Faculty softball star Rachel Garcia has some large objects on her to-do listing within the subsequent few months: Assist UCLA defend its 2019 Girls’s Faculty World Collection title and assist Group USA reclaim Olympic gold in Tokyo.
Garcia isn’t alone in that quest, nevertheless. Bruins outfielder Bubba Nickles has the identical agenda and was the primary particular person the ace pitcher known as in October 2019 when she came upon she made the Olympic staff.
“I used to be simply as excited for her (to make the Olympic staff),” Garcia advised USA TODAY Sports activities. “To do it alongside considered one of my greatest mates makes it much more particular.”
In a becoming twist, an Arizona star will search to maintain the UCLA seniors from undertaking aim No. 1 earlier than becoming a member of them to beat aim No. 2. Wildcats catcher Deja Mulipola additionally was chosen to the U.S. Olympic staff, becoming a member of Garcia and Nickles as the one present faculty gamers on the roster.
What the gamers did not know in October 2019 was how totally different their journey to Tokyo could be – from a canceled 2020 faculty season to a postponed Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic to a return to campus and a spot within the 2021 NCAA event, which started Thursday.
Faculty comes first
The Olympics, nevertheless, don’t start till later this summer time when softball and baseball will kick off the Tokyo Video games two days earlier than the July 23 opening ceremonies. Earlier than then, there are NCAA event video games to be performed and a trophy to be received in Oklahoma Metropolis when the Girls’s Faculty World Collection begins June 3.
The Bruins start protection of their title Friday as hosts of the Los Angeles regional and can tackle Lengthy Seaside State at 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
UCLA obtained the No. 2 general seed within the event behind high seed Oklahoma. Garcia is completely snug main one of many prohibitive favorites.
“It’s undoubtedly a strain I embrace,” Garcia says.
And with good cause. A 2019 nationwide participant and pitcher of the 12 months, Garcia is 14-0 with 124 strikeouts this season and ranks second within the nation with a .060 ERA. And as one of many few faculty pitchers who additionally excels as a batter, her 2021 hitting stats are simply as eye-popping: 11 house runs, 30 RBI and a .362 common.
Nickles, who has been out with a wrist damage since halfway by the season, nonetheless drove in 22 runs with 4 homers and a .353 common.
Mulipola, the 2019 NFCA catcher of the 12 months, has been the most effective sluggers within the nation. The senior is hitting .392 with 17 house runs and 55 RBI (eighth in Division I).
“She has every thing that she must be an Olympian – very composed, her instruments are off the charts,” Arizona affiliate head coach Caitlin Lowe says of Mulipola. “She all the time makes her pitchers higher; she’s an enormous a part of that battery. She’s develop into such a pacesetter, which is a real testomony to coaching with (the nationwide staff) after which coming again to school and having the ability to make the most of that a part of her sport too.”
Arizona earned the No. 11 seed and can host Mississippi, Villanova and Maryland-Baltimore County within the Tucson regional. The Wildcats play UMBC at 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN3).
PREDICTIONS: USA TODAY Network picks winners for every regional
From rivals to teammates
The UCLA-Arizona softball rivalry is famous. Image Yankees-Pink Sox in Main League Baseball or Duke-North Carolina in males’s faculty basketball.
They’re the 2 winningest packages in NCAA historical past; UCLA has 12 nationwide championships to Arizona’s eight, and their battles for softball supremacy have been raging since Arizona beat UCLA within the 1991 Girls’s Faculty World Collection remaining. The Bruins received their first NCAA title in 1982.
“Ever since Arizona received their first championship, it has been a head-to-head battle,” UCLA assistant coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Fernandez says. “No matter rankings, it is all the time a dogfight. There may be such a historical past between the 2 packages.”
And on this subject, Fernandez will get no dispute from her Arizona counterpart.
“It is the very best there’s really ever been” says Lowe, a four-time All-American and two-time nationwide champion as a participant with the Wildcats.
UCLA beat Arizona in three of 4 conferences to finish the Pac-12 season, and the groups wouldn’t meet once more until they’re considered one of eight groups from the 64-team area to succeed in Oklahoma Metropolis.
“There’s all the time going to be groups gunning for us, and we perceive that,” Fernandez says. “You continue to must play on the sector, and winners aren’t chosen simply by what’s on paper. Expertise does assist, however on the finish of the day, you’ve to have the ability to compete. … You can’t take something as a right on this sport.”
Pandemic alters sports activities panorama
When Garcia, Nickles and Mulipola had been chosen for the Olympics in 2019, the gamers anticipated to take off the 2020 faculty season to play with the nationwide staff earlier than returning for his or her senior seasons in 2021 — till the COVID-19 pandemic threw the world right into a tailspin.
With the Tokyo Video games postponed one 12 months and the 2020 NCAA spring sports activities season canceled, the trio would discover their plans reversed. As a substitute of taking a season off to play for Group USA, they might now end out their faculty careers first.
Fernandez and Lowe, an Olympic silver medalist, agree that it offered the faculty gamers a bonus the 12 different U.S. Olympic gamers do not have. The U.S. nationwide staff performed collectively in 2019 and deliberate to compete in opposition to faculty groups final spring to organize for Tokyo, however a lot of the gamers had been compelled to coach on their very own in 2020 amid the pandemic shutdown.
“As an Olympic athlete, post-college, you really must be self-motivated and self-disciplined,” Fernandez says. “The one profit for Rachel and Bubba (in coming again to UCLA), they had been capable of keep on a routine, get the video games, get the at-bats in opposition to dwell pitching that I feel is unquestionably a bonus.”
Olympic veterans present mentorship
Softball has not been performed within the Olympics for the reason that 2008 Beijing Video games after it was voted out of this system together with baseball. However with Worldwide Olympic Committee guidelines permitting host nations so as to add sports activities in style at house, the final nation to win Olympic gold in softball made certain the sports activities could be again for Tokyo.
And the gamers must take advantage of this Olympic expertise as a result of softball (and baseball) won’t be on the docket in Paris in 2024. For Garcia, Nickles and Mulipola, Tokyo could possibly be their lone probability to play for gold even when the sports activities are included within the 2028 Los Angeles Video games. The pandemic added one other large hit, limiting the time the collegiate stars bought to spend with their U.S. teammates.
For Garcia, that meant leaning on Fernandez, who as a pitcher and a batter helped the U.S. win the primary three Olympic gold medals awarded, in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Garcia is aware of her mentor’s accomplishments – Fernandez additionally led the Bruins to NCAA championships as a participant in 1990 and 1992 and in 1993 turned the primary softball participant to win the Honda-Broderick Cup, given to the very best feminine athlete in all of school sports activities – and feels extremely fortunate to have such an necessary useful resource to information her faculty and now Olympic profession.
“She’s somebody unquestionably I am going to in instances of self-doubt,” Garcia says of Fernandez. “She’s all the time there for me, not simply within the dugout or within the bullpen, however simply to speak with to take my thoughts off issues. I’m so blessed to have the chance to work together with her. She’s somebody who brings out the very best in you on and off the sector.”
Garcia says she additionally has been capable of study from veteran U.S. pitchers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott, who, together with Lowe, received silver medals in 2008. Osterman and Abbott returned to the U.S. nationwide staff after a protracted absence following softball’s removing from the Olympics.
“Simply being round them and absorbing their data,” Garcia says of the previous USA Softball faculty gamers of the 12 months (Osterman in 2003, ’05 and ‘06 and Abbott in ’07). “It’s very useful to have them be part of it as a result of they’ve a lot expertise having been Olympians earlier than.”
Lowe additionally was fast to credit score her former Olympic teammates for Mulipola’s progress, noting the change she noticed in her star this season after spending time coaching with the nationwide staff.
“I don’t assume many individuals know that (Mulipola) can name an excellent sport behind the plate, and that’s one thing that doesn’t occur loads in faculty softball,” Lowe says. “And if you do that you just actually must be on the identical stage as your pitcher and share the identical mind.
“I feel they’ve helped one another develop in quite a lot of methods. I bought a textual content from Cat that she loves throwing to her, in order that all the time makes you are feeling good as a result of she actually does make the pitchers higher.”
The mission in Tokyo – to return the gold medal to the USA – would require beating the Japanese on their house area – no straightforward activity in the very best of circumstances – however the faculty stars will get loads of preparation for intense competitors and elimination video games within the NCAA event.
And if the 2 longtime rivals collide once more within the Girls’s Faculty World Collection, nobody ought to be shocked. Garcia, Nickles and Mulipola will fortunately duke it out on the sector in opposing faculty colours, figuring out that when the mud settles, they’ll be sharing the identical red-white-and-blue uniforms in July.
Comply with Ellen J. Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow