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UCLA softball gets funky before advancing to NCAA regional final

UCLA softball gets funky before advancing to NCAA regional final
UCLA pitcher Rachel Garcia delivers a pitch during a game in May 2018. (Steve Gazzullo / Los Angeles Times)

As the UCLA softball players prepared for their NCAA regional matchup against Missouri, a guest walked into the locker room.

The Bruins erupted. It was Valorie Kondos Field. The retired UCLA gymnastics coach is choreographing a show at Sea World, as she does every summer, but she made the trip from San Diego to surprise the softball team.

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They cheered and then they danced. There were too many songs for junior Bubba Nickles to list them all. The Bruins performed a dance to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” that Kondos Field taught them several weeks ago. They even did a conga line.

“Being able to stay loose is always a challenge,” coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said, “because we are striving for something that’s pretty big. But Miss Val really did a good job of setting the tone of it’s going to be a great day.”

The energy proved prophetic. UCLA defeated Missouri 9-1 in five innings Saturday to reach the regional championship, which is today at 2 p.m. UCLA (45-7) will face Missouri in the regional final.

It started with Nickles in the first inning. She hit a leadoff home run to right field, and sophomore right fielder Aaliyah Jordan hit a two-run home run later in the inning to give the Bruins a 3-0 lead.

Redshirt junior Rachel Garcia stifled Missouri’s offense with a dominant start, one day after holding Weber State to no hits in six innings. She struck out six Missouri batters in 41/3 innings while giving up one walk and one hit.

The success was the product of the Bruins’ pregame antics, Nickles said — the dance party with Kondos Field.

“It was just a great momentum-builder, and I feel like we carried it into the game,” Nickles said. “We were able to stay loose but confident at the same time.”

UCLA loaded the bases in the fourth inning before sophomore second baseman Kinsley Washington reached on a fielding error as two Bruins scored. Freshman left fielder Kelli Godin loaded the bases with a bunt before Nickles stepped up to bat.

On a 2-and-1 pitch, Nickles drove the ball over the left-field fence for a grand slam. The two home runs in one game tied Nickles’ career high. Overall, she went two for three with five RBIs.

“To be able to lead off and then be able to put that big blow,” Inouye-Perez said, “was probably one of the best performances I’ve seen Bubba as a Bruin.”

UCLA is undefeated when it hits two or more home runs, and Saturday was no exception. After Garcia was pulled, the Tigers loaded the bases and scored one run in the fifth, but Garcia returned to the circle to retire one final batter. The game ended on the mercy rule.

“This team does not get thrown off,” Inouye-Perez said. “They stick together. They compete together.”

The Bruins are one win from the super regionals, bolstered by their enthusiasm as much as their postseason experience.

Their energy Saturday, like their hitting, was contagious.

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Cal State Fullerton eliminated

Cal State Fullerton was eliminated from the regional with a 7-3 loss to Weber State.

The Wildcats put together a six-run second that included a three-run home run by freshman Faith Hoe. Senior Addie Jansen kept the Titans scoreless through five innings, giving three hits and a walk with two strikeouts.

Fullerton (38-17) rallied in the sixth, scoring three runs, but it was not enough to overcome the early deficit.

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