UCLA's seniors define the Bruins' success
Heading into regional tournament play, I sat down with plenty of material for a college softball feature but found myself staring at a blank screen probing for a lead, per usual.
See, some time ago the ever-inventive 3M Corporation churned out a product that fell short of their high standard. 3M fashioned a glue that wouldn't stick to anything; it was a dud effort. But, lo and behold, with a little upturn, this slip-up gave way to one of 3M's most prized products -- the Post-it.
And that is where this fable finds the trail back to Bruins camp and the College World Series.
I recently went on record forecasting UCLA to take home the national title. I soon received more than a few e-mails asking how I could possibly put my faith in a team that had punctuated the regular season with two losses.
I answer those inquiring minds today with the words of Lao-Tzu, "People in their handlings of affairs often fail just when they are about to succeed."
As it turns out, I recently sat down with a pen, a Post-it pad and three people I believe are in for a hearty dose of success -- the Bruins' senior trifecta of second baseman Caitlin Benyi, third baseman Andrea Duran and catcher Emily Zaplatosch.
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"It's just kind of expected," Zaplatosch said.
"Yeah, it's more of a question of what if we didn't go," Benyi reiterated, "but I can't really even imagine that."
"Well, you look back and everyone before us went, so for us, it's understood. We have to make it," Duran added.
It's as if the air is different up there in the Hollywood hills, as though the Bruins' brains are somehow wired differently, changing their interpretation of the postseason.
"I don't know if I can describe it, but I know that somehow, we all have it the same thing whatever it is," said Benyi, in a effort to explain the phenomenon.
Zaplatosch took a stab at it: "The ability to recruit the right people is at the forefront of it all, and after that I think it's just Coach [Sue] Enquist and the mentality that she teaches. It's in the way that we practice and are trained to work for each other and for the program. All 19 of us have the same idea of winning. For us, that goal is a given -- we go out there to win -- it sounds stupid, but I know that there are teams that don't play like that. They play to play. I mean, they want to win, but this different."
Yes, it's 43 All-Americans, 15 Olympians and 10 national championships different.
Benyi added, "We want to win, but we're out here because we truly enjoy the game and winning."
For the Bruins, winning is as mechanical as a rubber mallet instigating a knee-jerk.
"There are a lot of different personalities on this team, but we all have that same something. And honestly, we have so much fun with together," Benyi said. "Stick us all in a room and we'll just laugh."
"There was that time our sophomore year when we all got in an elevator together on our way to play Stanford, and it actually got stuck! We were laughing so hard," recalled Duran.
"We get along so well on a personal level, and I think that really helps us on the field," Benyi said.
But I've got to think maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's the single-minded drive and unadulterated respect for the prestigious program and the uniform they put on to represent it that makes an otherwise incongruent group of girls so cohesive. Something that makes the Pac-10 conference champions tick. Something that I imagine to be a regimented scheme, rigorously pumping out a brassy .860 winning percentage.
"Well, not really," Duran said. "I mean, everything is actually really relaxed here. We are a very laid-back team. We practice hard, that's not what I mean, but we don't force anything. It's loose."
She describes her two counterparts, "Emily and Caitlin are both so mellow. Emily is always just rolling with everything, kind of like, 'whatever' and Caitlin has her crazy goofy moments, but still she's a really mellow person. We're all kind of like that. It's relaxed because when we step on the ball field, we just know what we have to do. We step into that mind-set of accomplishing it," said Duran, an Academic All-American and this year's Pac-10 Softball Player of the Year.
"I think what's different from other teams maybe is that we have this ability to lock in. Although all of these different personalities are present, we adopt the same persona on the field. When it's game time you keep your armor on, you know? No matter what is going on."
It's this innate state of mind, this ability to engage in a contest while maintaining a game-time calm, that caused me to tout the Bruins' postseason potential. They don't play flat, they play comfortably composed. They don't press, they know when to come through. Dropping two games to close the season is a hiccup that could jar some clubs out of focus -- just not this one.
They just come out more intelligently prepared to win.
The recent losses to Stanford, the early loss to Northwestern, first lost of the season to Long Beach State or even last year's WCWS loss to Michigan are merely chinks in the prestige armor of the Bruins. Each defeat of yesterday serves as a conspicuous imperfection that the Bruins know how to buff out with a win. We'll see how they fair on Friday, when they kick off their NCAA Tournament run against Missouri State University at home in Los Angeles (ESPNU, 8 p.m.).
Mary Buckheit is a former college softball player and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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