Arizona-UCLA. It’s been the best rivalry in college softball for two decades, with many of the biggest names in the sport taking part.
Leah O’Brien. Lisa Fernandez. Nancy Evans. Stacey Nuveman. Jennie Finch. Natasha Watley.
When the teams first met for the national title in 1991, current UA pitcher Kenzie Fowler was about five weeks old.
The two most dominant programs in college softball history have met for the title at the Women’s College Series six times, with the Wildcats winning four, UCLA winning one … and the other one stripped from the Bruins because of NCAA violations.
They will meet again this season, this time with a twist. They haven’t met at all at the World Series since 2001, and this is the first time they have met since the NCAA instituted the best-of-three championship series.
Arizona and UCLA met three times this season, all at Hillenbrand Stadium, on the regular-season’s final weekend, May 13-15.
UCLA won two of three in a strange weekend — Arizona pitchers Fowler (pinched nerve in her neck) and Sarah Akamine (knee) each suffered injuries and had to be pulled from games.
The Bruins won the opener 6-5. Arizona won the second game 5-3. UCLA won the rubber match 6-4.
It should be a fascinating championship series, which begins Monday. To get you in the mood, here’s a look at the six previous years in which Arizona and UCLA met for the title:
1991: ARIZONA 5, UCLA 1
The Wildcats had been to the previous three World Series, but this was the breakthrough season thanks to transfer pitcher Debby Day, who was the ace that Arizona hadn’t quite had before. Day began a amazing streak of 17 consecutive seasons in which the Wildcats produced an All-American pitcher.
She looked the part at the 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, who began the game at third base.
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.
And the rivalry was on.
“UCLA, back them, just kind of sat there and everyone came to them,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea told me a few years ago.
“Then, all of a sudden, kids had different options. We started getting better and better athletes … and then it’s been a matter of not getting full of ourselves.”
UA All-Americans: SS Julie Standering (first team); 1B Julie Jones (second team); P Debby Day (third team).
1991 Series highlights video link.
1992: UCLA 2, ARIZONA 0
The programs were now 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 Bruins head coach — erased them, throwing out three would-be 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 and C Jody Miller-Pruitt (first team); OF Jamie Heggen and P Susie Parra (second team); 1B Amy Chellevold (third team)
1992 Series highlights video link.
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 (consider that UA hit a then-NCAA record 134 last season, before Hawaii smashed that mark in 2010.)
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 and OF Jamie Heggen (first team); SS Laura Espinoza, 1B Amy Chellevold and C Jody Miller-Pruitt (second team)
1993 Series highlights video link.
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 key hits.
UCLA’s Kelly Howard hit a two-run home run in the fifth off Carrie Dolan to break a 2-2 tie 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 was, in fact, three scholarships over the limit in the 1995 season.
The NCAA made UCLA give up the 1995 title … which remains vacant.
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)
1995 Series highlights video link.
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)
1997 Series highlights video link.
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 earn 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)
2001 Series highlights video link.