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UCLA has some 'unfinished business' after three straight trips to Women's College World Series without a title

UCLA has some 'unfinished business' after three straight trips to Women's College World Series without a title
UCLA shortstop Briana Perez tags out Fullerton runner Kelsie Whitmore before she steals second base in the fourth inning of a Los Angeles Regional softball game at Easton Stadium on May 20. UCLA won 3-0. (Steve Gazzulo / For the Times)

UCLA’s recent Women’s College World Series memories aren’t the sort that will be found in any Bruins scrapbook.

There were two split-second plays at the plate last year against Louisiana State, neither of which went in UCLA’s favor. There was the four-run lead the Bruins lost during an elimination game in 2016 against Florida State. Most painfully, there was the bases-loaded walk in the 10th inning against Auburn in 2015 that ended UCLA’s season.

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The Bruins have experienced lots of heartache for a program boasting a record 28 Series appearances and 11 NCAA championships, having fallen short in each of their last three trips to college softball’s biggest stage. The hope is that their fourth consecutive appearance will end with a breakthrough.

“We want to have the opportunity to finish some unfinished business,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said on the eve of her team’s Series opener against Florida State on Thursday evening at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

The Bruins have gone a combined 2-6 in the Series since winning their last national title in 2010.

“We know what it feels like to have our season ended here,” said senior utility player Madeline Jelenicki, “and we just want to use that feeling and make it a different outcome this year.”

Senior second baseman Kylee Perez said she’s learned not to make a game at this level seem any bigger than any other the Bruins have played.

“Just trust yourself, trust your swing, play your game that you’ve been playing,” Perez said. “It’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were 10. And just have fun.”

Weathering it

One thing that UCLA has not had to contend with during any of its recent Series appearances is the hot and humid conditions that have turned ASA Hall of Fame Stadium into an outdoor sauna this week.

The Thursday forecast around game time calls for a temperature of 89 degrees with 56% humidity, giving it a “feels like” temperature of 97 degrees. The Bruins arrived here early so that they could get in a full practice Tuesday and plan to hydrate as much as possible before and during the game Thursday.

“We’re trying not to talk about it as a team as much as possible,” Jelenicki said. “We know it’s hot; talking about it isn’t going to help.”

Back the Pac

This Series has a distinct subplot, serving as a de facto Pac-12 Conference tournament.

Third-seeded UCLA is among four Pac-12 teams in the eight-team field, along with top-seeded Oregon, fifth-seeded Washington and eighth-seeded Arizona State. The Bruins are on the other side of the draw from their Pac-12 brethren, meaning they could not face a familiar foe until Saturday at the earliest.

By contrast, two-time defending champion Oklahoma will have to play at least its first two games against Pac-12 teams.

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UCLA shortstop Briana Perez catches the ball at second base to force out Sacramento State's Sydney Rasmussen.
UCLA shortstop Briana Perez catches the ball at second base to force out Sacramento State's Sydney Rasmussen. (Steve Gazzulo / For the Times)

“I feel a little uninvited being up here, being out of the conference,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said with a smile as she sat behind a table next to coaches from Oregon, Washington and Arizona State.

Inouye-Perez said the strength of the Pac-12 is derived largely from its pitching. UCLA’s Rachel Garcia was selected USA Softball Collegiate player of the year but wasn’t even voted the top pitcher in her conference. That honor went to Oregon’s Megan Kleist.

She’s back

UCLA assistant coach Lisa Fernandez was forced to watch the Bruins’ final Series game from the stands last season after inadvertently becoming a big story earlier in the day.

Fernandez was ejected for arguing an obstruction call on a play at the plate that injured UCLA left fielder Gabrielle Maurice, and the coach was suspended two games after bumping the plate umpire during the disagreement.

The ordeal won Fernandez support from Bruins fans, who in a matter of hours produced T-Shirts bearing Fernandez’s photo and the phrase “#FreeTheGOAT,” referring to the star pitcher turned coach.

“To me, it was a situation that obviously wasn’t planned,” Fernandez told The Times after the Bruins returned to Los Angeles, “but when you have a passion and you believe in something for your kids, ultimately Bruins support Bruins.”

Wish they all could be …

Every team in the Series has at least one player from California, with Arizona State (16), Oklahoma (10), Washington (eight), Florida (six) and Oregon (five) joining UCLA with a significant chunk of its players hailing from the state.

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