Last season, UCLA celebrated its ascent to the top of the college softball world with a walk-off RBI single, a dog pile and a trophy.
This season, when the Bruins finished atop two major polls, they settled for a Zoom call.
“It’s obviously not anything compared to a natty,” redshirt junior Aaliyah Jordan said, “but yeah, it does feel good to be recognized as No. 1.”
The Bruins, the unanimous No. 1 team in the final USA Today/NFCA Coaches and ESPN/USA Softball polls released on April 7, are still adjusting to the changing tides of the coronavirus outbreak that ended their championship aspirations last month.
After the NCAA’s March 12 decision to cancel winter and spring championships, the Bruins had finals, then spring break. Head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez let her players decompress by themselves during the break. Since then, the Bruins have convened for biweekly Zoom meetings: “Happy Hour” on Tuesday and a “Bruin Bubble” meeting on Friday.
For a team that was just beginning to jell entering conference play, the brief meetings offer moments of relief during uncertain times.
“It really lifts my spirits and I think it does for everyone on the team,” freshman Maya Brady said. “Just having that community and your teammates, you know they have your back.”
Brady fit in seamlessly with the defending national champions as the infielder easily transitioned to outfield while hitting fourth in the lineup. She led the team with seven home runs and tied for the lead with 28 RBIs.
“She’s … a freshman that trusted the process and bought into the program, really built strong relationships with her teammates and became the best version of herself,” Inouye-Perez said. “The country now knows who Maya Brady is.”
The daughter of Maureen Brady, an All-American pitcher at Fresno State, and the niece of NFL star Tom Brady, Maya has mature savvy about her, Inouye-Perez said. She kept a level head while stepping into roles formerly held by Olympians. The freshman who played middle infield at Westlake Village Oaks Christian jumped into Bubba Nickles’ starting center-field spot and Rachel Garcia’s role as cleanup hitter.
Tom Brady attended a UCLA game this season, offering advice to his niece to never let anything become bigger than it is. Without her team around, Maya continues to lean on her family.
Maureen keeps her motivated on her workouts but has also been busy lately; Maureen is a home health nurse who continues to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Maya knows her mother’s patients are at high risk for developing the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“It’s scary,” Maya said, “but I know that she’s being protected and she does whatever she can to kind of keep herself sanitary. I’m just happy she’s healthy.”
Seeing the toll the pandemic has taken — nearly 2 million confirmed cases in the world on Tuesday and more than 25,000 deaths in the United States — Jordan said she understood the NCAA’s decision to cancel games more than a month ago. She is grateful for the early decision, even if the sudden ending moved her to tears during a team meeting.
“It really just hit me like, ‘Dang, I’m not going to be able to play this season,’ ” Jordan said. “And just how good we were doing: We were on a roll.”
The Bruins (25-1) finished the nonconference season with 10 straight wins and swept the final set of Pac-12 Conference weekly awards with junior Delanie Wisz winning player of the week, sophomore Megan Faraimo earning pitcher of the week honors and Lexi Sosa being named freshman of the week. Last week, Faraimo was selected as Softball America’s national pitcher of the year.
After being one of the most explosive teams in the nation last season, the Bruins were on track to be even better this year. Their batting average was up from .339 to .368. They averaged 7.69 runs per game this season, which ranked fourth nationally.
“After winning, we knew what we had to do, we knew what we wanted, so we were almost hunting,” said Jordan, who led the team with a .435 average. “We were not going to let anything stop us from getting that natty again.
“Except for coronavirus,” the outfielder added with a faint chuckle.