UCLA and Arizona, the two most storied programs in college softball, will battle it out in Super Regionals next weekend in Los Angeles.
Third-seeded UCLA and 14th-seeded Arizona took care of business in their respective regionals, setting up another chapter in the sport’s most historic rivalry — this time with a Women’s College World Series berth on the line.
UCLA had a little bit of a scare as it fell to Cal State Fullerton in its regional opener, but it rebounded with a win over Texas State then two wins over Cal State Fullerton in the regional final to advance.
Arizona went unbeaten in the Tucson Regional, taking down Saint Francis, North Dakota State, and Mississippi State.
Arizona (8) and UCLA (11) have combined for 19 championships, the most among all NCAA programs. Oklahoma is third, but it has only won four.
“As a kid growing up, before it was even an Olympic sport, this is what you watched,” Olympic gold medalist and ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza said of the UA-UCLA rivalry.
“This is what you saw. ... It is the two best teams in the sport historically. Even when they’re not doing well it’s exciting, but the fact the Oklahoma City now goes through one of those two teams, I get excited.”
Mississippi State head coach Vann Steudeman, whose team was eliminated by Arizona in Tucson on Sunday, echoed those sentiments.
“There were no games on TV. The one game on TV was UCLA-Arizona in the championship game,” she said. “I can remember being in college in my mom and dad’s den watching UCLA and Arizona play with my chin dropped to the floor, like this is what I’m going to do one day.
“And I was already in college and I was playing and loving every minute of it, and I wasn’t going to get to play there, but I was going to do it. I was going to be there. So Arizona is part of my softball history. They paved the way. Arizona and UCLA paved the way for these kids to get to do what they’re doing.”
Arizona head coach Mike Candrea has compared the rivalry to Red Sox-Yankees.
“It’s a great matchup,” he said. “It’s a World Series matchup in my eyes and you have to play the game at that level.”
Arizona (43-14) and UCLA (53-5) have not met in the postseason since 2010, and the Wildcats lead the postseason series 8-6 all-time.
But the Bruins got the best of Arizona this season, sweeping them handily in Tucson. UCLA outscored the Wildcats 24-12 across the three-game series.
“I think UCLA is a very good team,” Candrea said. “Very solid pitching, have improved tremendously defensively, that’s always been their weakness in my eye. They’re a very solid team and they’ve got all the parts to the puzzle, so you’ve got to beat them. Going in there, we’ve got to find a way to pitch well, we’ve got to find a way to get quality and efficient at-bats, doing the little things, moving runners and playing great defense.”
This is seventh time in the last eight years Arizona has reached Super Regionals, but it has not appeared in the Women’s College World Series since 2010.
The Bruins beat UA in Oklahoma City that year and eventually went on to win the national championship.
Arizona struggled against the Pac-12’s elite teams this season, going 0-9 against UCLA, Oregon, and Washington, but Candrea believes his team has improved since. They have won 14 of their last 15, after all.
“I’m not saying we gave away a lot of games, but we did not play well at Oregon, we did not play well at Washington,” he said. “We had some opportunities there and Taylor (McQuillin) has grown up since then.”
UCLA is 24-3 at home this year, and Arizona will have to figure out a way to win two of three at Easton Stadium to keep its season alive.
The Wildcats haven’t done that since 2011, and they are 1-8 in their last nine games in that venue.
But it’s the postseason and anything can happen.
“I would love to be in that Top 8 because to me it’s the most important thing because you get to be at home,” Candrea said, “but even if you’re at home, you still have to earn it.”
Thursday: 6 p.m. MST (ESPN)
Friday: 6 p.m. MST (ESPN2)
Saturday (if necessary): 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire