A new chapter of college softball’s most historic rivalry will unfold Thursday when the No. 3-seeded UCLA Bruins (54-5) host the No. 14-seeded Arizona Wildcats (43-14) in the first game of Super Regionals.
It’s a best-of-three series and the winner will advance to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Thursday’s game is set for 6 p.m. PT, as is Friday’s game. Saturday’s game (if necessary) would be at 4 p.m. The first and third contests of the series will be televised on ESPN, while the second game will be on ESPN2.
Here are some things to watch in Westwood.
UCLA and Arizona are the two most storied programs in college softball, and it’s not close.
The Bruins and Wildcats lead the sport in national championships, with 11 and eight, respectively. There have only been 35 champions, so UCLA and Arizona account for 54 percent of them.
Arizona has produced 99 All-Americans; UCLA has produced even more.
“It’s a World Series matchup in my eyes and you have to play the game at that level,” said longtime Arizona coach Mike Candrea.
Not only do UCLA and Arizona compete on the diamond, but on the recruiting trail as well.
Like UCLA, Arizona’s entire starting lineup hails from California, and most of its players faced UCLA’s players in high school and travel ball.
So there’s unparalleled talent, history, and familiarity in the rivalry.
“We always talk about our rivalry with ASU, but I don’t think anything really compares to this one,” said UA first baseman Alyssa Palomino. “There’s so much history there and it’s a battle all the time.”
The Bruins lead the all-time series with Arizona 88-57, but Arizona is 8-6 against UCLA in the postseason.
However, this will be the first time the schools will meet in the NCAA Tournament anywhere other than the Women’s College World Series.
“Normally those games are all going to be challenges, and it comes down to executing the game,” Candrea said. “And the team that gets hot, the team that executes is going to win.”
Arizona has not reached the WCWS since 2010, when it lost to UCLA in the championship series.
Can UCLA continue its recent domination of Arizona?
The regular season series between the Wildcats and Bruins this season was one Arizona would like to forget.
UCLA swept UA in Tucson, outscoring Arizona, 24-12. That capped off a stretch in which the Wildcats lost six in a row and nine of 12.
Arizona was going through a rough patch, but is in a different place now, winning 14 of its last 15, including all three games of the Tucson Regional last weekend.
The Wildcats believe they are peaking at the right time.
“They came out and played their best game and we didn’t come out and play ours, but I think this weekend for sure is going to be different,” Palomino said of the rematch with UCLA. “They don’t know what we can do. They haven’t seen our best team and I think it’s going to be a better battle this time.”
UCLA has won eight straight series against Arizona.
Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin (28-10, 1.45 ERA) was rocked by the Bruins in the regular season, surrendering 13 runs on 14 hits (four homers) in nine innings. That raised her ERA to 1.86, which was the highest it was all throughout Pac-12 play.
But the left-hander has not surrendered more than two runs in an outing since then, and is playing her best softball entering Super Regionals.
The junior was lights out in the Tucson Regional, tossing 19.2 scoreless innings. McQuillin allowed just six hits, six walks, and struck out 23.
“Nothing,” said UA catcher Dejah Mulipola. “I’ve just noticed that she comes out knowing that we have one game to move on.”
“We’re trying to survive during the postseason,” she said. “That’s really all it is.”
UCLA is second in the nation in batting average (.338) and fourth in runs per game (6.46).
Candrea said the key for McQuillin this weekend will be keeping the Bruins off-balance and working them inside, preventing them focusing on one part of the strike zone.
“I think we learned a lot from the last time we played them, so I think that will be a good thing for us,” he said.
As Candrea always says, success in softball begins in the circle, so McQuillin will need to be stellar for the Wildcats to punch their ticket to OKC.
Arizona and UCLA had very different paths to Super Regionals. The Wildcats won all three games they played in Regionals, while the Bruins lost their opener and had to five play games before finally claiming the Los Angeles Regional against Cal State Fullerton.
That meant they had to use their ace, Rachel Garcia, a lot. The sophomore right-hander threw over 500 pitches in a three-day span, pitching all but four innings in UCLA’s five games.
She only allowed three earned runs in 30.1 innings, but Arizona is hoping all that usage catches up to her in Super Regionals.
That’s because Garcia, who is also one of UCLA’s best hitters, is usually untouchable.
She is the Pac-12 Pitcher and Player of the Year, posting a 1.01 ERA in 173 innings, with a staggering 255 strikeouts.
“She’s a very smart pitcher,” said UA shortstop Jessie Harper. “She works well to get ahead and once she’s ahead she can mess with you a little bit.”
Garcia usually does that with her wicked riseball.
“She likes to throw that ball,” said Palomino, who has been facing Garcia since she was 13. “She’ll keep it low, but also high enough to where you can’t hit it. Or she’ll throw it high over your head. I think if we lay off that pitch and let her supply the power, I think we’ll be able to do big things with our bats.”
Arizona’s offense came alive in the Tucson Regional, scoring 10 runs in the last two games, and the Wildcats believe their bats are heating up.
But Garcia allowed just two runs in 11.2 innings in the regular-season series, so something will have to give in the rematch.
“She’s up in the zone, so our ability to lay off the ball that’s elevated is crucial,” Candrea said. “But if we’re seeing the ball well with her, then I think we’ll have some success.”
Easton Stadium’s “electric” atmosphere
UCLA’s Easton Stadium has a unique atmosphere. Palomino, trying her best not to say anything bad about it, described it as “electric.”
While it’s a small ballpark — it only seats a shade over 1,300 people — the fans are extremely close to the action, which can be daunting for opposing players. And Easton Stadium is enclosed by trees which only exacerbates that effect.
“Their stadium is tough to play in,” Harper said. “So coming in with a young group, it’s gonna be key to keep our composure.”
Easton Stadium has other characteristics Arizona isn’t accustomed to. The left- and right-field foul poles are only 190 feet from home plate, while the batter’s eye is 210. Those measurements are 10 feet shorter than those at UA’s Hillenbrand Stadium.
Then there’s the cool, thick, moist air which is a far cry from the conditions commonly found in Tucson.
That said, Palomino expects there to be a large contingent of Arizona fans in Westwood which can help mitigate UCLA’s home-field advantage.
“Honestly, I think it’s going to be pretty even this weekend,” she said. “We’re pulling so many strings right now and I think it’s going to be exciting.”
UCLA is 24-3 at home this season, and has won eight of its last nine against the Wildcats at Easton Stadium.
Can Martinez get going?
Third base was a position of strength for Arizona last season, as it featured Pac-12 all-time home run leader Katiyana Mauga at the hot corner, but it has been a position of weakness in 2018.
Sophomore Malia Martinez hit .383 in non-conference play, but has seen her average drop all the way to .270 entering Super Regionals.
Despite being an everyday starter, she has just nine hits in her last 24 games.
Martinez has been dropped to seventh in the lineup, and was even pinch-hit for in the win vs. Mississippi State on Sunday after failing to come through multiple times with runners in scoring position.
The rest of Arizona’s lineup has been hot lately, so it would be huge if Martinez can get on track, too.
“We need to try to get more confidence back in her swing,” Candrea said. “Right now, she’s not staying in her legs and she’s swinging through a really short zone. She’s getting around everything. And in this game, when you’re giving yourself one opportunity to hit a pitch, it doesn’t happen very often.
“So we’re trying to get her through the zone a little longer, stay inside the ball. I mean, it’s the things that we work on and try to do all the time. It’s just applying it (in games). Sometimes it can be you’re just not seeing that pitcher well, it can be too much going on in your head, so we’re going to try to spend a little time and tweak a few things to see if we can get her going.”
Does UCLA have a weakness?
Candrea said defense is usually UCLA’s weakness, but he doesn’t think that applies to this year’s team, saying it has improved “tremendously” in that aspect of the game.
Still, the Bruins are just fifth in the Pac-12 in fielding percentage (.970), which is one spot below Arizona.
“They’ve got all the parts to the puzzle, so you’ve got to beat them,” Candrea said. “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.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire