WCWS 2019: UCLA revives its dynasty with thrilling victory over Oklahoma
OKLAHOMA CITY -- As white strips of confetti began filling the night sky, the 2019 UCLA softball players, coaches and family members tried to process what had just happened at the Women's College World Series. It wasn't easy. Some laughed. Others cried. Some just stared off in the distance in disbelief.
A year ago, many of them had stood in this same spot, hearts crushed after back-to-back losses in the semifinals, insisting the next time they were here it would be different. A 16-3 victory over Oklahoma in Game 1 of the series Monday was a heck of a start. A 4-3 lead with two outs in the seventh inning of Game 2 suggested the trophy that had eluded the Bruins for nine years was one pitch away.
The cameras were out to catch the final out, the celebration. But Oklahoma senior Shay Knighten had other plans, depositing that one pitch over the left-center field wall to tie the score 4-4 heading into the bottom of the seventh.
"With one out to go I just got super emotional," said Tony Garcia, father of two-time national player of the year Rachel Garcia. "Then that ball went over the fence and it was like, 'Tony, you need to pull yourself together. This game isn't over. There's work to do.'"
Rachel Garcia turned and laughed at her teammates as Knighten rounded the bases, sending the same message she had after every other run she gave up during the Women's College World Series: We're fine.
And in the bottom of the seventh, with two outs and pinch runner Jacqui Prober on second, Kinsley Washington dropped a single into left. Prober came around third and barely beat the throw from Oklahoma's Fale Aviu, giving UCLA a stunning 5-4 victory Tuesday night.
"The only thing going through my head was, 'Don't let Rachel go out for another inning,'" Washington said. "A home run. A blooper. A bunt. I didn't care what it was. I just wanted to end it."
The win gave UCLA its 12th Women's College World Series title in program history, adding to its NCAA-best mark. It was the Bruins' first national title since 2010, ending the longest championship drought in Bruins softball. It also sent a message: The Bruins are officially back.
"I'm not sure that we really ever left," former UCLA All-American shortstop Delaney Spaulding said. "People like to say that OU is the new dynasty and UCLA is the old dynasty, but we've always been here. Everybody knows that. And even after tonight we aren't going away anytime soon."
Garcia was named the Most Outstanding Player. She became only the fourth player to be named USA Softball Player of the Year and win the Women's College World Series in the same season. Garcia carried the Bruins for much of the postseason, highlighted by her 16-strikeout, 10-inning shutout against Washington on Sunday that she punctuated with a three-run walk-off homer. But on Tuesday night against the Sooners, she needed help.
The Bruins punched first, as they said they would, starting the bottom of the first with back-to-back solo homers. Aliyah Jordan added another solo shot in the third. But unlike Monday night's 16-3 drubbing of the Sooners, on Tuesday Oklahoma punched back. Sydney Romero hit a solo shot of her own in the third before the Sooners tacked on two more in the fourth to tie the score at 3-3. UCLA would go ahead 4-3 in the fifth on a Brianna Tautalafua solo shot, before Knighten's efforts with two outs in the top of the seventh.
Even when they didn't score, Oklahoma had Garcia walking a tightrope all night long, putting runners on base in each of the first five innings. With one out in the fourth, UCLA pitching coach Lisa Fernandez elected to intentionally walk Romero to load the bases. But Garcia went to her rise ball, striking out senior second baseman Caleigh Clifton for the second out, and then coaxing Jocelyn Alo into a weak comebacker to end the threat.
"She'd be the first to tell you she didn't have her best stuff," Fernandez said. "But it's such a testament to her toughness, determination and physical conditioning that she grinded."
This was the first season Fernandez was in charge of the pitchers, and Garcia blossomed under the Hall of Famer's tutelage, going 29-1 with a 1.24 ERA and 286 strikeouts in 202 innings. The final piece of hardware Garcia needed was a national championship trophy.
"[Fernandez] is the GOAT, so who else better to learn from than her," Tony Garcia said.
Tony Garcia said he could tell his daughter's focus, drive and determination was different this year. Other teammates said Garcia and the rest of the pitching staff were in the best shape they've ever been in, enabling Garcia to throw 179 pitches in the 10-inning win against Washington on Sunday and then come back and win back-to-back starts on Monday and Tuesday.
The question remains whether Tuesday night was the last game of Garcia's career. She's a redshirt junior and is on the USA Softball roster in 2019, hoping to stay on it for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next summer. The precedent for collegiate players is to leave school while taking advantage of such opportunities. Fernandez said she hoped Garcia would return to UCLA after the Games.
"There's just no experience like this in the game," Fernandez said. "I want her to represent our country, to wear the red, white and blue. But after that I hope she really thinks about helping this team get back to this place."
After Tuesday's win, the players met with their family members in left field for hugs and pictures. UCLA senior Stevie Wisz pulled her mom and dad in close for a tear-filled embrace. Wisz is the UCLA senior who delayed her third open-heart surgery to finish her senior year with the Bruins. It was fitting that her name was the last one called by the public address announcer to retrieve her individual championship trophy.
"I'm at a total loss for words right now," Wisz said.
"I can't believe it," Tony Garcia added.
A half-hour after the game, as UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye Perez sat for the postgame news conference, she let out a sigh, took off her hat and shook her head staring at the lights above. The feeling was a common one.
"This year's team had a mission," she said. "Last year we were a little heartbroken with how things ended. This group was convicted to bring it back to Westwood in 2019."
And Garcia and the Bruins did it all with finals staring them in the face at UCLA next week. The Sooners, meanwhile, have been out of school for nearly a month. Inouye Perez said she took great pride in knowing that UCLA's victory ensures the program will have won a title in every decade since it began softball.
Though Oklahoma never took the lead, Tuesday's game was far different than Monday's blowout, which is exactly what Inouye Perez had her team prepared for.
"I told the girls today I hope [Oklahoma] brings their best game," she said. "It's more rewarding when they do. And they did. And it's so rewarding to know that we threw the last punch."
That has been the story of this UCLA team all season long. There was no moment more telling in the postgame news conference than when the public address announcer asked the team captains to come to the pitcher's circle to accept the team trophy. The Bruins don't have captains. They looked at one another unsure what to do. That's when they all ran to the circle, grabbed the trophy and held it high above their heads as the confetti fell.
"Playing as one unit. Having each other's backs," Washington said. "From day one, that's what we've done -- play for each other. And tonight was no different."