How UCLA softball plans to ‘level up’ after shocking collapse

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When Megan Grant closes her eyes to lock in before a practice, the UCLA sophomore pictures her powerful swing connecting on pitches. She sees impeccably fielded ground balls at third base. She watches herself hit towering home runs.

Grant says she believes in the power of visualization, that the images in her head can manifest onto the field. That belief is why, days before No. 10 UCLA was set to begin its season, Grant stopped to picture how she wanted it to end.

“Make it to OKC,” Grant said in a low voice.

After UCLA failed to advance out of an NCAA regional for the first time since 2013, the Bruins are refocused on starting a new streak of Women’s College World Series appearances. They open the season Thursday against Cal State Fullerton at Easton Stadium.

While healing from last year’s shocking collapse when the No. 2-seeded Bruins didn’t win an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2012, head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez was forced to evaluate all parts of the program. She mixed up coaching roles, hiring Rob Schweyer as a fourth assistant overseeing pitching. Knowing the pitching staff lost three seniors, including two-time Pac-12 pitcher of the year Megan Faraimo, Inouye-Perez moved herself back into the bullpen. Longtime assistant Lisa Fernandez is back with the hitters.

But the biggest change has been the team’s commitment to mental preparation, hoping the extra attention to detail will help a team stacked with All-American candidates perform at its best in the biggest moments.

“It’s going to be a year of blocking out noise,” Inouye-Perez said. “In order to play and be your best, you’ve gotta be able to block out all distractions about outcome and noise and be able to to figure out how you can perform.”

Under the guidance of mental preparation consultants, UCLA players start every practice and pregame routine by putting on headphones to listen to instrumental music. Some opt for faster, electronic beats. Others choose slower songs that help slow their thoughts. Players spread out on the outfield grass, in the team’s clubhouse or in the locker room and visualize their own highlights for each 10-minute meditation session.

The idea was met with skepticism from some players at first, but shortstop Maya Brady said she now wishes she had been doing this her whole career.

UCLA outfielder Maya Brady bats during a game against Oregon State in April 2021.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“Going on this mindfulness journey has really allowed me to take a different approach to game day,” the reigning Pac-12 player of the year said. “Maybe instead of getting anxious and butterflies and thinking about everything that can go wrong in a way, it’s really changed my mindset into thinking about everything that can go right.”

The Bruins experienced the gamut last year. Their 52 regular-season wins were the most in the country and the most for the program since 2001. That team knew how to win, Inouye-Perez said. That fact made their season-ending three-game losing streak all the more gut-wrenching.

Players and coaches mourned the sudden end of the season together in the clubhouse for more than three hours. There was stunned silence. Total numbness. Tears.

The shocking 2-1 loss to Liberty showed Grant that nothing in softball is guaranteed, even on a team with the most NCAA titles in the sport.

“[I’m] just excited to prove ourselves again,” said Grant, who led the Bruins with 58 RBIs and was named a second-team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Assn. last year. “People have put us on a pedestal, are now not putting us on a pedestal, whatever. … I love being the underdog.”

UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez instructs a pitcher in the bullpen.

UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez is focusing on improving the Bruins’ mental preparedness this season.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time since 2020, UCLA is not the coaches’ favorite to win the Pac-12, finishing second in the preseason poll to No. 3 Stanford. Without longtime stalwarts such as Faraimo, second baseman Anna Vines, outfielder Kelli Godin and designated player Aaliyah Jordan, it feels as if the Bruins need to find a new identity, Brady said.

But it’s nothing Inouye-Perez hasn’t conquered before. The Bruins have always recovered after losing generational players, the coach emphasized. Some wonder what UCLA will do without last year’s seniors. Inouye-Perez knows what she has with sophomore pitcher Taylor Tinsley, Washington transfer Jadelyn Allchin and second baseman Seneca Curo, who is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury.

“[We] got a little fire in our gut,” Inouye-Perez said. “We’re here to just level up.”

Inouye-Perez chose the team’s “level up” theme to symbolize that the Bruins weren’t panicking after last year’s disappointment. They will only continue to rise from the program’s strong foundation. She hopes that adding the mental preparation to the team’s long-standing mindset training techniques of journaling and reading books will give players another tool to help reach the top of John Wooden’s pyramid of success and be their best when their best is needed.

“It’s a game of mental, it’s not as much physical,” Tinsley said. “If you’re mentally prepared, which is what leveling up helps us do, that does help us achieve competitive greatness at the end of the day.”

Tinsley, the top-ranked pitcher in her recruiting class according to Softball America, is ready to take the mantle as the next UCLA ace. She was named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team with a 1.47 ERA, which included three complete-game shutouts and a no-hitter against Cal State Bakersfield in her college debut.

When Tinsley pauses for her mental preparation, she plays the highlights of her young career before her eyes. It feels like a movie, she said.

The Bruins are hoping to write a Hollywood ending in Oklahoma City.

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