Updated: February 26, 2013, 4:20 PM ET

UCLA back in the limelight

By Graham Hays | espnW

UCLACourtesy of Graham HaysUCLA hasn't advanced past regionals the past two seasons, but the Bruins look like they might have a chance to do some serious celebrating this year.

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Inch by inch, shuffled step by shuffled step, the throngs crept closer as UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez spoke to her team in the aftermath of Saturday's doubleheader sweep of Maryland and Oklahoma State in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. The crowd of mostly young girls started out a respectful distance from the huddle of Bruins but moved closer and closer in anticipation of an autograph or picture when the meeting ended.

The most famous program in the history of softball remains something people want to see up close.

That's partly because the tournament takes place in UCLA's backyard in Southern California, but it's also because, like Notre Dame's in football or North Carolina's in women's soccer, UCLA's name is still synonymous with an entire sport.

And yet the team with the most national championships hasn't advanced beyond regionals since winning the most recent of those titles, in 2010. And a program whose blue uniforms were as much a part of the Oklahoma landscape around Memorial Day as the state's red dirt has missed three of the past four Women's College World Series.

Paige McDuffee
Graham Hays/ESPNFreshman Paige McDuffee, 4-0 with a 0.58 ERA, is a big reason for UCLA's vastly improved pitching.

The name on the uniforms will continue to attract fans. Ally Carda, Jessica Hall and Paige McDuffee did their best in Cathedral City to prove that the players wearing those uniforms are ready to put more recent history behind them.

There isn't an official winner of the tournament in Cathedral City, which included 12 teams in the Top 25, but the Bruins won the weekend. They beat Tennessee, their second win in the past 11 games away from home against current SEC teams. They added another SEC win against LSU on Sunday, a team that entered neck and neck with UCLA for the most impressive performance. Five games turned into five wins for the Bruins, with a 26-8 scoring margin.

In 33 combined innings in the circle, Carda, Hall and McDuffee allowed just 21 hits and struck out 30 batters.

UCLA led the Pac-12 in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage a season ago. What the Bruins didn't have, what they haven't had in a long time (save for a few weeks in 2010 when they handed the ball to Megan Langenfeld and went as far as she could take them), was consistent, elite pitching. Only Pac-12 newcomer Utah had a worse ERA among league teams last season. A lot was asked of Carda and Hall, who accounted for almost all of the team's innings as a freshman and a sophomore, respectively.

"At the end, they did not perform to their capability, of what I believe they could have done last year," Inouye-Perez said of Carda and Hall. "They didn't, and they'd be the first to admit it, too. So they've gotten work. And the object in the circle is to be able to have a great presence, to be able to have your ability to work ahead. So you've got to be able to compete and throw strikes. You've got to be able to stop bleeding, so if anything does happen -- because anyone can get a hit in this day and age -- it's what you do right after that counts."

Carda came on in relief of Hall in the seventh inning of the game against Maryland, a move that continued the team's season-long trend of using the bullpen, but then worked herself into trouble with walks. The Bruins escaped with a 4-3 win. Less than an hour later, Carda was back in the circle. She pitched a complete-game gem to beat Oklahoma State, just as she had in a five-inning stint a day earlier against Tennessee.

"My mindset is a little different," Carda said of her sophomore season, in contrast to a freshman season in which she said she tried to process too much information from too many people. "I'm trying to take in everything as possible, but only use what's going to benefit me and just be positive all the time. And just going after things, just going for it. Not worrying about anything else, not worrying about the noise."

It helps that there is an extra arm around. The national player of the year as a junior in high school in Texas, McDuffee didn't pitch as a high school senior in 2012 after undergoing surgery for a compartment syndrome in her pitching arm. The Bruins aren't likely to let her pile up triple-digit pitch counts for the foreseeable future, but she needed just 96 pitches to throw a complete-game shutout against LSU to improve to 4-0 with a 0.58 ERA.

With Stephany LaRosa, B.B. Bates, Georgia transfer Gracie Goulder and a long list of other hitters, UCLA again has the offensive talent to play deep into the postseason. That puts the burden back in a familiar place for the Bruins. One excellent weekend in the circle doesn't provide an answer (although it comes closer than the 34 runs UCLA allowed in Cathedral City last season). It does put them back in the discussion.

"I actually think it's less on our shoulders this year," Carda said. "I think we have three very strong pitchers, and we've kind of been tag-teaming this whole year. Someone will start and someone will come in and finish, which is very nice. [The depth builds] a lot of confidence that if I don't do it, I know my pitchers have my back. So we've got that going for us. We're very competitive, but we know the next one is right behind us if we need it."

The other team on the field in what turned out to be the weekend's biggest game, LSU didn't stumble into a World Series appearance last season. No team traveled a more difficult path to Oklahoma City, as the Tigers were forced to beat Texas A&M in College Station and Missouri in Columbia in the postseason. That said, LSU reached the biggest stage with one of the most anemic offenses in recent memory.

How anemic? When freshman Sandra Simmons hit a grand slam against BYU on Thursday -- the first day of the new season's third weekend -- it matched the 2011 team's home run production for the entire season, 65 games in all.

Pitching ace Rachele Fico was very good last season in tandem with Brittany Mack. She has been sensational this season as the team's clear No. 1, including pitching a no-hitter Friday against Ohio State. Even on a day when she struggled to find her control against the Bruins, she gave up just three hits and gave her team a chance. The offense couldn't pick her up against McDuffee, but the lineup showed in wins against Arizona, BYU, Ohio State and UNLV that a mix of improved returnees and powerful freshmen like Simmons and Bianka Bell make this a much better team than one that went all the way to Oklahoma City last June.

"I think we have players that are into our system now," second-year LSU coach Beth Torina said. "They're a lot more comfortable with their swings. They have a year under their belts, and they understand what we're asking them to do. I think it was a big change philosophically, what we asked them to do, so they made that change. And I think these freshmen are unbelievable. When you get one kid who steps up there and swings out of her shoes, it's a lot easier for the next one to do the same thing."


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