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UCLA Softball Title Hopes Hinge on Pitching - 2017 Season Preview

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Last year, the Bruins bashed their way to a second straight Women's College World Series. This year, the Bruins lineup doesn't have the punch of the 2016 team, but it has a deep pitching staff with a lot of potential. If the Bruins are going to return to the WCWS in 2017, Coach Inouye-Perez needs to unlock that potential.

@UCLASoftball

#8 UCLA Softball (0-0)

Game 1 Opponent: South Dakota (0-0)

When: 2:30 PM PT, Friday, February 10, 2017

Game 2 Opponent: San Diego State (0-0)

When: 5:00 PM PT, Friday, February 10, 2017

Where: SDSU Softball Stadium, San Diego, CA

AudioUCLA Live Audio

Video: None

Live StatsUCLA StatBroadcast Game 1UCLA StatBroadcast Game 2

Official Tournament Preview

Bruins Nation's 2017 Softball Preview

The Basics

For two straight seasons, the Bruins have earned trips to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series. For two straight seasons, the Bruins have returned empty-handed.

Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez and the Bruins are hoping to continue to build upon the success of the past two years and take a step forward in pursuit of another national championship. There's no doubt that the 2017 Bruins have a talent-laden roster, and in particular, a group of newcomers with tremendous potential. But for every promising newcomer, there's a question mark. This team can be elite if a couple of those newcomers can deliver on their potential; if they don't, this will be another season in which UCLA will fall short of a conference and national championship.

Preseason Rankings:

USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll: 8th

ESPN.com/USA Softball Poll: 8th

Pac-12 Preseason Coaches Poll: 1st

Key Departing Players:

CF Allexis Bennett

3B Mysha Sataraka

Key Returning Players:

SS Delaney Spaulding (Sr.)

2B Kylee Perez (Jr.)

C/1B  Madeline Jelenicki (Jr.)

OF Gabrielle Maurice (Sr.)

C/UTIL Paige Halstead (So.)

1B Brianna Tautalafua (So.)

OF Zoe Shaw (So.)

P Selina Ta'amilo (Jr.)

P Johanna Grauer (Jr.)

P Paige McDuffee (RSr.)

Key Newcomers:

P/UTIL Rachel Garcia

P/INF Bubba Nickles

OF Jacqui Prober

Out for the Season Due to Injury:

Taylor Pack

Jelly Felix

Maddie Skibitzki

Aaliyah Jordan

The Schedule

As the official site notes, UCLA is slated to play 14 of the teams in the USA Today/NFCA Presaeson Top-25. As expected, that list includes Pac-12 foes Oregon (#9), Arizona (#10), Washington (#13), and Utah (#18). That's 12 games against top-25 competition just within the Pac-12. And with Oregon State, California, and Arizona State also receiving votes in the NFCA Preseason Coaches Poll, the Bruins will face a brutal conference schedule.

But the UCLA's schedule is even more brutal before Pac-12 competition begins. The Bruins are scheduled to face #22 Notre Dame this weekend on the final day of the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament. Next weekend, UCLA will play #20 Kentucky in the first round of the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic before facing #12 Georgia, #1 Oklahoma, #4 LSU, and #3 Florida State in the second round the following week.

The Bruins then head into the first week of March with games in the Judi Garman Classic against #6 Michigan, #4 Florida, and #21 Baylor.

Needless to say, it will be trial by fire for the young Bruins. Overall, this is a schedule that should prepare UCLA very well for the challenge of the Pac-12 title race and for the postseason.

The Players

Let's start by talking about two very important players UCLA lost at the end of the 2016 campaign: centerfielder Allexis Bennett and third baseman Mysha Sataraka. In addition to their solid defensive work, Bennett and Sataraka were arguably the two most important components of the Bruins' offense in 2016. Sataraka led UCLA in slugging percentage and on base percentage, and was second in home runs and runs batted in. Bennett led UCLA in batting average (.400) from the leadoff spot, was second in on base percentage, and was the only Bruin to reach double figures in steals.

The departure of these two senior leaders leaves huge holes for Coach Inouye-Perez to fill in the lineup and in the field. That said, the Bruins have a solid core of returning players. The entire pitching staff returns, and almost the entire starting infield is back for another year.

Starting behind the plate, UCLA has an excellent duo in junior C/1B Madeline Jelenicki and sophomore C/UTIL Paige Halstead. Jelenicki and Halstead will undoubtedly split the catching duties again, with both players likely to see time in right field when they aren't behind the plate.

After missing the first part of the 2016 season with an injury, sophomore Brianna Tautalafua made the most of her opportunity when she returned. She seems to be the likely to hold down the job at first base, though that's due more to her bat than her fielding.

Junior Kylee Perez returns for a second season at second base. Although her fielding was shaky at times, Perez was making a difficult transition from outfield to infield last year. Whether or not that was the best option, I don't fault Coach Inouye-Perez for choosing continuity in keeping Perez at second this year.

Her middle infield partner from last season, senior Delaney Spaulding, returns for another season at shortstop. Whether it's in her role in the middle of the infield or the middle of the lineup, it's hard to imagine UCLA being successful without another outstanding season from Spaulding.

The vacancy at third base will apparently be filled by freshman P/INF Bubba Nickles. Nickles is a terrific prospect--both as an infielder and as a pitcher. She is the third of UCLA's Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year award winners, joining Rachel Garcia and Paige McDuffee. I suspect she may be destined to become UCLA's shortstop in 2018, but for now she'll be handling the duties at the hot corner. It's not a position that she's played much recently, but I have no doubt that she has the athletic ability and intelligence to excel at any position on the field. Still, there's bound to be a learning curve as she adapts to collegiate softball and a new position.

In the outfield, the big question is which one of the Bruins will take over in center field. According to my sources, the answer is senior Gabrielle Maurice, last season's left fielder. Although Maurice doesn't have Bennett's speed, she played well in left last year even while she was battling through a horrible batting slump. As I mentioned previously, either Halstead or Jelenicki will probably slot into right field, and it appears that sophomore Zoe Shaw will be given the first shot in left field.

There isn't much depth behind the starting group, unfortunately. Freshman Aaliyah Jordan was expected to make a strong push for a starting role in center, but she will be taking a medical redshirt this season as she recovers from an ACL tear. Similarly, freshman Maddie Skibitzki might have been in position to earn playing time this season, but she too will take a medical redshirt. Add to that the loss of sophomore infielder Taylor Pack with a shoulder injury, and it becomes clear that the Coach Inouye-Perez will be constrained by a thin bench in 2017.

Luckily, the Bruins' pitching staff is deeper and stronger this year than it has been for a long time. Coach Inouye-Perez now has five hurlers at her disposal, though Nickles primary role will be as a third baseman. In addition to Nickles, the other big addition is redshirt freshman Rachel Garcia. Garcia missed the entirety of the 2016 as she was recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered in her final outing in high school. Although Garcia has the potential to become the staff ace, it's important to remember that she's a freshman and that she hasn't played competitive softball for about 18 months. Garcia will make her long-awaited UCLA debut this weekend; her level of success over the next few months will largely determine the trajectory of the Bruins' 2017 season.

Like Garcia, Paige McDuffee came to UCLA as a Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year award winner. Unfortunately, McDuffee's collegiate career has been defined by a series of injuries more than anything she's accomplished on the field. It's hard to remember a time when Paige hasn't either been injured or recovering from injury. In 2016, she pitched just 46 innings. In 2015, she pitched only 13 innings. In 2014, she pitched only 47 innings. Last season was the first in her collegiate career in which she finished with an ERA over 3.00, which shows how good she has been when healthy. At this point in her career, given how she's been used since her freshman season, it's likely that Coach Inouye-Perez will employ her primarily in relief. I hope I'm wrong about this as I'd love to see a greater role for Paige.

The two remaining pitchers--Selina Ta'amilo and Johanna Grauer, are, in my opinion, workhorses, not aces. That's not meant to diminish their contributions to the team, but rather to describe how they go about their business. Both Grauer and Ta'amilo average more than one hit allowed per inning, and neither pitcher throws many shutouts. Both pitchers are winners, though. Grauer has shown her toughness in working out of countless jams, and Ta'amilo has at times shown the potential to become a dominant pitcher. At this point in their collegiate careers, they are the type of pitcher that toils and finds ways to keep their team in games. However, for the past two seasons, the Bruins have generally given their pitchers plenty of run support. That level of run support probably won't be available this season, though.

It's impossible to predict how the batting lineup will evolve this season. Halstead and Tautalafua hit fairly well in their freshman season, but none of the other freshmen made much of an impact at the plate. And although Maurice hit well in the latter stages of the season, her prolonged midseason slump added to the inability of the bottom third of the Bruins' batting order to contribute significant offensive production.

The loss of Sataraka and Bennett means that there are two more holes in the batting order. Nickles will fill one of them, obviously, but it's unlikely that she will be able to match the production of either Sataraka or Bennett in her freshman season. Rachel Garcia may be called upon to fill the other, but as with Nickles, it's asking a lot to expect her to produce at the level of two of last season's most productive hitters.

Coach Inouye-Perez will certainly be hoping for a rebound season at the plate from Maurice, and continued growth from Jelenicki, Halstead, and Tautalafua. It wouldn't be surprising to see a jump in power production from that trio. Zoe Shaw had a particularly tough freshman season at the plate, and she'll need to improve on her performance at bat if she's going to hold onto her spot in the lineup. If the returning players can find a way to increase their offensive contributions, the Bruins will still have plenty of punch at the plate, even if they don't match their run production of the past two seasons.

Head Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez

Coach Inouye-Perez has done a fine job of recruiting in the past few seasons. She has put together a roster teeming with talent. The Bruins aren't just set for 2017--Coach KIP has built a strong program that can compete with the best teams in the west.

In addition, the Bruins generally look well-coached and well-prepared. They've played well in the postseason, and in particular, probably overachieved in the NCAA Tournament last year. And, of course, Coach KIP led the Bruins to a national championship in 2010, so she's proven her credentials in leading teams to postseason success.

On the other hand, as I've stated before, I'm not a fan of Coach KIP's "small ball" tactics when she has a team that isn't suited to playing small ball. Furthermore, the Bruins haven't won a conference title in ages, and that's not acceptable given UCLA's tradition of excellence in softball. Frankly, one Pac-12 title in 10 years isn't good enough.

I like Coach Inouye-Perez. She was a great Bruin as a player, and I hope she will achieve the same level of success leading our program. She's not there yet, in my opinion, but this season provides a great opportunity for her to establish herself as an elite coach.

Expectations

In spite of the fact that this is a young team with inexperienced players set to play key roles, UCLA was picked to finish first in the Pac-12 Coaches poll. The Bruins have potential; it's up to Coach Inouye-Perez to unlock that potential and compete for the Pac-12 title.

With the loss of four players to injury before the first pitch of the season, I'm inclined to give Coach KIP a little bit of leeway in setting my expectations. A lot of newcomers are being counted on for big contributions, and a lot of returning players are being asked to change roles and to take on greater responsibilities. Therefore, although I expect the Bruins to finish atop the Pac-12, I won't consider the season a failure if they fall a game or two short of that goal due to the steep learning curve that key players are facing.

However, by the time the postseason rolls around, the Bruins should be prepared to make their mark. If the Bruins don't at least get as far as the Super Regionals, then this season will probably look like a missed opportunity.

I'm confident, though, that this group of players can achieve great things. The 2017 campaign starts today against the Coyotes and the Aztecs on the opening day of the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament. Let's hope that this is the start of a truly successful season for UCLA Softball.

Go BRUINS!