UCLA softball is down two stars, but the goal remains another NCAA title
The tears of joy are dry, the rings are made, the trophy is in the case.
Now it’s time to work.
Coming off its 13th national title in softball, won in dramatic walk-off fashion, UCLA regroups with a young team devoid of two of its biggest stars in last year’s title run. Ace pitcher Rachel Garcia, the most outstanding player of the Women’s College World Series, and starting center fielder Bubba Nickles will sit out the season while they compete for Team USA in the Olympics.
The new-look team that opens the season Thursday at home against Cal State Bakersfield comes at a perfect time for a program that tracks its successes by decades. The Bruins, who went 56-6 last season, won titles in the first and last years of the previous decade. Now they enter 2020 with a clear vision of what’s next.
“The faces may change, but we’re going to hope to continue to have that style of play,” said coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, whose team is fourth in the preseason USA Today/NFCA rankings. “We have high energy, there’s great communication, we have each other’s backs, all those things are what I hope to see in 2020.”
Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles, who helped UCLA win the national title in softball in 2019, are two of three college players to make Team USA’s roster for the Olympics.
Garcia and Nickles can both return next season after the Olympics, but temporarily replacing them stressed the coaching staff during fall practices when their numbers suddenly dropped and key leaders left.
Nickles, who led the team with 72 RBIs and 18 home runs last year, was not only a feared leadoff hitter and talented defender, but was a key voice that helped establish the team’s culture. The way the senior mixed hard work and fun kept the team loose. Junior shortstop Briana Perez and redshirt junior outfielder Aaliyah Jordan have stepped up to fill the leadership void, Inouye-Perez said.
Also gone is Garcia’s stoic work in the circle. The star right-hander, who won consecutive national collegiate player of the year awards, pitched all but two of UCLA’s innings in the World Series, carrying the Bruins with her arm and her bat as she drove in a team-high eight runs in Oklahoma City with a .333 average.
There is no replacing a talent like her, Inouye-Perez said.
But there is Megan Faraimo.
The sophomore from San Diego Cathedral Catholic High was selected Pac-12 freshman of the year after debuting with a 1.41 earned-run average in 114 innings pitched. She was the first Bruin to throw two no-hitters in a season since 2015 and the first UCLA freshman to do so since 2005.
It seemed Faraimo was being primed for this moment. The Bruins knew they would likely be without Garcia this year as she was on an Olympic path. Last year Faraimo, right after being named 2018 national Gatorade player of the year as a senior in high school, stepped into the pitching staff as an eager-to-learn freshman. She told Garcia she was going to do whatever she could to help the star pitcher.
No, Garcia said, you’re here to compete with me.
“She really inspired me a lot just to let competitive greatness show more often,” said Faraimo, who is also expected to be in the batting lineup this season.
Faraimo is relentlessly competitive, said junior infielder Kinsley Washington, a travel ball teammate with the Corona Angels. In batting practice, Faraimo is still trying to strike her teammates out. She wants to win even if it’s rock, paper, scissors. The pitcher is also one of the hardest-working people Washington has ever met.
“She just always wants to be the best,” said Washington, who hit the championship-winning walk-off single last year against Oklahoma. “Now that the team is relying on her to put the team on her back, she is more than ready to step into that role.”
Faraimo bristles at the thought of filling Garcia’s shoes. Instead, she wants to “make my own path,” she said.
“Last year, she embraced being a freshman,” Inouye-Perez said. “This year, she’s Megan Faraimo and I cannot wait for the country to be able to see.”
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