Notebook: Bruins catching fire
CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- When UCLA found itself shorthanded at a key position, Stephany LaRosa stepped up for her team.
An All-American at third base as a freshman and an all-conference selection as a shortstop a season ago, LaRosa put on catcher's gear for the first time in her life this past fall when injuries left the Bruins in a bind. And when junior Ally Carda threw the first pitch of the regular season for the Bruins on Feb. 6, LaRosa was still behind the plate.
Someone needed to do it. So someone did it. That kind of thing can be contagious.
"It's not a position you can just stick anyone back behind and do," said UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, who was a catcher on three national championship teams at the school. "But very clearly she possesses all the characteristics of being able to play there, as well as other positions on the field. And this year she's willing to do whatever she can to help the team, and that's a very powerful message that she sends."
Three weeks into the season, LaRosa remains behind the plate most days. And after a host of Bruins stepped up late in games at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic, their team remains unbeaten.
UCLA played five games in three days at college softball's signature regular-season tournament near Palm Springs, Calif., but it was three games against ranked opponents that mattered most.
Down a run entering the bottom of the sixth against Oklahoma on Friday, UCLA tied the game in that inning and walked off with a 3-2 win an inning later when Delaney Spaulding's single drove in Tara Mueller. Even more dire was the situation a day later. Down a run against Missouri, UCLA was also down to its final out with no runners on base in the bottom of the seventh when Spaulding and LaRosa drew back-to-back walks and Mysha Sataraka's walk-off double secured a 4-3 win.
In both the win against Oklahoma and a 6-2 win against Nebraska, LaRosa started at catcher (she splits time behind the plate with sophomore Brittany Moeai and starts at first base, another new position, the rest of the time). For someone who grew up playing shortstop and pretty much only shortstop at the highest levels of travel ball in Southern California and reclaimed that position with no small degree of success last season for the Bruins, the shift was necessary but not necessarily savored.
"At first, no, because it's something new," LaRosa said. "You don't really know what's going to happen. I'm game-calling, and one pitch can be my fault. But now I'm comfortable with it. It is exciting. You're in every single play, you're kind of connecting with your pitcher all the time and you play a big role. I'm enjoying it now."
One thing she mentioned makes the quick transition all the more remarkable. Just months into her learning curve, LaRosa calls pitches, something even coaches with established catchers often reserve for themselves or their pitching coaches. She isn't flying blind back there. She and Inouye-Perez discuss scouting reports and come up with a plan, and the coach is staying in the dugout this season when UCLA bats, instead of coaching third base, in order to consult with her pitchers and catchers. But what pitch Carda throws to the likes of Oklahoma All-American Lauren Chamberlain, who came to the plate in the seventh inning with the game tied in Cathedral City, is up to LaRosa.
"The best view is behind the plate," Inouye-Perez said. "You know what the pitcher is throwing well, you know what the umpire is calling, you see some of the tendencies, little things like hands and feet."
For the most part, LaRosa has been calling those pitches for Carda, the de facto ace who has started half of UCLA's games this season. Through 10 appearances, including eight starts, Carda is 9-0 with a 0.40 ERA, 68 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 53 innings. That line included 10 strikeouts in the win against the Sooners and seven in a win against Nebraska that closed the weekend. Far from paying the price for pitching to a novice, she is thriving amid a national landscape in which so many power programs seem to have unproven or unsettled pitching.
"It's probably one of the most important aspects of the game," Carda said. "If you have a good pitcher-catcher relationship with each other, then the whole team will feed off of it. Me and her work really well together. Whether it's off the field or on the field, we're close, so I think taking that into pitching and catching helped a lot with my game as well this year."
Of course, if it hopes to end a three-year stretch of regional exits in the NCAA tournament, UCLA also need LaRosa's bat after she proved herself one of the college game's best hitters in her first two seasons. Her walk prolonged the eventual winning rally against Missouri, and her .411 on-base percentage and .533 slugging percentage are better markers of her early production than a modest batting average, but catching can take a toll on a body. Still, it is possible that her time in catcher's gear, whether fleeting or permanent, could help her become an even tougher out.
"She likes me to connect with my pitcher, whoever I'm catching," LaRosa said of Inouye-Perez. "She wants me to look at, not just the outcome of the pitch, but the process -- if their arm is flying away from their body or it's coming too tight or different releases. She's asked me to focus on that when I catch. So now when I'm in the box, that's what I'm looking at. I see the pitcher's release now. I see little things a lot more now than I did before I started catching."
As for second base or outfield, the only positions she hasn't played yet? She said she's ready if needed. It's a good lead for the Bruins to follow.
Players of the week
Geri Ann Glasco, Georgia: It wasn't the best weekend for Georgia, which lost to South Alabama in its first game this season against a ranked team, but Glasco had a big week in just one game against Marshall. She became the first Georgia player to hit two grand slams in the same game, driving in the requisite eight runs, but she also picked up the win in the circle against the Thundering Herd. She added another home run in a win against NC State, reached base three times in the 3-2 loss against South Alabama and closed her run with a five-inning shutout against Fairfield.
Sydney Gouveia, Loyola Marymount: A week after holding UCLA in check in a hard-luck 2-0 loss in her season debut, Gouveia rolled through a full weekend of competition at a tournament in Riverside, Calif. The sophomore made four appearances, including three starts, and allowed just six hits and one earned run in 21 innings, including a no-hitter against Seattle. She piled up 28 strikeouts in the process. And it wasn't as if she had much margin for error. Both the no-hitter against Seattle and a one-hitter against Cal State Bakersfield came in 1-0 wins for Loyola Marymount.
Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon: The sophomore slump appears to have lasted all of one day for Hawkins. Hopefully Cal Poly and Fresno State enjoyed it because the rest of the country isn't having much fun. Hawkins gave up 10 earned runs across two appearances on the season's first day, but she hasn't allowed much of anything since. In one of the signature games in Cathedral City, she limited LSU to one earned run and struck out 12 in a complete-game win. Two days later she went all nine innings and struck out 14 batters to secure an extra-inning shutout against Notre Dame.
Taylor Petty, Pacific: Maybe she just wanted a good view of the game, something that wasn't always easy to find amid the crowds in Cathedral City, but Petty was a very bright spot in a tough weekend for Pacific. The Tigers went just 1-4 in games against Boise State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State and Virginia, but Petty reached base in 13 of 19 plate appearances. She had six hits, but she did most of her damage with seven walks. In her team's lone win, against Oklahoma State, her walk-off walk drove in the winning run.
Ellen Renfroe, Tennessee: UCLA wasn't the only team to come through the Mary Nutter Classic with its unbeaten record intact. Tennessee aced its tests in the desert and not surprisingly turned to Renfroe for the answers in the biggest games. She opened with a four-hitter against Nebraska in which she struck out nine batters and allowed just one earned run, then came on in relief later that night to earn a save in two-plus innings against Oregon State. Back at it a day later, she struck out seven and didn't allow an earned run in a win against Stanford, then turned around on the final day and picked up another win with three shutout innings in relief against Fresno State.