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No F.E.A.R.: UCLA softball team determined to ‘face everything and rise’ in 2021

UCLA pitcher Rachel Garcia delivers against Washington.
UCLA pitcher Rachel Garcia is among the returning players for the Bruins as they look to successfully defend their 2019 NCAA title.
(Torrey Purvey / For The Times)

Perhaps since she started playing softball as a young girl, Kelly Inouye-Perez had never been away from the sport as long as she was in 2020. After UCLA’s season was canceled in March because of the pandemic, the head coach’s regularly scheduled practices, road trips and games were gone.

When she should have been defending a national championship with her No. 1-ranked team, Inouye-Perez was attacking long walks and hikes. She filled the quiet paths with Apple Music playlists. That’s where she found what would become UCLA’s mantra for its long-awaited return to the field.

“You know what spreads faster than any virus is fear,” rapper Pitbull says in his new song “I Believe That We Will Win,” an upbeat anthem written in response to the pandemic.

“When it comes to fear you can either forget everything and run, or you can face everything and rise.”

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UCLA’s gymnastics team had the slimmest of leads going into the final event Wednesday against Utah. What the Bruins did on floor made quite an impression.

Inouye-Perez knew immediately which response the Bruins would choose for their delayed title defense.

“I promise you there’s going to be some adversity, but we will face everything and rise,” Inouye-Perez said a few days before UCLA’s season opener against Fresno State on Friday. “Nothing is going to be too hard for us in 2021.”

The Bruins, who were ranked No. 1 with a 25-1 record when the season was canceled, are the overwhelming favorites in 2021 after winning the national championship in 2019.

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They return their entire 2020 starting lineup, including Megan Faraimo, Softball America‘s pitcher of the year in 2020, and Maya Brady, Softball America’s freshman of the year.

They add future Olympians Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles, who will play for UCLA before rejoining Team USA for the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

They’re the consensus No. 1 team in the country between the coaches, USA Softball and DI Softball polls and have six players on the watch list for the USA Softball Collegiate player of the year award, the most of any school. (Alabama and Washington have four each.)

The roster seems like an embarrassment of riches for Inouye-Perez. It’s the best problem for a coach, but Inouye-Perez knows the unique circumstances of this season could easily diminish UCLA’s reserves. The Bruins watched postponements, positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing wreak havoc in other sports.

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To give themselves an anchor for the inevitable adversity, the Bruins wear bracelets printed with their “F.E.A.R.” mantra. They painted a rock outside center field with the acronym.

UCLA shortstop Briana Perez hits during a game against James Madison in May 2019.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“That’s a little reminder that we’re going to face the adversity and get after it no matter what happens,” said shortstop Briana Perez, a first-team All-American and one of the six players on the player of the year watch list.

Pitchers have won the top individual prize 15 of 18 times since it was first awarded in 2002. Garcia is the back-to-back winner, one of just four players to win it multiple times.

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After leading the Bruins to the national championship in 2019, Garcia is even better, steeled from a year training with Team USA that “has mentally and physically prepared me to push my body to the limits,” she said. In 2019, Garcia was already almost unbeatable with a 29-1 record, a 1.14 ERA and 286 strikeouts in 202 innings.

With Garcia back and Faraimo, who went 13-1 last year with a 0.85 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 90 1/3 innings, the UCLA pitchers give their teammates fits in practice.

“It has not been fun [batting against them],” said Perez, whose .420 batting average was second on the team last season.

All the pitchers, including redshirt junior Holly Azevedo and redshirt freshman Lexi Sosa, are “better version[s] of themselves,” Inouye-Perez said. Their velocities and spin rates are up. Their minds are stronger than ever.

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UCLA has announced several planned improvements to Jackie Robinson Stadium, including a new state-of-the-art practice infield.

Inouye-Perez credits assistant coach Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, for strengthening the pitching staff and instilling camaraderie and trust in a competitive atmosphere instead of angst and resentment for who will start.

The connections on the team, from pitchers and catchers to the rest of the field players, makes this “the most excited I’ve been” for a season, said Perez, a redshirt junior.

The long layoff has the Bruins itching to get back on the field. They are grateful to be back in their element. They are ready to face anything that comes in their way of their title defense.

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“Things are going to be jacked up this year in 2021, potentially, and we say bring it,” Inouye-Perez said. “If we get to play softball, then let’s go play softball with whoever we have. And if they say we all have to put the glove on the other hand today, then all right, that’s a challenge, but bring it.”


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