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How UCLA's Mental Preparation Carried It To A 12th NCAA Title

(Photo courtesy of Linda Donnelly)

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the old adage goes, champions are made in the offseason, often when the lights are dim and few are watching. That sentiment proved to be true for second-seeded UCLA on Tuesday at the Women's College World Series, as the Bruins took down top-seeded Oklahoma, 5–4, to capture their 12th NCAA title in program history and first since 2010.

Led by WCWS Most Outstanding Player Rachel Garcia, UCLA swept through the season's final week at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium with a perfect 5–0 record against the country's top teams. The redshirt junior, who seemed to perform at her best when the lights were brightest, earned the victory in the circle in all five of the Bruins' 2019 WCWS contests. She logged four complete games and 33 strikeouts in 36 innings pitched at this year's WCWS, while also knocking in four runs in the championship series and recording the game-winning home run in UCLA's semifinal meeting with Washington.

But Garcia's journey to college softball's pinnacle went far beyond her physical training. The two-time National Player of the Year credits her and her team's mental preparation for their championship success.

"Funny, after every single inning, me, [pitching] Coach Lisa [Fernandez] and [catcher] Paige [Halstead] would go into the training room and she was just telling me, ‘You got this. You're mentally prepared for this moment. You're going to keep going. You're going to outlast every single one here,’" Garcia told reporters.

When reflecting on her offseason training, Garcia recalled the extensive workouts she and her teammates took part in, which were just as mentally grueling as they were physically exhausting.

"We [did] champ camps, cardio workout before our bullpens," Garcia said. "If we can get through that, we can get through what we went through right now."

UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez also stressed the importance of her team's mental grounding this season. She discussed practices that involved UCLA's pitchers wearing tights and sleeves over their uniforms so they would know what it felt like, both physically and mentally, to become overheated while pitching.

"They would do cardio before their workouts to make sure they were in a position to be fatigued and continue to pitch," Inouye-Perez recalled. "If we got into those situations, it wasn't a concern. You're stronger. Nobody else is doing what you're doing."

To boot, the Bruins did pitching workouts that included consequences for their catchers, as well.

"[We did] workouts at times where a pitcher would be throwing," said Inouye-Perez, who earned her 600th career coaching victory and second NCAA title as a coach on Tuesday. "Until she threw the pitch [correctly], another person would be jumping rope, the other pitcher. Sometimes they had the catchers involved so there was a consequence. You don't want to let your teammates down. If your teammates are jump roping or spinning the bike, there's a sense of urgency to get it done."

The Bruins' mental training was not just limited to the work of their pitching batteries. Sophomore Kinsley Washington, who delivered the walk-off, title-clinching RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning on Tuesday, remembers back to a team training session that involved carrying logs on their backs while walking up an incline.

"We went to this freezing cold place, and they told me to carry a log up the hill," said Washington, who earned a spot on the 2019 WCWS All-Tournament team. "By yourself it seemed hard. When you have 20 girls having your back, walking in unison, chanting, it's easier. I think tonight we definitely carried that log together."

For Inouye-Perez, seeing her team carry that log all the way to a national title left her beaming with pride.  

"They work so hard," Inouye-Perez said. "They've been so bought in...I'm just so proud. I'm so proud."

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