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UCLA

UCLA’s softball team hopes the process pays off at Women’s College World Series

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MAY 25: The UCLA Bruins rush home plate to celebrate a home run by Taylor Pack
UCLA players rush to the plate to celebrate a home run by Taylor Pack during an NCAA super regional game against James Madison on Saturday at Easton Stadium.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After every game, coach Kelly Inouye-Perez gathers the UCLA softball team for the same conversation.

Once the Bruins are huddled together, Inouye-Perez asks them: “What can we be better at?” The players take ownership of their mistakes, and then the conversation shifts.

“Tell me some of the little things that we did well,” Inouye-Perez says.

One by one, the Bruins speak. They praise how a pitcher responded after giving up a hit, how the dugout’s energy fired up the offense, how the defense communicated, how batters delivered with two outs.

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The conversation reinforces a lesson Inouye-Perez got from John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach.

Focus on the process — not the outcome.

“It’s a difficult sport, ’cause we fail a lot,” Inouye-Perez says. “But I always remind them … your ability to respond to adversity will define you.”

The approach has led the Bruins to a 51-6 record and a spot in the Women’s College World Series. No. 2 UCLA faces No. 7 Minnesota (46-12) on Thursday in its opener.

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The Bruins, co-champions of the Pac-12 Conference, haven’t lost consecutive games all season. Inouye-Perez says that is “100%” because of their mind-set.

Inouye-Perez does not dwell on failures; she reminds the team that a loss can be a good thing if the Bruins learn from it.

“There is no failure until your season’s over,” Inouye-Perez says. “When your season is over … if you’re not the last team standing, then you came up short. But there is no failure in the process. It’s about the process.”

UCLA fell short last season. The Bruins were one of the favorites to win the title, until consecutive losses to Florida State ended their chance. UCLA has more national championships (12) than any other school, but has not won it all since 2010.

The Bruins were one victory away from reaching the best-of-three championship round in 2018 when Florida State’s Elizabeth Mason hit a three-run home run against Rachel Garcia. It wasn’t a bad pitch, Inouye-Perez says. The outcome was almost unlucky.

The problem, Inouye-Perez says, was that the team lacked pitching depth. Garcia had to start against the Seminoles twice on the same day. They were more familiar with her pitches; she was more fatigued.

It would be easy for the Bruins to rely on Garcia, who Tuesday was selected USA Softball’s national player of the year for the second season in a row. But they don’t have to.

Megan Faraimo, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, and Holly Azevedo, a sophomore, provide the pitching depth UCLA lacked last season. In the clinching game of the super regional, Faraimo held James Madison to four hits in 5 1/3 innings.

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Faraimo is 16-4, Azevedo 11-1. Along with a 24-1 record and 1.01 ERA, Garcia is batting .344 as part of a deep lineup.

“If one person doesn’t get on, we’re just gonna pass the bat,” Garcia says. “And the person behind, she’s gonna step up for you and have your back. Not one person on this team can’t get the job done.”

The way Bruins respond to adversity helps. Any loss leaves them more focused.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MAY 25: UCLA Bruins head coach Kelly Inouye-­Perez and the UCLA Bruins in the
Kelly Inouye-­Perez coaches the Bruins in an NCAA super regional softball game against James Madison on May 25 at Easton Stadium at UCLA on Saturday, May 25, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“We don’t want the same thing to happen to us a second time,” junior Bubba Nickles says, “because we know what we’re capable of, and we know … whenever we lose, it’s really because we defeated ourselves.”

The Bruins lost two games to Arizona in their final Pac-12 series, leaving them as conference co-champions with Washington — a team they swept this season.

The next day, they brought renewed focus to practice. In the first game of the regional, Garcia and Azevedo held Weber State hitless in a 6-0 victory.

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When the Bruins lost to Missouri, they came back to defeat the Tigers 13-1 in five innings to clinch the regional title. When James Madison opened the super regional with a home run in the first inning against Garcia, the Bruins offense ignited to earn a 6-1 victory.

“It’s crazy to see how quickly this team responds to something like that,” Garcia says. “We’re just so quick to let go.”

The team aims to bring the same fiery spirit to the CWS, fueled by last season’s disappointment.

The key to winning, Inouye-Perez says, is changing nothing. The Bruins must focus on relishing every moment, on playing their game.

They don’t need to be perfect, Inouye-Perez says. They just need to stay true to themselves.

“If they stay the course, this team is destined to be able to have great things happen,” Inouye-Perez says. “I think our best ball is yet to come.”

blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_


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