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Young Players Look To Help Team USA Win Gold

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(Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

For the first time since 2008, softball is back in the Olympic Games. After losing to Team Japan and finishing with a silver medal in the 2008 Games, Team USA brings back two veterans from that team, Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott, while also welcoming three recent collegiate stars in pitcher Rachel Garcia, utility player Bubba Nickles and catcher Dejah Mulipola.

“For Rachel, Bubba and Dejah to be valued to that degree to bring impact to a veteran team, I think that they will be prepared if given the opportunity because they did some great things while on the college stage,” UCLA head softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said.

As a UCLA Bruin, Garcia was a three-time Pac-12 Player of the Year, the 2019 Softball America Player of the Year, a two-time Honda Cup winner and a 2019 national champion, among several other accolades. Garcia finished her final college season in 2021 with a 1.39 ERA, 18-3 record and 183 strikeouts as a pitcher, and as a hitter, she concluded with a .342 batting average, 23 runs scored and 13 home runs.

Nickles, who is also representing the UCLA Bruins in Tokyo, is a former first-team All-American and 2019 national champion. In April, Nickles was sidelined with a wrist injury and missed the final two months of regular-season play before regaining her health and rejoining the team for the postseason. Nonetheless, she posted a .312 batting average in her last college season, scored 16 runs and hit four home runs.

“For three college players to be in the Olympic Games and two of them to be from UCLA, I am so proud as a coach,” Inouye-Perez said. “The UCLA experience allows you to understand what it feels like to play with expectations. They have been battle tested, they have both failed and they have both succeeded.”

Mulipola, who is representing the Arizona Wildcats, was named the 2019 Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year, is a two-time NFCA Catcher of the Year and was Arizona’s first first-team All-American catcher since Leah Braatz in 1998. Mulipola concluded her final college season with a .385 batting average, 53 runs scored and 21 home runs.

Not only do these three softball stars have impressive accolades under their belts and careers with decorated college programs, but they also have much-needed game experience and a youthful approach to the game.

“I think that those three are more prepared than all of them because they went through a college season,” Inouye-Perez said. “They have had more at-bats, they’ve seen higher-level pitching and they’ve been able to compete. Competition is a lot different than just training.”

Garcia is known around college softball as a proven gamechanger, both offensively and defensively. Heavily influenced by UCLA assistant coach and former Team USA star Lisa Fernandez, Garcia has had one of the game's legends by her side to help her prepare for her Olympic journey.

Nickles is known as one of the best all-around players in the game, and she can play any position. With many quality at-bats and clutch moments under her belt throughout her career, she can pose a threat to the other countries in the Olympics with her multi-dimensional game.

Lastly, Mulipola is a talented hitter and catcher who could be a problem for those unfamiliar with her game. With mentors like former Team USA and Arizona head coach Mike Candrea and current Wildcat head coach Caitlin Lowe, who competed in the 2008 Olympics with Team USA, Mulipola is ready for the big stage.

Garcia, Nickles and Mulipola will start to chase their most exciting accolade yet when Team USA faces Team Italy in the opening round of the Olympics on Tuesday night.

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