Jan. 23, 2002
On the heels of three consecutive NCAA Championship game appearances, the Bruin softball team is ready to challenge for the title once again in 2002. An experienced group of players returns, as 14 of the 16 players on the roster played during the 2001 season.
"This team does a tremendous job of respecting the game and themselves," said 14th-year head coach Sue Enquist. "This is a team that has a true hunger about finishing where they believe they are capable of finishing, but with that hunger comes a responsibility both early in the season and on every day of the season to play as though it's your last game.
"If this team plays with that kind of dedication and of focus, they'll be doing some very successful things through the year."
The game starts in the pitching circle, and the Bruins have two talented, experienced hurlers from which to choose. Senior Amanda Freed and sophomore Keira Goerl were the primary contributors to last year's staff that finished with the fourth-best team ERA in the country (0.85).
Freed was the Pac-10 and NCAA ERA champion last season with a 0.46 tally despite fighting through an arm injury during the second half of the season. She enters the 2002 campaign healthy, and ready to lead the Bruins both in the circle and in centerfield.
"I believe in her senior year, Amanda is going to be focused in all facets of the game," said Enquist. "Amanda is so talented, when she is in the circle, we are capable of doing great things."
Keira Goerl picked up the majority of the innings for the 2001 Bruins with 194 innings and a perfect game in the circle to go along with her 27 wins and team-high 158 strikeouts. During the summer months, Goerl turned in some impressive work both for the USA Red national team, and her ASA team, the Phoenix Storm, which won the Women's Major Fastpitch championship. Goerl was named the Outstanding Pitcher for the tournament for a second consecutive year.
"Keira came in as a freshman and did everything I asked of her," said Enquist. "That's a great compliment to Keira, because I ask a lot of our impact players and she delivered."
Behind the plate for this talented duo will be an equally talented group of catchers. The group is headlined by senior Stacey Nuveman, but also includes juniors Toria Auelua and Tairia Mims as well as freshman Nicole Sandberg.
Nuveman, a two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year and NFCA/Diamond Sports Catcher of the Year, led the Pac-10 in batting average (.440), slugging percentage (.873) and on-base percentage (.615) in 2001. This season, the sixth-year senior returns to UCLA with an eye on a second NCAA Championship to complement her 2000 Olympic gold medal.
"Stacey does a terrific job of handling our pitchers," said Enquist. "She brings an incredible level of experience from the national team and the international game and she is a player that everyone really enjoys being around. That makes for a wonderful practice and competition environment to have someone who can lead on the field and knows how to keep it light in the clubhouse."
Auelua spent a great deal of time behind the plate for the 2001 Bruins prior to tearing the meniscus in her right knee in the Southwest Texas State doubleheader on Feb. 26. Although she will see the majority of her playing time at third base, she is capable of catching if needed. Mims is in a similar situation, as she is quite capable behind the plate but will see the majority of her playing time in the infield.
"Nicole Sandberg will have a very important role in preparing our battery, as well as preparing our pitchers in training," said Enquist. "She brings a wonderful presence about her in her work ethic and love of the game, and she has a very strong desire to get better every day."
UCLA's all-roommate infield from the 2001 Women's College World Series returns in 2002 with another year of experience under its belt. Around the horn, the junior foursome of Toria Auelua, Natasha Watley, Monique Mejia and Tairia Mims is ready for the upcoming season and hungry for its first national championship.
Auelua has recovered well from her knee surgery in early March, and has spent the majority of her fall training at third base. Just prior to her injury, Auelua hit a team-high.538 (7-for-13) at the Texas Invitational, including a 4-for-4, two-RBI performance against Texas that included a game-winning home run in extra innings.
"Toria's strength is first and foremost her incredible reflexes," said Enquist. "She can stop anything that comes her way, and I also look for her to continue with the offensive rhythm that she had prior to her injury."
A two-time first-team All-American, Watley enters her junior season with 84 career stolen bases, more than double the previous Bruin career record of 31. As a sophomore, Watley expanded her offensive game, adding power hitting to her slap-hitting arsenal. Last year, Watley led the Pac-10 with 52 stolen bases, and finished second in the Pac-10 and eighth in the NCAA in runs scored (75), while her .409 batting average was third in the Pac-10 and 19th in the NCAA standings.
"Natasha is probably one of the most enjoyable athletes to watch play the game," said Enquist. "The sign of a great athlete is to execute and make it look effortless, and Tash does that."
Mejia rotated in and out of the lineup at second base last season, but secured that defensive spot for the NCAA Regional championship game and all four of UCLA's Women's College World Series contests. Defensively, she was perfect on 19 chances in Oklahoma City.
"Last year was a transitional year for Monique, in that she transitioned from a rotating infielder/outfielder to a starting infield position," said Enquist. "I think her postseason experience allowed her to take her game to the next level emotionally. She now knows that she can compete at the highest level consistently day in and day out."
Tairia Mims is the ultimate utility player for Enquist, as she played four defensive positions last year: third base (27 games), first base (16), right field (14) and catcher (11) . Mims finished the season at first base, her primary defensive position as a freshman, following the return of Auelua to the lineup. Despite her versatility on defense, she was a picture of consistency offensively, finishing in the Pac-10's top-10 in RBI (71/third), doubles (18/third), home runs (17/sixth) runs scored (54/sixth), hits (80/seventh), and slugging percentage (.718/seventh).
"Tairia spent a lot of time in the fall increasing her defensive skills behind the plate," said Enquist. "She will see time both at catcher and first base, and will be called upon to lead this team at the plate offensively. She's not flashy, but she delivers in clutch situations."
Perhaps the majority of UCLA's depth is on the dirt, as the Bruins have several additional players with infield experience. Those with the most experience include Crissy Buck, who was UCLA's starting shortstop on the 1999 NCAA Championship team and will see time this year in the outfield as well as at second base. Sophomore Claire Sua, who was UCLA's everyday first baseman for the majority of the 2001 season, also returns in 2002.
Sua's impressive freshman campaign was capped off with an exceptional performance at the Women's College World Series, where she provided six of UCLA's 13 RBIs and was named to the All-WCWS team. Sua, a pitcher in high school, has a bat that earned a spot in the lineup for all 68 games last season, en route to Pac-10 rankings in RBI (56/eighth), hits (78/ninth), batting average (.380/10th) and on-base percentage (.453/10th).
"Claire, like Stacey Nuveman, is capable of hitting with even more power than she brought to this program last season," said Enquist. "This season, Claire is going to attempt to be more aggressive at the plate and put some big numbers up, and she will be put in a position where she can do that.
"Casey's role on this team is very important," said Enquist. "She is the one player who is capable of coming in at multiple positions and executing when needed. Casey has one of the most fundamentally sound swings on our team and I have a lot of confidence putting her in the lineup as a starter or calling on her to deliver in a game-winning situation."
Hoshizaki saw action in 46 games last season, primarily as a pinch-runner, but did make a defensive appearance at second base on Apr. 28.
Chislock will serve as a utility first baseman and outfielder this season. "She has come in as a freshman and learned our system very quickly," said Enquist.
In addition to her duties in the pitching circle, Amanda Freed will anchor the Bruin outfield, playing centerfield when Goerl is in the circle. Freed will be joined in the grass by a group including seniors Crissy Buck and Erin Rahn and sophomore Stephanie Ramos.
Buck has been a regular in the Bruin lineup, but has varied her defensive position during her three years at UCLA. This season, she looks to see the majority of her playing time in the outfield, where she played the latter part of the 2001 season. Last year, Buck saw 100 at-bats, hitting .250 with 11 runs scored and 10 RBI.
"Crissy is a tenacious athlete who has a great work ethic," said Enquist. "She is versatile in that she can play middle infield or in the outfield, and she is somebody I want to have in the games a lot because of her senior leadership."
Rahn looks to take on an expanded role for her senior season in 2002. She played in 54 games last year, earning 37 starts and stealing 10 bases on 11 tries.
"Erin has improved her throwing accuracy and her strength in the outfield," said Enquist. "I think she is probably going to be one of the most improved players we've seen."
Ramos turned in a solid freshman campaign both in the outfield and at the plate, despite missing several weeks in March and April due to a broken bone in her hand. She finished the season with a .333 batting average, including two home runs, 10 doubles and 22 RBI.
"This summer, Steph discovered a new level of dedication to the game in terms of her training and conditioning," said Enquist. "I believe she will see a direct correlation between her improved defensive game and her offensive production this season."
Several other Bruins have outfield experience and can play there if necessary, including Mims, Mejia, Chislock and Amanda Simpson.
As a complement to her team's power hitters, Enquist has baserunning specialists in her dugout, giving the Bruins the ability to add speed on the bases. Amanda Simpson and Julie Hoshizaki will continue their impressive performances in this role during the upcoming season.
As freshmen, Simpson played in 60 games, while Hoshizaki took the field in 46 contests. Together, they combined for 39 runs scored and three stolen bases, all as pinch-runners.
"Both of these players did a wonderful job this fall increasing their speed and their instincts on the bases," said Enquist.
After two consecutive NCAA runner-up finishes, the 2002 Bruins are hungry for the program's 10th national championship. This talented group of players is quite capable of making that goal a reality.
"This is a team that realizes they're good," said Enquist. "They have done phenomenal things under adversity. They have proven the ability to remain cohesive and can execute whether one or five people are out of position. The challenge for this team this year is to have an energy and a sense of urgency to be even more aggressive and more driven about their play and once again remaining disciplined.
"The challenges for this year's team are to set the tone early and expect a level of play that's even higher than what we had last year."