#10 UCLA Softball (16-5)
Louisville Slugger Invitational
Opponent 1: Eastern Michigan (8-6)
When: 11:30 AM PT, Friday, March 10, 2017
Opponent 2: Longwood (6-10)
When: 2:00 PM PT, Friday, March 10, 2017
Where: 49er Softball Complex, Long Beach, CA
For the first time in the last few weeks, UCLA doesn't face a weekend slate of top-25 opponents. With the start of the conference season just a week away, it's unclear if the departure from the challenge of battling tough competition throughout the weekend will ultimately benefit the Bruins. With seven Pac-12 schools currently holding down places in the NFCA Coaches top-25, including four (Oregon, Arizona, Washington and UCLA) in the top-10, the Bruins' conference schedule will be brutal. With that in mind, perhaps this weekend's Louisville Slugger Invitational should be seen as a season reboot--a chance for the Bruins to regroup and to assess where they are and what they need to do to become one of the nation's elite teams.
Although UCLA finished the Judi Garman Classic with a winning record (3-2), the Bruins slipped three places in the latest NFCA Coaches Poll. Despite a good win over #17 Michigan to begin the tournament, UCLA struggled in losses to #3 Florida and #15 Baylor. UCLA's pitching was particularly disappointing, allowing 20 runs in those two defeats.
The Bruins have a solid lineup from top to bottom, but the batting order will struggle to match the production of the 2016 team. That means that the Bruins need more from their hurlers this season. The addition of Rachel Garcia to the pitching staff and an additional year of experience for Johanna Grauer and Selina Ta'amilo should give UCLA the pitching strength and depth it needs to compete for the Pac-12 title and to make a strong run toward a third straight Women's College World Series, but the results so far have been mixed, as last weekend's games against Florida and Baylor proved.
This weekend offers Coach Inouye-Perez an opportunity to re-evaluate. The pair of doubleheaders (today and Saturday) in the Louisville Slugger Invitational and the Sunday tilt against Texas will give Coach KIP a chance to define clearer roles for her pitchers, assuming that she sees an advantage in it. Similarly, she'll have the opportunity to reflect on her batting order. For instance, does it make sense strategically to use UCLA's leading power hitter, Delaney Spaulding, in the leadoff spot? Sure, it gives her a few extra at-bats over the course of the season, but it also substantially reduces the expected number of baserunners aboard when Spaulding comes to the plate.
Today's games gives Coach Inouye-Perez a chance to explore and evaluate her options if she chooses. Neither Eastern Michigan nor Longwood is a ranked team, and neither opponent is expected to seriously test UCLA's pitching staff.
I'm anxious to see where the Bruins are at at the end of the weekend. I don't think anyone doubts the great talent of this group of players, but several key players are light on experience, and Coach KIP may still be trying to find the right roles for her players to get the best out of them. Let's hope that this weekend adds up to more than a handful of wins for the Bruins; if they keep improving as individuals and as a team, they can go a long way this season.