By TREVOR WONG
From player to assistant coach and now as the head coach for the Bruins softball team, Kelly Inouye-Perez has left her mark on a program synonymous with the word “champion.”
Though her official title as head coach may be different from years past, Inouye-Perez has been a familiar face to the Bruin dugout for 22 consecutive seasons, starting in 1989 when she joined the softball program as a freshman.
As a student athlete and as an assistant coach, she won a combined six NCAA championships. Now, she can add one more championship to her resume as the head coach of the UCLA softball program.
Last Tuesday, the Bruins softball team captured its 12th national championship and 11th NCAA title in school history, and for the first time since 2004, the Bruins find themselves sitting atop the college softball world once again.
The Bruins staved off the No. 10 Arizona Wildcats, 6-5, in walk-off fashion in Game 1 thanks to senior Megan Langenfeld’s home run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Their dramatic win–and the walk-off home run–would give the Bruins momentum and more than enough power to finish off the Wildcats in Game 2, where they would hit four home runs en route to a 15-9 victory.
“It’s a great time for our softball program and [the girls]did a wonderful job of representing what UCLA softball is all about,” Inouye-Perez said. “Our philosophy is family, school and then softball is the fun part, and I was very fortunate to have a great group of 20 girls who are committed to excellence.”
In a season marred by struggles, injuries and growing pains, the Bruins stumbled to a 1-5 start in conference play. But coach Inouye-Perez never wavered in the confidence she had for her team. And even in the most troubling times, she always stressed the same thing over and over to them.
“It’s all about our philosophy. Family comes first and then school and then softball,” Inouye-Perez said. “So we really focused on our ability to focus on our culture and being able to remember why it’s so special to be a Bruin. And it allowed [us]to play great softball.”
And did they ever play great softball after stumbling in the beginning. The Bruins won 13 of their last 15 games to end conference play and their regular season. There would be no looking back.
The team carried that momentum into the NCAA tournament, where they reeled off a perfect 10-0 record to finish the season. Despite their early struggles and injuries to key players, the Bruins found a way to get it done when it counted most.
“We played great softball at the end and I think a big part of why we did is because we kept our priorities straight,” Inouye-Perez said. “Our culture was strong and the team was very connected.”
Replacing UCLA Hall of Fame coaches Sharron Backus and Sue Enquist wasn’t at all easy according to Inouye-Perez, especially in the beginning.
When she officially took over the softball team in 2007, she filled the shoes of two coaches who had undoubtedly set the standard for softball at UCLA. But during her first three years, the Bruins fell short.
And in a culture like UCLA where success is measured by championships, coach Inouye-Perez kept the same approach, not worrying about living up to certain expectations or trying to match the success of those who came before her.
“Pressure comes only if you’re worried about failing,” Inouye-Perez said. “I looked at it as a wonderful opportunity and a responsibility to make sure that this program can maintain its tradition and excellence.”
And part of that tradition and excellence not only came from Backus and Enquist but from Hall of Fame basketball player and coach, John Wooden, who established a tradition like none other at UCLA.
So, for a softball program so used to winning, the Bruins are now in a familiar position and for Inouye-Perez, there is a sense of accomplishment now that she has won her first championship as head coach.
“Nothing will ever replace winning as a player but being a coach this year has been rewarding,” she said.
“It’s all about bringing this program to where it should be – at the top.”
Once again, the UCLA softball program is where it rightfully belongs.
And for coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, she is also in a familiar position—a champion yet again.