UCLA's Prober, Walker Relive Game-Winning Scoring Play
Jacqui Prober didn’t have time to weigh the options. As she raced around third base with a national title hanging in the balance, the UCLA junior let her instincts take over.
Prober saw Oklahoma catcher Lynnsie Elam move up the line and then saw the flash of yellow from the ball out of the corner of her eye. She contorted her body just enough to get around Elam and swipe the plate with her left hand a split second before Elam could swipe her with the tag.
Entering as a pinch runner with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Prober had one job and she executed it to perfection.
Prober scored the championship-clinching run on Kinsley Washington’s walk-off single as UCLA beat Oklahoma 5-4 at the Women’s College World Series to capture the program’s 12th NCAA title in program history.
“It’s been so rewarding to get to celebrate that moment with my team,” said Prober after returning to campus to turn in papers and begin studying for finals. “The theme this entire year has been to play for each other, and being able to share this experience with them has been amazing.”
Prober’s dash home was years in the making for UCLA.
Led by assistant coach Kirk Walker, the Bruins have put an extra emphasis on baserunning the last three seasons.
They devoted seven minutes of practice time to it during every practice last season, and performed the same routine for at least two practices a week this season.
The coaches wanted the skills to become second nature, and have muscle memory replace any hesitancy during games.
They preached to the team how crucial an extra base could be, whether it took place in a midweek game or a World Series clincher.
The players saw the reward in Oklahoma City as two critical baserunning decisions with two outs in the seventh put UCLA in position to win the NCAA title.
“The one thing I love about our base runners is they take so much pride in it,” Walker said. “When they are watching opposing teams run the bases, it’s very easy for them now to see poor turns, not cutting bases and poor slides. They start seeing all those little things that they kind of took for granted and they used to do themselves.”
So many little factors had to go right for UCLA in a span of a few seconds for Prober to score title-clinching run. At the time, they may have been overlooked. Looking back, they loom larger than ever.
UCLA freshman Colleen Sullvan reached base on a fielder’s choice for the second out, and moved to second base when a pitch to Washington got away from Elam.
“Colleen was thrown out earlier in the year on a similar play because she made a bad decision. The ball didn’t kick away enough and she didn’t slide and she learned pretty quickly that baserunning matters,” said Walker, UCLA’s third base coach. “Colleen having the savvy and wherewithal this time to take second base was a game-changer because if she is only on first base and Kinsley gets that hit, we might still be playing.”
With a runner now in scoring position, Walker quickly made the call to use Prober as a pinch runner. She was the fastest option remaining in the dugout, and possessed experience and adept sliding ability.
“Jacqui is often saved to use for more defensive and running combination, to go run and stay in the game. But that really hadn’t come up in the game yet, and we got to the point where there was really no need save Jacqui for defense anymore,” Walker said. “The game was on the line. Let’s put our fastest base runner out there.”
Cheering from the dugout, Prober was a bit startled when told to grab a helmet and get to second base.
“I really didn’t know it was coming. I just heard my name called and had to be ready,” Prober said. “All of us bench players are always ready at all times and it is a total team effort. That’s just always been the mentality from everybody on the team.”
Having two outs worked to UCLA’s advantage because Prober was running full speed on contact. Washington’s single was hit softly enough into left field to give Prober just enough time to make it home before the throw.
Prober saw Walker giving her the “wheel through” sign and never slowed down.
“As quick as she was coming at me, I was sending her,” Walker said. “As she rounded the base, I focused closely on the defender and was anxious to see if she would dive for it or try to take an angle on it. When she backed up and didn’t leave her feet, I knew we had a shot.”
Prober didn’t have any preconceived plan on how to reach home plate. She doesn’t practice the slide she used on a regular basis.
“Honestly, it was all adrenaline,” Prober said. “I had no idea until I saw the ball get there before me, and I was just doing my best to avoid the tag in any way possible. I knew she would have to reach behind her to tag me, so I knew if I could just get a little bit out of the way I could make it more difficult on her.”
From his vantage point down the third base line, Walker knew it would be a close play that required some deftness from Prober.
“It was fantastic, and I have taken great enjoyment from watching it from other angles to really see what she did,” Walker said. “She is an aggressive base runner and is not afraid of collisions, but she is also very savvy around the bases. She made one hard jab step to avoid the catcher and got around I was just hoping that swipe tag would be late enough and it was.”
Prober’s late-game contribution showcases the value of role players. She had received nine starts this season, and could have easily pouted about diminished innings or not stayed engaged in the games.
“Nobody necessarily wants to be relegated to a role less than playing all the time, but one thing that is special about this team is our players know they are valued,” Walker said. “I think when you empower them to embrace that role, they are ready when the opportunity comes. They start to feel the value in that from the feedback from teammates and coaches. Getting recognized for good reads, good turns and good slides throughout the year makes it easier for them to start accepting the role that is less than a starter.”
Once Prober hand swiped the plate and the umpire gave the safe signal, UCLA’s players began the celebration.
Prober’s helmet flew off as she chased behind her teammates to dogpile Washington on the field.
Prober’s name may become a footnote when stories of UCLA’s title are retold over the years. But everyone in the UCLA dugout knows better.
“Every single one of us, whether we were starters or not, just bought in to do anything we could to lead this team to the national championship,” Prober said. “We were so convicted from the very beginning to get back to OKC and to leave our mark.”