The nation's top-ranked UCLA Bruins hosted an eventful weekend of softball games, ceremonies and celebrations, but still managed to take care of business, picking up three wins in as many days.
Before Saturday's game, UCLA honored the 1978 national championship team, the first of 11 softball title teams to come out of Westwood. Current head coach Sue Enquist was a member of the 1978 championship team and always vowed to recognize them -- the only UCLA softball team that did not receive rings to commemorate its accomplishment. UCLA contacted all of the team members, most of whom were able to make the trip back to Los Angeles for the on-field recognition before the game.
"This was really pretty emotional," Enquist said of the ceremony. "Since the '78 team is under the AIAW, not under the auspices of the NCAA, they sometimes get left out of the mix. I've never forgotten them, though, and it's always bothered me that, back in the day, the boys got rings and the girls got watches. There was a bit of a gender equity issue in 1978, but I didn't want that to undermine the achievement. It never sat well with me that the first national championship team ever was the only one of the 11 that didn't have the rings to commemorate the title. I just knew that that was something I always wanted to do, ever since I became the sole head coach in 1998. In your heart, a championship and a team's triumph is always legitimate, but I think this brings a little bit of added validation for that team and I feel much better about that."
As a student-athlete at UCLA in 1978, Enquist was named the tournament's MVP and was UCLA's leading hitter, playing under then-head coach (and field namesake) Sharron Backus.
"It's amazing to go back and see [my teammates'] faces, many of whom I haven't seen in a really long time," said Enquist. "It brings you right back. It was really neat to bring the team back here after so many years. Many of them have never been back on campus since they graduated. It's always interesting to visit your school, but especially here, where so much as changed.
"You know, when we were playing, we obviously weren't in this stadium, we were on the old field -- no fence, no dugout, just a bench -- it was completely old school. It was so special to bring this team back and have them see Easton Stadium and where the program has gone, in large part [because of] their accomplishments. It was important to recognize them here, for that, in front of our family and their family and their kids."
-- UCLA coach Sue Enquist
"You know, when we were playing, we obviously weren't in this stadium, we were on the old field -- no fence, no dugout, just a bench -- it was completely old school. It was so special to bring this team back and have them see Easton Stadium and where the program has gone, in large part [because of] their accomplishments. It was important to recognize them here, for that, in front of our family and their family and their kids. It was really emotional. I'm so happy we finally had the chance to do this. Now I can sleep at night."
After Saturday's ring ceremony, Enquist coached the current Bruins to a 1-0 win against No. 7 Arizona State in front of her old teammates. Neither the Sun Devils nor UCLA recorded a hit until the bottom of the fourth inning, when a one-out single up the middle by senior Caitlin Benyi extinguished the no-no for Desiree Serrano.
Benyi was also responsible for the game's only run. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, she pushed a high fly ball into a sunny right field corner, where Sun Devils outfielder Michelle Smith had the ball pop in and out of her glove. Benyi safely advanced to third base on what was ruled a triple, though not without controversy and deliberation. Benyi stood just 60 feet away from home, allowing her to tally the game-winning run on a wild pitch to Emily Zaplatosch.
"Well, I think it was my first [triple] of the season. I don't know how I would have scored it; I was rounding the base with my head down," said Benyi. "But, you know, it doesn't matter to me how they score it. I don't really care. Whatever it was, it lead to the game-winning run. Whoever hit it or however they may have scored it doesn't affect that end result. It won the game, beyond that I'm not concerned."
UCLA's starter Lisa Dodd gave up her first hit -- a single through the left side by Heidi Knabe -- in the fifth inning and was subsequently yanked. The quick hook wasn't a knock on Enquist's confidence in Dodd, but rather an indication of the parity, precision and depth present in the Pac-10.
Hurler Anjelica Selden was signaled in to close out the inning and toss the final five outs for the win.
In Sunday's weekend finale, the Bruins' venerated seniors Benyi, Zaplatosch, Andrea Duran and Alissa Eno were honored with a pregame tribute. UCLA men's basketball point guard Jordan Farmar was there to throw out the fist pitch, kicking off an afternoon of hugs, bouquets, career stat-packs and most important, a 3-1 win over the Sun Devils.
All of this excitement took place in front of a lively crowd of 1,353 (that's 25 bodies over the maximum capacity of Easton Stadium) in an atmosphere that was the best tribute to what Enquist has built in Westwood.
Despite the rowdy home crowd, Arizona State center fielder Kaitlin Cochran managed to get something going early for her Sun Devils, leading off the game with a dinger, but that turned out to be the only run ASU could muster all day.
Selden immediately settled in after Cochran's early blast, shutting down the Devils by allowing only two more hits in the game while striking out seven. The last K of the day was her 784th career strikeout, tying legend Lisa Fernandez for third place on UCLA's all-time list.
And Selden is only halfway through her sophomore year. This kid is brimming with promise.
Selden was helped on Sunday by Duran's hefty plate performance. Duran went 2-for-2 on the day, ripping a line-drive screamer up the middle on a 2-2 count with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, scoring two runs and giving the Bruins a 3-1 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Arizona State was offensively anemic on the weekend; an executed sacrifice bunt here or an errorless inning there could have made all of the difference for the Sun Devils (per usual, in the world of college softball). First-year coach Clint Myers has worked wonders with basically the same team that finished the 2005 season 30-26 and was projected seventh of eight in this year's Pac-10 preseason poll (as of last week's standings, ASU sat second in the Pac-10, behind only the Bruins).
The wins against Arizona State capped a weekend that began with a satisfying victory against archrival Arizona on Friday afternoon.
"I've got to savor this a little bit -- my last regular-season game against Arizona. Finishing it off with a nice win. I'm savoring this for sure, whenever we can come out and sweep that team it feels pretty good. We got it done today," said Zaplatosch, who had several reasons to celebrate the win, one of which was a bomb in the fifth inning that may not have come down to Earth yet.
"It felt the best of all four years, I think -- yep, all four years, that was the one," she added. That says a lot, considering she's tallied six home runs on the season and 31 in her Bruin career.
Zap couldn't speculate on how far her knock actually went, but she did concur that it was definitely still on its way up as it sailed over the 40-foot scoreboard in left.
Believe it or not, Zap's monster blast was the runner-up highlight of the game, overshadowed by Duran's duel-dinger performance. Duran led off the fifth inning with a solo shot to left center and came back in the sixth to plate four more RBI with a one-out grand slam, the first of her career.
Said Duran, "I got jammed on the pitch a little bit, I was just trying to keep it fair."
Keep it fair she did, catapulting her Bruins to an 8-2 win in the process. Duran is having a landmark season as evidenced by this game, where she picked up five RBI on three hits in four trips to the plate. Duran was excited about the win, especially coming against the Wildcats.
"The air is different when we are playing Arizona. This was a big win for us."
It was a huge win in the battle of the two most storied programs in college softball history. This was the last regular season meeting of the legends, but the Cats and Bruins will face off again in the postseason as they battle for their seventh and 12th national championships, respectively.
UCLA heads into the regular season homestretch with seven players above .300. They take to the road for six conference games, starting Friday in Eugene, Ore.
"It's going to be really important for us to finish strong and keep the momentum rolling," Benyi said. "So far, we've been pretty solid on the road, but historically, Oregon hasn't been too kind to us. We want to go up there and play our game and do our thing and come back with three wins."
Mary Buckheit can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.