Utah’s softball team (31-13, 12-9) is experiencing its best season since 2017 when it last made the NCAA tournament.
That despite being in a conference in which teams trade wins and losses regularly because it’s just that competitive. The Pac-12 has five teams in the Top 25, with three more sitting just outside of the rankings.
Utah is No. 16 and closed out its home season this weekend, but the opponent in town, No. 2 UCLA (47-4, 21-3), presented a tough feat.
The reality is everyone in the conference, and most teams nationally, are chasing the Bruins.
“This weekend was about getting better against a great team,” said Utah coach Amy Hogue. “Win or lose, if you come out and learn and grow against a great team, that’s all I can ask for. We want to win, but if we lose and grow, then it ends up being worthwhile.”
The Bruins swept Utah in the series, outscoring the Utes 24-4 in the three games (3-0, 10-1, 11-3).
Sunday’s outing was the only time Utah led over the weekend, as it scored two runs in the bottom of the first inning to go up 2-1 on the Bruins. The first inning has been Utah’s most prolific all year.
After giving up a leadoff homer to the Bruins Sunday and then getting two runs from her teammates in the bottom of the inning, Mariah Lopez settled in and kept the score at 2-1 through 3 2⁄3 innings.
But a pair of errors off a liner by Maya Brady in the top of the fourth saw three runs score, including Brady.
That put UCLA up 4-2, and as they say in softball, “hitting is contagious,” with the Bruins rolling from there to win 11-3 for their 20th straight victory.
Utah had bright spots on the weekend, only yielding three runs to the Bruins in the first game of the series Friday, and knocking 10 hits Sunday.
A big plus Sunday was that Utah found some success off Megan Faraimo, who has been lights out all season with an NCAA-leading 26 wins including Sunday’s.
Utah knocked six hits and scored a run off Faraimo as she closed out the final five innings.
For the game, Sophie Jacquez and Aliya Belarde each had an RBI for Utah, while both players and Ellessa Bonstrom recorded a pair of hits.
“I want to credit Utah. They have had a phenomenal year,” said UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. “They can play ball. They have quality hitters, they have great pitching, they’re coached well.
“Credit to them with what they’ve done throughout the entire Pac season. The Pac-12 is tough. There is nobody you can count out. You’ve got to show up every day, you’ve got to compete every inning and I credit the Pac-12 that allows all of these teams to prepare for postseason.”
To put into perspective how good UCLA is right now, the Bruins gave Utah its first mercy rule loss of the season Saturday. Utah made no excuses, knowing it would have its hands full this weekend.
The Utes look to regroup as they travel to No. 13 Oregon to close out the regular season. Oregon, along with Utah, is part of a cluster of teams separated by a game or two and vying for better seeding for the Pac-12 tournament in a few weeks.
“We built this program on winning and losing to really great teams,” Hogue said. “We know this team is going places and we are preparing to have a postseason run. All the things we are doing are with that in mind. That includes on the road against Oregon next weekend.”