Arizona-UCLA. It’s the rivalry in college softball. Leah O’Brien. Lisa Fernandez. Nancy Evans. Jennie Finch. Tanya Harding.
The two most dominant programs in college softball history have met for the title at the Women’s College Series seven times, with the Wildcats winning four, UCLA winning two … and another crown ripped from the Bruins because of NCAA violations.
Arizona and UCLA meet again in the postseason this year, this time with a twist. They will meet in a best-of-three Super Regional, beginning Thursday in Los Angeles (6 p.m. PT, ESPN).
The winner advances to the Women’s College Series.
Overall, UCLA has won 11 national championships, including five before Arizona won its first in 1991. From 1988 to 1997, these were the only two schools to win the title.
As the rivalry raged, the sport grew exponentially in the 1990s: ESPN began televising more games, SEC schools started pouring money into programs, new stadiums were built on the model of Arizona’s Hillenbrand Stadium and Olympic dreams were launched in girls’ minds everywhere with the sport making its debut in 1996.
To get you in the mood for more Arizona-UCLA, here’s a look at the seven times when Arizona and UCLA met for the title at the College World Series:
1991: Arizona 5, UCLA 1
The Wildcats had been to the previous three World Series, but this was the breakthrough season thanks in large part to transfer pitcher Debby Day, who was the ace that Arizona hadn’t quite had.
“Adding Debby to the mix was the magic potion,” said Suzie Lady, a 1991 senior outfielder. “It was the addition that allowed us to be that team.”
Day was great at the World Series — UA won three 1-0 games, all in extra innings — before the final against UCLA. Once there, Day out-dueled two Bruins pitchers — Heather Compton and Lisa Fernandez — in the Wildcats’ victory.
Sweet-swinging lefty Julie Jones hit a two-run triple off Compton to give the Wildcats the lead. Fernandez homered off Day, but that was all the UCLA scoring.
“That was the first group of believers,” said Arizona coach Candrea said. “I look back now and, yeah, they were damn good players, but they were just grinders. They were just blue-collar workers.”
1991 Arizona softball: The story of the champs who started it all
UA All-Americans: SS Julie Standering (first team); 1B Julie Jones (second team); P Debby Day (third team)
1992: UCLA 2, Arizona 0
By this time, the programs were battling on an equal level. The Bruins started the season with 33 consecutive victories but then lost to Arizona, which beat UCLA twice in the regular season and won its first Pac-10 title.
UCLA got revenge in the title game, though, led by the shutout pitching of Lisa Fernandez (four hits, one walk and six strikeouts). When Arizona did have baserunners, UCLA catcher Kelly Inouye (now the current Bruins head coach) erased them, throwing out three base-stealers, including leadoff hitter Amy Chellevold, who had three hits.
Debby Day was equally stingy … until the bottom of the seventh. Yvonne Gutierrez led off the inning with a single, and Jenny Brewster followed with a one-out walk-off homer.
UCLA finished the season at 54-2, with both losses coming to the Cats.
UA All-Americans: P Debby Day, C Jody Miller-Pruitt (first team); OF Jamie Heggen, P Susie Parra (second team); 1B Amy Chellevold (third team)
1993: Arizona 1, UCLA 0
This was the first season in which the NCAA used the harder, yellow optic ball, an attempt to introduce more offense into the sport. It was a start. Led by shortstop Laura Espinoza, Arizona led the nation with 36 home runs, a precursor to the power that would begin to dominate the sport.
In the title game, the Wildcats got only one hit off UCLA All-American Lisa Fernandez, but it was enough.
Arizona’s Amy Chellevold reached on an error to lead off the bottom of the first. After Chellevold advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt, freshman Leah O’Brien — who might have hit good pitching better than any Wildcat ever — lined a single over Fernandez’s head to score what would be the only run of the game.
Arizona junior pitcher Susie Parra did the rest, allowing two hits and striking out six, including three in the seventh inning to clinch the game. She needed only 75 pitches to get through the game.
UA All-Americans: P Susie Parra, OF Jamie Heggen (first team); SS Laura Espinoza, 1B Amy Chellevold, C Jody Miller-Pruitt (second team)
1995: UCLA 4, Arizona 2
The most infamous of all World Series championships, and the one that still burns Arizona fans.
During the season, the Bruins imported Australian pitcher Tanya Harding, who enrolled at UCLA for the quarter break. Harding was one of the best pitchers in the world and she overmatched most college opposition.
Harding won all four of UCLA’s game at the World Series and also batted .500, earning tournament MVP honors. Arizona had its chances off her in the title game, but couldn’t come up with enough offense.
UCLA’s Kelly Howard hit a two-run home run in the fifth off Carrie Dolan to break a 2-2 and lift the Bruins to victory.
Later that week, Harding withdrew from classes, never finishing one quarter’s worth of work. Although UCLA officials at the time claimed they did nothing illegal, the situation had an undeniable stench … and the NCAA later ruled that the Bruins had done something illegal.
Harding’s case was tied to scholarship violations. The NCAA ruled that UCLA had been using softball players on soccer scholarships, and were, in fact, three scholarships over the limit in the 1995 season.
The NCAA made UCLA give up the 1995 title … which remains vacant.
“That was the one year that made me so sad,” Arizona second baseman Jenny Dalton told me in a 2010 interview. “I don’t think anyone had a career with four consecutive years with a national championship. (Third baseman) Krista Gomez and I could have had that. … “What can you do?”
UA All-Americans: C Leah Braatz, 1B Amy Chellevold, 2B Jenny Dalton, P Carrie Dolan, SS Laura Espinoza and OF Leah O’Brien (first team)
1997: Arizona 10, UCLA 2 (5 innings)
This was the Year of Nancy Evans. She pitched all five games for Arizona at the World Series; basically, she had to after Carrie Dolan was kicked off the team before the trip for disciplinary reasons.
The title game was a laugher — the eight-run mercy rule had to be invoked for the first time in a Series final. The key battle came three days earlier in a second-round winners’ bracket game.
Evans, in one of the greatest performances ever for an Arizona pitcher, held a powerful UCLA lineup — one that included freshman catcher Stacey Nuveman — scoreless for 14 innings in an epic pitcher’s duel against Christa Williams. Arizona finally prevailed 2-0, and coach Mike Candrea, as he sat down at the interview table after the game said, “Best heavyweight fight I’ve seen since Ali-Frazier.”
Evans helped herself in the title game with a two-run double in the first inning en route to tournament MVP honors. “I can’t believe her tenacity all week. That takes a special person,” Candrea said.
UA All-Americans: P Nancy Evans, C Leah Braatz, 1B Leah O’Brien, OF Alison Johnsen and 3B Leticia Pineda (first team)
2001: Arizona 1, UCLA 0
Jennie Finch was unbeatable all season, and she wasn’t going to let UCLA spoil that at the end. Finch pitched a four-hit shutout, striking out seven and walking two, to run her record to 32-0.
The Bruins’ Amanda Freed was plenty tough, too, in the title game, allowing only three hits. One of those was to catcher Lindsey Collins, who took a pitch over the fence in right-center field with one out in the fourth inning.
Finch, a junior, beat UCLA three times that season, all by shutout, and would win national player of the year honors.
UA All-Americans: P Jennie Finch, 3B Toni Mascarenas, OF Lauren Bauer and DP Leneah Manuma (first team); OF Nicole Giordano (third team)
2010: UCLA 6, Arizona 5 (8 innings); UCLA 15, Arizona 9
Arizona freshman Kenzie Fowler, who threw four no-hitters that season and struck out 371, seventh-best in school history, led the Wildcats to the World Series, where the umpires began to call the game differently. In Arizona’s first game in Oklahoma City, Fowler was called for eight illegal pitches, with the umpires ruling she was “leaping” off the pitching rubber, her back foot losing contact with the ground.
Tennessee won that game 9-0 in five innings via the mercy rule.
But Fowler and the Cats clawed back, winning four consecutive games, including two against the Vols, to reach the best-of-three championship series.
Things were looking good for Arizona in Game 1. The Wildcats rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh inning, and Fowler retired the first two batters in the bottom of the inning. But UA outfielders miscommunicated on what should have been the final out of the game, the ball dropping for a double. A hit tied the game, and UCLA won one of the wildest World Series games ever in the eighth.
An exhausted Fowler didn’t make it out of the second inning a day later, having thrown 706 pitches that week, as UCLA slugged its way to the title.
UA All-Americans: OF Brittany Lastrapes, P Kenzie Fowler (first team); C Stacie Chambers, SS K’Lee Arredondo (second team)