UCLA softball's Maya Brady rallies past sophomore slump to World Series

·4 min read
UCLA Maya Brady (7) during an NCAA softball game on Friday, May 20, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)
UCLA's Maya Brady has gotten a hit in 10 of her last 11 games. The Bruins play Texas in their opening game at the Women's College World Series on Thursday at 9 a.m. PDT. (John McCoy / Associated Press)

The moment was surreal. Stepping onto the field at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium gave Maya Brady chills.

When the UCLA star made her Women’s College World Series debut last year, she marveled at the packed stands that extended into an upper deck and wrapped around the outfield. Fans cheered with every pitch. Standing in center field amid the chaos, Brady felt at peace.

It’s where she always hoped to be.

The redshirt sophomore first fell in love with UCLA as a kid watching the Bruins win the national championship in 2010, and now she’s playing on the same stage, hoping to help the program to its 13th NCAA title. The No. 5-seed Bruins (48-8) face Texas (43-19) in Thursday’s opening game at 9 a.m. PDT on ESPN in the double-elimination tournament.

Brady arrives in Oklahoma City on a hot streak with hits in 10 of her last 11 games, including a three-for-three, two-RBI performance in UCLA’s super regional-clinching win over Duke last week.

The late-season surge is helping Brady shake off her sophomore struggles as she enters the World Series with a .329 batting average, close to the .333 mark that earned her first-team All-American honors last season. After hitting .274 during Pac-12 play, Brady's .438 postseason batting average trails only red-hot catcher Delanie Wisz (.500).

“What I see in Maya now is just Maya being Maya,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said Wednesday. “Getting away from the expectations and noise and getting back to just playing softball. I would put her in any situation at any time because the girl has succeeded under pressure her whole career. That's why she's here.”

High expectations have followed Brady for much of her athletic career. Her uncle Tom has won seven Super Bowls, and her mother Maureen was a star pitcher who led Fresno State to two World Series appearances. The nation's No. 2 recruit for the 2019 class out of Oaks Christian High, Brady has no problem living up to her famous last name.

She led the Bruins in home runs with seven during the pandemic-shortened season and was named Softball America freshman of the year. But the season ended before the Bruins entered Pac-12 play, leaving Brady without a true test of her abilities on the highest collegiate level. That’s why her “second freshman season” last year felt like a “whirlwind.”

“I was going a million miles an hour,” said Brady, who still tied for the team lead in home runs with 14 last season and was named a first-team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Assn. “We’re traveling and we got to the World Series and it would just kind of happen so fast for me that I felt like I was along for the ride. But I feel like this year for me, I’m in a lot more control.”

A former shortstop who switched to center field when she joined the Bruins, Brady said she feels “10 times more confident” in her defensive prowess. After experimenting at second base and all over the outfield, Brady is now the team’s consistent center-field force. She is one of just two UCLA players to start in the same position every game this season, joining fifth-year senior Briana Perez, who has made 157 consecutive starts at shortstop.

With UCLA’s seventh consecutive trip to Oklahoma City during a season that included a 25-game winning streak, it’s easy to dismiss the successful year as an annual tradition in Westwood. But Inouye-Perez is quick to note that these Bruins didn't take an easy route here.

They overcame injuries to senior first baseman Kinsley Washington and freshman Savannah Pola, who played last week’s super regional with a splint covering her right pinkie. Power-hitting senior Aaliyah Jordan tore her anterior cruciate ligament less than two weeks into the season.

Although Brady’s presence has been consistent, she’s not exempt from this season's struggles. The powerful left-handed hitter was five for 35 in the 12 games before her current hot streak. It was a dreaded sophomore slump Brady feared would follow her standout redshirt freshman season in which she was named All-Pac-12 first team. She admitted to putting too much pressure on herself.

“I just had to kind of go back and put in the work and just rely on my team,” Brady said. “Thank God I play at a school where I don’t have to be the star player and I can rely on my teammates, and we can still go out and beat a great team if I’m not on my A-game.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.