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A Look Inside The Virtual Bruin Bubble

(Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Kelly Inouye-Perez has always held her team to a certain standard during her time as the head softball coach at UCLA. The "Bruin Bubble" is that standard, but being apart from her team because of the COVID-19 outbreak has made it tougher to maintain.

After a few weeks of this new normal, however, Inouye-Perez has been able to create more structured engagement with her team during a time with so many question marks. Despite needing to do it over Zoom, some human interaction has been important for the defending national champions.

“The biggest thing the girls have said that they miss in all of this is the contagious energy of what they’d get when they came to the field,” Inouye-Perez told reporters over a conference call. “That’s the thing they miss the most...We’re meeting with areas of purpose and not trying to over-meet. Everyone is just adjusting to their schedules and figuring out what the future is going to hold.”

The Bruins, who were 25-1 before the 2020 season was cut short, looked to be primed for a possible back-to-back run as NCAA champions. While the team's roster looked different this year, a similar drive remained for the 2020 Bruins.

“Last year we went out there literally doing whatever we could, just grinding. I think this year after winning, we knew what we had to do, we knew what we wanted,” outfielder Aaliyah Jordan said. “We were almost hunting and we weren’t going to let anything stop us from winning that natty again (other) than coronavirus.”

Inouye-Perez and the Bruins have tried to make it feel like the season wasn’t lost. The team had exit meetings and the coaching staff discussed with its athletes the things they were proud of from the shortened season. The meetings also included setting goals for next season.

And members of the team are already working toward those goals. The pitchers and catchers meet twice a week, at which time pitching coach Lisa Fernandez talks as much as she can about pitches and the physical side of pitching. However, those talks are also about the mental side of pitching and developing even better chemistry between the battery.

A trio of freshmen Bruins—Maya Brady, Lexi Sosa and Seneca Curo—all had impressive starts to their collegiate careers, but how has not being able to be hands-on in their growth affected UCLA's coaching style?

“It’s a tricky deal,” Inouye-Perez said. “We’re learning a new platform of how we’re coaching. Therefore, as a coaching staff, we meet weekly to be creative and be aware of the athletes’ schedules and online schooling...Players like Maya Brady, I’m going to be honest, we did a Zoom and she was in her (pajamas) and with (Brady) as a freshman, the thing we’re talking about is the different parts of being an elite athlete.

“One of them is training, which we’re not getting a whole lot of. School, which we know is time management. And how you fuel, which you can practice right now. That’s a tough one when you’re home in lockdown, but (Brady) had the opportunity to chat with different resources and possibly work on something she doesn’t have in her control. (She) admitted that’s something she’s never had to focus on.”

Brady has had the help of her mom, a former softball player and current nurse, to push her to stay on top of things between training and school.

“It’s definitely scary to a certain (extent) because my mom works with the people that are at higher risk for the virus,” Brady said. “I know that she is being protected and she does whatever she can to kind of keep herself sanitary. I’m just happy she’s healthy.”

Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles didn’t have their seasons cut short, but rather, their dreams of playing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo pushed back until 2021. That has been another situation UCLA has tried to figure out, regarding whether or not the pair will be able to return after a two-year absence from the program.

“There’s not enough information to know what the future holds,” Inouye-Perez added. “The unfortunate fact (is) they’re going to have to wait another year. It's always good and bad news. The good news is the Olympics is still planned to take place. The bad news is it’s going to take another year, which might extend this to a two-year hiatus from college softball. However, right now we’re meeting to be able to talk about what we believe is best for them academically and athletically.”

Roster management has never been as complex as it is now. And according to Inouye-Perez, as of Tuesday, the two Bruins who were playing their senior season in 2020—Jenavee Peres and Jacqui Prober—have not yet confirmed their return for 2021. The university supports their return and Inouye-Perez surely wants them back, but it’s all about figuring out the logistics at this point.

“I believe the NCAA made the best decision for these student-athletes to have that choice,” Inouye-Perez said. “Playing another year of softball is always a dream and the fact that it’s an option right now is nothing but a positive.”

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