The storied UCLA versus the newest Clemson Tigers

Kelsey O'Loughlin, Senior Writer

Looking through the NCAA softball top 25, there are the typical teams you would expect to see and others that may look like outliers. Though UCLA the 2019 national champions still reign, the cancellation of the 2020 season means anything is up for grabs this year.

There are many Olympians, World Series champions, top-ranked recruits and otherwise gifted players on the UCLA softball roster. Their pioneer and head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez played softball at UCLA from 1989-1993. She immediately impacted the team, named the PAC-10 first team as a freshman and the second team as a sophomore. She was also a 3x National Champion in 1989, 1990 and 1992, and played in 22 total world series games, the third-highest amount in UCLA history.

Players under Inouye-Perez’ tutelage have followed her illustrious career. Rachel Garcia, for instance, is a redshirt senior pitcher from Palmdale, Calif. In her 2019 championship season, Garcia was named the College Woman Athlete of the Year (Honda Cup) and USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year, among many other accolades. She intentionally redshirted her 2020 season to train for the 2020 Olympics and spent time with the USA team in preparation for the summer. Another player, Maya Brady, is a redshirt freshman from Thousand Oaks, Calif. Her uncles are Tom Brady and Kevin Youkilis. To say that genetics plays in  Brady’s favor for her athletic talent is an understatement. In her 2020 breakout season, Brady was named Softball America’s freshman player of the year. She leads the Bruins with seven home runs and a .365 batting average. The final UCLA standout is Aaliyah Jordan, a 5-7 outfielder from Chula Vista, California. A first-team all-American and ranked second nationally in doubles, Jordan was named national player of the week on Feb. 18 after batting a .571 at the St. Pete Clearwater invitational. Thus far, the Bruins are 22-2, both losses coming against Oregon.

UCLA has 12 national titles; of those 12, Inouye-Perez participated in the winning team as a player three times. Her fellow teammates during this time — mostly California natives — grew up watching the Bruins play, admiring legendary players such as Stephany Larosa (ranked second in career home runs), Lisa Fernandez (the greatest softball player at UCLA), and B.B. Bates. This program is rich with tradition and storied success; the all-time winningest program has been around the block a few times.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Clemson Tigers, with no victorious  legacy; the program was established in 2017 and their first season took place in 2020. John Rittman, the first softball coach in Clemson history started with no blueprint on how to build the program. Each of the seven members of the team redshirted in 2018-2019 in order to be ready for the first season in 2020. The group also did not have enough people to hold intrasquad scrimmages, so the focus for the first year was on skill-work and making sure the fundamentals were solidified. Before the stadium was finished for the squad, the players and coaches had to use the baseball field. Only four players made it through the first trying  year, while others transferred to other programs.

Clemson went all in with their new program, spending $330,000 on the program in total. These costs included the salary for first year head coach Rittman, assistant coach salary and recruiting costs. By 2019, the number was projected to be $980,000. Concluding the building process of the program, the 2020 season was set in their $14 million facility. In their inaugural season, the Tigers went 20-8. Even with the freshness and excitement of a new program, the Tigers too asked the big question of “what if?” after the pandemic shut NCAA softball down.

Right now, Clemson is second in the ACC behind 2018 national champion Florida State. They are 18-4 and ranked 19th nationally. The Tigers lead the conference in four statistical categories. Outfielder and utility Marissa Guimbarda leads the conference in slugging percentage at .868 and home runs with 11, Cammy Pereira leads at bats with 94 and Valerie Cagle with runs batted in at 36.

The team of seven four years ago created the foundation for the future success of this softball program. The four who preserved and stayed in Death Valley are beginning to see the fruition of their patience and hard work. With time, they too will create a rich tradition like UCLA.

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