UCLA, Inouye-Perez come full circle
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kelly Inouye-Perez has been a part of the UCLA softball family for more than half her life. Tuesday night, the Bruins finally became her program.
In less dramatic fashion than the night before, UCLA beat Arizona 15-9 in the second game of the championship series of the Women's College World Series. The win completed a perfect 10-0 run through the NCAA tournament and allowed UCLA to capture its 11th NCAA softball title, extending its own lead for the most of all time.
It also completed a transfer of power that seemed on shaky ground until this season.
Even in early June, the Oklahoma City heat can take a toll on you. It's exhausting and inexhaustible, waiting to wrap itself around you in the morning and stay with you long after the sun heads for home at night. But it's nothing like the heat a UCLA coach feels after spending too little time in this capital of college softball.
For most programs, six years between titles would signify only the fortune of having won multiple titles. For UCLA fans, waiting for their first championship since 2004, Godot came sooner than Tuesday night.
Three people have coached the Bruins in their 36 years of softball. Sharron Backus started the program in 1975 and was coach or co-coach until retiring after the 1996 season with eight national championships, one in AIAW competition and seven more in NCAA competition. Sue Enquist retired in 2006 after eight seasons and three championships as co-coach with Backus and 10 seasons and three more championships on her own.
That was the standard of excellence waiting for Inouye-Perez when she took over before the 2007 season in what was her first head coaching position at any significant level. Now, just four seasons into her tenure, she shares at least one thing in common with her mentors.
All three are now champions.
"It's indescribable," Inouye-Perez said of the title. "But it really comes back to being a part of this is bigger than any one person. It's not about the coaching staff, and Sharron Backus and Sue Enquist would say the same. It's not about us. It's about bringing together student-athletes knowing that family comes first, then school and then softball. And when you commit to being a Bruin, you commit to being a Bruin for life.
"I have taken on this responsibility knowing that there's going to be a lot of expectations. And I share with the players, the only expectations are the expectations we have of ourselves. And I expect to get this team back here and I'm very proud that they were able to step up and represent UCLA softball."
Not that it was always a smooth ascension for an unproven rookie head coach.
A three-time champion as a player at UCLA, Inouye-Perez moved immediately into the coaching ranks as a UCLA assistant. She might have been the clear choice as heir apparent to Enquist, but few thought that transfer of power would happen when it did, out of the blue and a little more than five months before the start of the 2007 season. The transition from "Kelly I" the assistant to "Coach I" -- as Inouye-Perez is referred to by her players -- was not without its bumps.
"When I first took over, my goal was to make sure we were as good as we've always been and focused on softball," Inouye-Perez said. "[I needed to] reverse that order because I know better, to have been able to be a part as a player, as an assistant. And this year was a year we pulled it all together because we kept our priorities straight."
Among those most caught off guard when the coaching change happened were the freshmen who arrived on campus expecting to play four years for a Hall of Fame coach and softball legend in Enquist, a group that included Megan Langenfeld. She, along with classmates Kaila Shull and Julie Burney, suffered through one World Series trip in three seasons and losses at home in a regional and super regional.
"I wouldn't say difficult, but it was new," Langenfeld said. "It was a new style, it was a new language, it was something that everyone just had to get used to. To be honest, I think those first few years were kind of a growing period. We all got used to each other. We have never been more connected up until now -- this is the most connected I have ever been with a team."
Langenfeld was named Most Outstanding Player in the Women's College World Series after hitting .706 with four home runs and nine RBIs at the plate, including a home run to stake the Bruins to a 2-0 lead in the first inning Tuesday. She also went 3-0 with a 2.55 ERA in the circle en route to the title. If ever one player offered a statement about a program's place among the elite, it was Langenfeld, playing and pitching through injuries all season.
And shortly after sharing a hug with Inouye-Perez on the field, she stood in a championship T-shirt and talked about coming back next year as a fifth-year graduate assistant coach. Growing pains or no growing pains for the new regime, the mantra of "once a Bruin, always a Bruin" remains a way of life.
"Being a player is a lot of fun; being an assistant is a lot of fun. Being a head coach is a lot of responsibility," Inouye-Perez said. "And ultimately, what I realized in 2010 is it's really just about allowing the girls to understand what UCLA softball is all about. And that's our philosophy -- family comes first and then school and then softball. So we really focused on our ability to focus on our culture. Being able to remember why it's so special to be a Bruin. And it allows you to play great softball."
It's worth noting that Inouye-Perez's first championship came during a postseason run in which the Bruins seemed genuinely moved by the spirit of John Wooden, who passed away within minutes of the team's second win at the World Series on Friday.
"He was one of the first people to call me when I got this job, which was really cool, because we've been a part of his world," Inouye-Perez said. "So I'm just fortunate, I'm fortunate to say that I got to meet him and be a part of his world and be able to say he was a part of our softball world."
Nobody knows better than each of the basketball coaches who attempted to follow in Wooden's footsteps that it is never easy to follow a legend. And even now, Inouye-Perez knows one championship will buy her only an extension on winning the second. That is the nature of maintaining impossible standards.
"Everybody can think what they want," Inouye-Perez said. "The game is different; anyone can win. You've got to be able to get out there and earn it. And at the end of the day, that's exactly what they did.
"These guys earned this championship; they weren't given anything."
They just might have picked that up from their coach.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.