No. 18 Cal softball prepares for road series against No. 8 UCLA

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Sam Engel/Staff

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No. 18 Cal softball might be facing its toughest test of the season when it heads to Los Angeles to match up against No. 8 UCLA in a three-game series this weekend.

Historically, UCLA has been a softball powerhouse, and the Bruins even finished last season ranked No. 3 nationally. It’s no surprise that UCLA got the best of the Bears in UCLA’s series against Cal last season with a 3-0 sweep. This season, Cal is also ranked among the nation’s elite teams and is poised to make the series a more tightly contested battle.

“It’s a very good matchup for Cal this weekend because Cal softball is a different, more confident team this year than they were last year,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Tammy Blackburn. “They have players that feel like they can ride the highs and get through the lows. Last year, that may not have been their strong suit.”

This matchup is incredibly important for both teams. But while UCLA will be looking to defend its home field, Cal has more to prove in this series. In terms of win percentage, Cal is third in the Pac-12, but the Bears’ conference record, 5-7, is seventh out of nine teams in the conference.

While Cal has been dominant in its nonconference play, it has struggled to attain the same level of success against its more competitive conference opponents. With a win in this weekend’s series, the Bears can show that they are able to step up and compete against the best of the best.

“When you look at their record in nonconference and you look at their record in conference, you have to wonder: ‘Where’s the difference here?’ ” Blackburn said. “The problem is that the Pac-12 is so good — there are so many top teams. When you throw out the names of those (Pac-12) teams, they are all teams that have one very common big-time strength this year: offense.”

Cal’s struggles against dominant offensive teams will likely be exacerbated against a talented UCLA squad that is full of hitters. To combat the problem, the Bears have two excellent pitchers and an effective bullpen staff, led by assistant coach Chuck D’Arcy, who have produced some quality pitching recently. Sophomores Katie Sutherland-Finch — who recently pitched a no-hitter against Santa Clara — and Stephanie Trzcinski will need to contain UCLA’s hitters. To do that, the Bears will also need solid play from the fielders to back them.

“The pitchers have got to just stay with their plan and try to make sure that they’re hitting their spots and they’re not missing right over the strike zone, because UCLA will punish you,” Blackburn said.

With both teams sporting very talented rosters, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the incredibly qualified coaches that lead these teams. Cal softball head coach Diane Ninemire brings a wealth of experience and currently ranks ninth in most wins all-time. UCLA is coached by Kelly Inouye-Perez, a former catcher for the Bruins — and someone who knows how to motivate her team.

“Both of those coaches are so good at what they do that I think not only is it going to be a player battle, but it’s going to be a coaching battle,” Blackburn said. “The coaches have to learn how to make decisions in game to match the other team and what they’re doing, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Kapil Kashyap covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]