of the team forms a mosh pit, and as the Bruins move and laugh together their confidence returns.

“Whenever somebody brings energy, it kind of is contagious,” senior Taylor Pack said. “And the rest of the dugout gets super energized and pumped up. … We get energized in the snap of a finger.”

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That playfulness has carried UCLA to a 46-5 season, a share of the Pac-12 title with Washington and the No. 2 seed for the NCAA tournament. The Bruins begin regional play with a Friday night matchup at home against Weber State. As the postseason unfolds, UCLA will rely on what has defined the team’s success all season — remaining relaxed.

“The games are gonna get more challenging, the teams are gonna get more challenging as we get further into the postseason,” junior Bubba Nickles said. “But I feel like the real challenge is remembering to stay true to ourselves.”

It was a lesson the Bruins learned last season in the College World Series, when they were eliminated after consecutive losses to Florida State. The trouble started in the sixth inning of the first game. Redshirt junior pitcher Rachel Garcia was one out away from finishing the inning when Florida State’s Elizabeth Mason hit a three-run home run to give the Seminoles a 3-1 lead and eventual win.

Had the Bruins won that game, they would have advanced to the College World Series final. The Seminoles routed the Bruins 12-6 in the second game that day and went on to win the national championship.

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“That’s where our sport is,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. “Anything can happen at any time. … And everyone can say whatever they want, this team was in a position to win.”

Nickles noticed a change in the dugout during those final College World Series games. The team had played loose all year, but suddenly there was tension. The players were all too aware that a loss in the second game would end their season.

“It was too in my head,” Nickles said. “Rather than thinking, we have another chance to play, like, just be grateful that we’re even here, I think it was more so, if we lose we’re done.”

As the Bruins began meeting again in the fall, they decided to let last season go. The loss was in the past, but the experience became a lesson that changed their approach.

It gave the Bruins something they didn’t have last year because of their regular-season successes — familiarity with adversity.

“That’s a huge contributing factor to why we’re so intentional with being loose and being ourselves,” Nickles said, “because we know that that’s what it took at the end, and we did fall short.”

Dancing is not the only way UCLA stays relaxed. Reminders in the outfield come on an individual basis — eye contact, an inside joke or a playful nudge. Before games, the Bruins stay calm by jokingly imitating other sports. Someone will roll a softball at teammates lined up like bowling pins; others hold a pair of bats horizontally for a player to improvise an uneven bars gymnastics routine.

“Our main goal in the end is to just have fun,” Garcia said, “and just be us.”

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When a mistake happens, Garcia said the fun is a reminder to focus on the next play. Softball is a game, after all. Inouye-Perez’s message to her team is that the sport is meant to be enjoyed, and remembering they are lucky to play it alleviates the pressure — pressure that only grows as the season stretches on.

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This year’s team has more depth in its pitching and its leadership, Inouye-Perez said. Each player has contributed with a strong work ethic that started in the preseason. After the team set a fall goal of getting as many players on the academic honor roll as possible, Inouye-Perez said 16 of 22 Bruins accomplished the feat. The achievement came during an especially grueling preseason practice schedule, Inouye-Perez said, with strength training and conditioning workouts in the early mornings five days a week.

When the batters struggle the pitchers rise to the occasion, the coach said, and vice versa. UCLA is not reliant on one player to win, not even Garcia, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year and two-time conference player of the year.

The Bruins’ regular-season success has come from embracing themselves and their commitment to relishing the game. Starting Friday, the approach will be put to the test. This time they are better prepared, Inouye-Perez said, because of the lessons from falling short a year ago.

“What we did do in 2018 made us proud,” Inouye-Perez said. “We gotta be tougher. That’s it. And then I look forward to how we respond in 2019.”

blake.richardson@latimes.com

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