Jan. 24, 2000
LOS ANGELES -- The defending NCAA Champions are back for more in 2000. UCLA returns seven of nine starters and both pitchers who led the Bruins to a record eighth NCAA title last May.
Despite this rosy outlook, the challenge for head coach Sue Enquist and her 2000 Bruins will be to overcome the loss of two key pieces of 1999's puzzle. Would-be senior Christie Ambrosi and would-be junior Stacey Nuveman will not be available for this collegiate season due to their selection to the U.S. Olympic Team.
"All of a sudden, we're a young team again," said Enquist. "Our biggest challenge early on will be to learn how to be mentally disciplined so that we play each game as if it's our last. Every time we walk out onto the field, our opponent is facing the defending champions.
"We need to look at that as a challenge and stay motivated. It should be a fun task, but the key is to have the self-discipline to go out every day and play Bruin softball."
Last season, the nation got a good look at the first year of a deadly pitching combination. This year, junior Courtney Dale and sophomore Amanda Freed are back for more. As a sophomore in 1999, Dale was the nation's last remaining undefeated pitcher, keeping her record unblemished until an eight-inning 6-4 loss to Arizona on May 7. Instead of turning in an undefeated season, Dale simply tied the UCLA record of 33 wins, set by Lisa Fernandez in 1993, aided by five postseason victories, two at the College World Series.
"Courtney comes into the 2000 season with all of the necessary experience to lead this team in the circle," said Enquist. "As a pitcher, she's a work horse. As a player, she's very selfless and truly appreciates the defense behind her." Dale is part of that defense when Freed takes over the circle, playing in the Bruin outfield.
If you think the start of Dale's 1999 season was impressive, then you probably don't know that in her first collegiate outing, Freed tossed the 58th no-hitter in UCLA history, a 3-0 win over Santa Clara. She also pitched another no-no on March 6 against Missouri, and led the team with a 0.96 ERA that was good for 13th in the nation. Coming off of an outstanding summer with USA Softball that concluded with being named an alternate to the U.S. Olympic Team, Freed will have an expanded role this season.
"Having a year under her belt will just make Amanda more effective," said Enquist. "She's a competitor, and the international experience she gained over the summer will only help her. She can dominate in the circle, she has great instincts in the outfield and she will ignite our offense" Rounding out the group in the circle will be junior Stephanie Swenson. "Stephanie is a very versatile athlete for us," said Enquist. "She's capable of coming in to pitch when we need her, and does a tremendous job of staying sharp both defensively and hitting so she is ready to go when we need her.
Last season, Nuveman dominated the innings behind the plate. This season, with Nuveman out due to the Olympics, there are four players who could see time behind the plate, including two of the team's four newcomers.
The veteran behind the plate will be Julie Marshall, who played primarily at first base last season, but has seen significant time behind the plate in all three of her seasons as a Bruin.
"Julie understands what it takes to consistently be at her best throughout the year," said Enquist. "She is tough and disciplined in her play and is a key leader for us both on and off the field."
Marshall was one of several Bruins to contribute to last season's offensive explosion, racking up 19 home runs, 13 doubles, 67 RBI and a .633 slugging percentage to complement a .996 fielding percentage. She finished 11th in the NCAA rankings in home runs and 18th in RBI.
A regular catcher for the 1998 Bruins, Marin Noack gives Enquist added options behind the plate.
"Marin sees the big picture," says Enquist, "and her work ethic is just tremendous. She has a lot of intangibles, and has quality at-bats when she steps in to pinch hit."
Freshman Toria Auelua demonstrated extremely quick reactions in fall practices, both at the plate and behind it.
"Toria probably has one of the quickest bats on the team," said Enquist. "She's a very explosive player who will step right in and execute, both at third base and behind the plate."
The final frosh who could see time behind the plate, Tairia Mims, will mostly see time at first base this season.
"Tairia is a quiet thunder t ype of player," said Enquist. "She stays very calm under pressure. She has great perspective on the game for a young player, and she adds a positive dimension ot our club."
UCLA returns starters at both corners for the 2000 season in seniors Marshall at first base and Julie Adams at third. Adams put together a 1999 postseason that was nothing short of spectatcular, with a .565 (13-for-23) batting average, 15 RBI, four home runs, a double and six runs scored in eight postseason games. In addition, Adams played the final three games of the College World Series after dislocating her left shoulder in UCLA's opener against DePaul.She finished the season with a .379 batting average, 16 home runs, 12 doubles, 61 RBI and a .692 slugging percentage.
The Most Outstanding Player at the CWS, Adams had off-season surgery on her injured left shoulder and is expected to be ready in time for the 2000 season.
"Julie Adams has great command of the plate," said Enquist. "She is probably our best foul line-to-foul line hitter. She is very mentally tough, as her performance in the World Series clearly demonstrated."
Both starters also return in the middle infield with Lyndsey Klein at second base and Crissy Buck at shortstop.
"Lyndsey plays the game as if it's easy," said Enquist. "The bigger the game, the better she is. She's also a deceptive clutch hitter, since she can bunt or put the ball over the fence. She loves the pressure of competition, and plays fearless softball. Our team can learn a lot from how Lyndsey approaches the game day in and day out."
That versatility at the plate resulted in a school record 21 doubles last season, easily eclipsing the previous UCLA single-season record of 15 set in 1995 by Jennifer Brundage.
Buck led the NCAA in runs scored last season, crossing the plate 81 times, a mark that ties for ninth-best in NCAA history. Defensively, she was an important part of the Bruin infield at shortstop.
"Crissy plays with passion," said Enquist. "She's a great infield quarterback for us, and she plays every game as if it's her last. We'll need that kind of passion so this team will reach its full potential."
UCLA's newcomers will add a tremendous amount of depth to the Bruin infield, with Monique Mejia, Mims and Natasha Watley all entering the program with outstanding high school careers in the infield.
A second baseman with excellent range and a solid arm, "Monique was probably one of the best defensive players coming out of high school last year," says Enquist. "She plays the game with a lot of vigor, and she loves the challenges that competition brings."
In addition to potential duties behind the plate, Mims will also see time at first base. Although she was a top third baseman before coming to UCLA, Mims has made the commitment to help the program and learn the position of first base, where Enquist and the Bruins need her most.
Watley was the youngest player invited to the final round of Olympic Trials for the U.S., and very well may be the quickest player ever to don a Bruin softball uniform. "Natasha has tremendous range both at shortstop and in the outfield," said Enquist. "She is gifted with a wealth of hand-eye coordination and is very smooth in her play. There is no limit to Natasha's potential. She is very versatile, can hit the long ball and play the short game as well."
Listed as a utility player, Jenny Gardner did a tremendous job last season of filling infield spots when it was needed most by her team. In the NCAA regionals, an injury to Buck placed Gardner at second base, with Klein moving to short. In the College World Series, the second-inning injury to Adams sent Gardner to the hot corner.
"Jenny was thrown into the fire last year, and made some critical plays on defense," said Enquist. "I have a lot of confidence in her. She can have weeks between playing time, but like she did at the Regionals and World Series, she can still do an excellent job when she goes in to play."
Casey Hiraiwa is recovering from a torn ACL that forced her to sit out all but nine games of the 1999 season. An extremely versatile player, her time on the field will be dictated by her recovery from her knee surgery. "Casey has a balanced game, and will hopefully get her speed back. She has had major surgery, and we'll have to be patient with her recovery."
With the loss of Ambrosi to the Olympic team, the Bruin outfield will have a different look than in years past. Dale, Freed and Watley will be pieces of the puzzle, as will returnees Lupe Brambila and Erin Rahn.
"Last season," said Enquist, "Lupe was probably the best No. 9 hitter in the country. She is an athlete who is extremely dedicated to this program, and it shows in her play. She's a clutch hitter and is always on an even emotional keel."
A 59-game starter last season, Brambila hit .329 and was one of two Bruin starters to have a flawless defensive season, with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage on 55 chances.
Coming in at left field will be speedster Rahn, who has spent much of the off-season working to improve her offensive abilities. Rahn also was without a defensive error in 12 chances last season.
"Speed is Erin's greatest asset," said Enquist. "She's a hard worker and a competitor who plays with a lot of confidence."
The new millennium will see a tournament-heavy spring prior to the start of Pac-10 competition. With the elimination of seven games from the conference schedule, the number of scheduled conference games has been reduced to 21, which increases the importance of each individual game. In order to be ready on March 31 in Berkeley, Enquist has chosen to use her five pre-season tournaments to experiment with different lineup combinations.
"We have a lot of players who can play both infield and outfield," said Enquist, "versatility will be our strength. We'll be doing a lot of switching around with our lineups early in the year to see who works best with whom.
"As a conference, we voted to eliminate seven games from the Pac-10 schedule in order to give every team in the conference a chance to improve their overall schedule and get more wins out of conference. There are no weak games in the Pac-10, and I'm very excited to see how our club handles one game a day. We'll have to be sharp and ready for one game per day and give everything we have for those seven innings."
Overview From Coach Enquist
"Losing Christie Ambrosi and Stacey Nuveman to the Olympic Team sends a great message to our current team. If you work hard here, you have a wonderful opportunity to be recognized as an Olympian.
"Unfortunately, both of those players were great leaders for us, both on and off the field. Their production is evident in our stats -- we're losing 139 RBI they produced last year. We may not have one or two players that can replace that, but I think we have a handful that can help produce the numbers that we lost."