UCLA’s old guard ushers in new softball era

first_imgHer change-up was off. Thefirst three she threw weren’t even close to the strike zone. The next two were slow and loopy. The kind of floaters good hitters send over the center-field fence on a line. So Lisa Fernandez does what she always does when something isn’t quite working. “What am I doing, Kel?” she shouts toward her best friend, Kelly Inouye-Perez, who’s in full gear behind the plate. Inouye-Perez has been catching Fernandez since they were 10years old. She can tell what’s wrong with any of her pitches in about 30 seconds. This particular problem, with Fernandez’s signature pitch – the change-up – happens all the time, and Inouye-Perez knows exactly what to say. Fernandez makes the adjustment and breaks off a good one. “Yeah,” she shouts out as the pitch floats toward UCLA senior shortstop Jodie Legaspi. Before she can finish her cheer, the ball is heading the opposite direction, on a line, screaming towards the centerfield fence. “Yeah,” Fernandez says again. “Nice job, Jodie.” Inouye-Perez stands up out of her crouch and takes off her catcher’s mask. “You’re done Jodie, nice job,” she says. “Who’s next?” center_img So this is how it’s going to be. This is how they’re going to do it. This is the way, maybe the only way, somebody is going to take over for UCLA’s legendary softball coach Sue Enquist, who announced her retirement in September. Inouye-Perez, Enquist’s top assistant for the past 13 years, is the new head coach. Gina Vecchione, an assistant the past seven seasons, continues to work with hitters and outfielders. And Fernandez, a softball icon and three-time Olympic gold medalist, has joined the staff as an assistant. They each played at UCLA. They each won national titles. They all dreamed of one days coming back to coach the Bruins. “I think it was when (Kelly and I) were here, playing, that we thought, `Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if we could coach here someday?”‘ Fernandez said. “But I don’t think we ever dreamed it happening the way it did. For Kelly to hang in there as long as she did, and for me to have the window come through at the right time like it did.” That dream comes with a huge responsibility. UCLA is the most storied program in all of college softball with 11national titles. Enquist is a coaching giant, with a reputation and record that transcends the sport. “My biggest comfort is that I don’t have to reinvent the program,” Inouye-Perez said. “It’s not about me trying to figure out how to make it better and bigger and faster. The foundation is set and I’ve been a part of it for 18 years as player and then a coach.” Like most assistant coaches, Inouye-Perez played the role of sounding board and confidant to her players. So the biggest adjustment has been passing that role onto Fernandez and Vecchione and wearing the top hat. “It’s funny. We have nine seniors and we always knew her as Kelly I, but we’re going to have to call her Coach I now,” Legaspi joked. “I think she has more of a heightened awareness about drawing the line with us now.” So far, Inouye-Perez is doing things a lot like Enquist. Game-day preparations are similar. So is the rhetoric. “Yeah, I say the “Sue-isms.” Inouye-Perez joked. “They’re stuck in your head whether you like it or not. … But I don’t want to overuse them.” But there are some big changes. Adding in a person of Fernandez’s stature isn’t easy. Not many head coaches could bring a presence like Fernandez on staff in a supporting role, but Inouye-Perez and Fernandez say that it works because of their friendship off the field. They first met on a travel-ball field when they were 10. Fernandez’s team needed a catcher who could handle her. Someone suggested Inouye. “She came running up to the field like 30 minutes before the game,” Fernandez remembered. “I threw to her and I was like, `Wow, you’re great.”‘ The two stayed in touch, and reunited on a travel team called the Gordon’s Panthers when Inouye was 14 and Fernandez was 13. The rest is history. “We speak the same language,” Inouye-Perez said. “Just in the way we talk the game.” As far as coaching styles, it’s not as much good cop-bad cop as some might think. Fernandez is known in softball circles as the ultimate competitor. The story goes that she takes two days off a year, Christmas and her birthday. But Inouye-Perez says that motherhood has mellowed her best friend. “She is the most phenomenal mom. That’s changed her a lot and helped her, I think, to be a part of this,” Inouye-Perez said. “She has a different side of her. She never had to take care of anyone else before. She just had to take care of herself and the weight of the world on her shoulders representing the US and softball. “Now, she’s taking care of her husband Mike and her son (Antonio), she’s giving back to the Bruins and she’s still going to go take on the world in 2008. It’s amazing.” In the past, when Fernandez was around the program, it was in a volunteer assistant role. She used the time at Easton Field as much for training as she did for helping out at UCLA. But it’s become clear to her in the first few months in her new role that in order to have the kind of impact she wants to at UCLA, she needs to stretch and convince the players she’s out for them first. Last month, she sat in on a slap-hitting clinic and came back to practice with some tips for the team’s slappers. “That was a turning point,” Inouye-Perez said. “The girls knew that `She’s in this for us, she’s really coaching us. She’s not just Lisa the icon who comes out for training. She’s Lisa the icon who’s in it for me.”‘ Legaspi notes how Fernandez comes out to the field early and stays late to throw extra batting practice for the players. If Fernandez works on her own game, along with former Bruins’ and current national team teammates Andrea Duran or Natasha Watley, it’s before practice or during breaks. “They (Inouye-Perez and Fernandez) are a rare breed,” Legaspi said. “They’re coaches. They’re moms. They flip hats between that in a second. And it’s a good thing for all of us, as young women, to see that, `Yes, you can have it all. Family, softball, coaching, a career. You can do everything.”‘ 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *