No need to hang around too long on this Friday afternoon, UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said, jokingly. The message of this conference call was clear: Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles are back.
The Olympians will rejoin the Bruins next season while continuing to train with Team USA for the postponed Tokyo Games. After the COVID-19 pandemic stopped UCLA’s national title defense, upended the Olympics and split the Bruins apart during a time of quarantine and uncertainty, Team USA’s announcement Thursday was a welcome “pick-me-up” for the discouraged team, Inouye-Perez said.
“Not only to get them to be able to graduate from UCLA and stick to their academic plan, but to get them back with their teammates they won a national championship with, and to have the ability to defend the title, it’s something that we have just been on a really big high for so many reasons,” Inouye-Perez said. “There is an energy and excitement and camaraderie with those two and what they bring to UCLA softball.”
Garcia and Nickles already were expected to rejoin the team following the Olympics, had the Games gone according to plan. With the Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for July 23 through Aug. 8, 2021, there were concerns whether the three current college athletes on the USA Softball roster — Nickles, Garcia and Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola — needed to take a second year away from college if they wanted to keep their Olympic aspirations.
Inouye-Perez said she had conversations with the USA Softball staff to find the best middle ground so players could keep their standing with the national team, complete their final years of college eligibility and obtain their degrees.
The solution will be to have the players train with their college teams during the season and then join Team USA for periodic training camps when necessary leading up to the Games. It could involve missing practice or games for the Bruins, Inouye-Perez acknowledged, but the compromise showed that USA Softball could “look at the bigger picture.”
“Super exciting to be able to do both,” Garcia said, “represent both teams and just go out and finish this last year with a bang.”
As UCLA raced through the nonconference season with a 25-1 record, Garcia and Nickles participated in Team USA’s pre-Olympic tour. As one of the youngest players on a roster that included Olympic medalists Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott and UCLA graduates Ally Carda and Delaney Spaulding, Nickles observed how disciplined the veteran players were in sticking to specific routines. They got up early. They journaled or read consistently. They went to sleep early.
“It really helped them to feel completely just in the moment whenever we had practice or a game, and I thought that was the coolest thing about it,” the 22-year-old Nickles said. “Personally, I’m trying to do it even in quarantine and just being in the situation that we’re in right now.”
Garcia and Nickles bring starpower to a Bruins team that already had championship potential. UCLA was ranked No. 1 in the final polls after the coronavirus-shortened season, spurred on by pitcher Megan Faraimo’s ascent to full-time ace and the quick maturity of such freshmen as outfielder Maya Brady.
Faraimo was Softball America’s 2020 pitcher of the year with a 0.85 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 90 1/3 innings. She will share time again with Garcia, a two-time national player of the year who was also the 2019 Honda Cup winner as the most outstanding female athlete across all NCAA sports.
Brady arrived in the outfield as a longtime infielder, but adapted to fill the center-field position, where Nickles had started the last three years. Brady, Softball America‘s freshman player of the year, was leading the Bruins with seven home runs during the shortened season; Nickles led the team in 2019 with 18 homers.
Managing a deep roster is nothing new to Inouye-Perez, who coached 32 NFCA All-Americans during her first 13 seasons at UCLA. She’s already expecting big things for next year.
“It will be a large roster, but we’re very experienced and the program is really focused on what’s best for the team,” Inouye-Perez said, “and Rachel and Bubba [can] definitely, truly, be able to say, they are best for this team.”