At first, Kelly Inouye-Perez thought it was just baseball when she got the text.
No, the UCLA softball coach was told, the NCAA championship cancellation applied to all sports.
Her heart dropped.
UCLA’s hope for a second straight national championship ended suddenly Thursday when the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Bruins were ranked first in the nation entering their conference season, which was supposed to start at Easton Stadium on Friday against Arizona State.
Instead of getting ready for the Sun Devils, Inouye-Perez was on a conference call detailing how the team was combating an unprecedented circumstance.
“This situation is out of our control,” the 14-year head coach said. “We don’t know what the future looks like. We’re gonna remain optimistic, but we also just have to remember that we’re Bruins and how we respond to this is going to be our defining moment.”
On Friday, Inouye-Perez was still hopeful that the season could resume for at least a few conference games as the Pac-12 initially “suspended” play indefinitely. If the Bruins needed to come back after a month off, “bring it,” the coach said.
But on Saturday, the conference delivered the final blow. All competitions were canceled through the rest of the academic year.
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UCLA (25-1) didn’t miss a beat while replacing stars Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles, who are redshirting while pursuing the Olympics. The Bruins won 12 of their games by run rule. Their loss came in extra innings to No. 3 Texas. Sophomore Megan Faraimo, the heir to Garcia’s pitching circle, led the Pac-12 in wins (13) and strikeouts (149) and was tied for the lead in ERA (0.85).
“Not sure what’s in store for us,” Faraimo wrote on Instagram on Thursday, “but I know it’ll be sweet.”
The 6-foot right-hander helped the Bruins sweep the Pac-12 awards in the final week of the nonconference season as junior Delanie Wisz won player of the week and Lexi Sosa was chosen freshman of the week.
The sweep showed Inouye-Perez that the Bruins were “ready to be tested” in Pac-12 play.
“I couldn’t wait to see that,” she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice.
The former UCLA catcher was especially looking forward to seeing Sosa against Arizona State’s offense. The freshman pitcher/utility player had already grown so much during her short career.
Inouye-Perez saw it falling into place for the 2019 San Diego Section player of the year during a second-inning timeout against St. John’s on March 3. The Bruins scored eight runs in the first inning, but Sosa, in just the seventh appearance of her college career, gave up a lead-off walk in the second. Pitching coach Lisa Fernandez immediately met with her on the field. Inouye-Perez called it a “gut-check” timeout.
“Her velo, her precision, her conviction in pitching, everything just changed,” Inouye-Perez said.
Sosa carried it into her next appearance; she mowed through 15 batters in a five-inning perfect game against Boston University. It was the 18th perfect game in UCLA history.
“I’m so thankful for this amazing family that God was able to bless me with as a Bruin,” Sosa wrote on Instagram on Thursday. “Very sad but forever thankful.”
With promising freshmen including Sosa and Maya Brady (.356 batting average, 28 RBIs), Inouye-Perez didn’t want for Garcia and Nickles.
“No one knew what we were going to be,” Inouye-Perez said. “All we were was UCLA softball out there playing ball and that’s because the freshmen and the newcomers just stepped in, learned it, trusted it and just represented. I’m just super proud of them.”
When asked of what lies ahead for the team, Inouye-Perez chuckled. Just imagine this team next year.
The Bruins could lose only one senior; their greatest sadness about the situation is that Jacqui Prober, a reliable pinch runner who scored the championship-winning run last season, won’t get the traditional senior weekend. Graduate transfer catcher Jenavee Peres, who hit four home runs in her nine games, could take advantage of the NCAA’s policy to grant additional eligibility to players for this year.
And Garcia and Nickles were already coming back.
“Adding those guys back and the experience and fire in this team’s gut,” Inouye-Perez said, “I’m really looking forward to what could be next year.”