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Why UCLA basketball star Gabriela Jaquez joined the Bruins’ softball team

USA TODAY
                                UCLA Bruins forward Gabriela Jaquez dribbles the ball against the LSU Tigers on March 30.
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USA TODAY

UCLA Bruins forward Gabriela Jaquez dribbles the ball against the LSU Tigers on March 30.

On the basketball court, Gabriela Jaquez is in constant motion. The 6-foot sophomore forward cuts to the rim with precision, sprints down the floor without abandon and scores in bunches. Although undersized on the wing, Jaquez has become a fan favorite at Pauley Pavilion for her heart, hustle and toughness.

It’s why the Bruins call her “All Gas Gabs.”

Jaquez is now putting the pedal to the metal for the softball team.

The basketball star joined the UCLA softball program as a pinch runner this month as the Bruins were trying to boost their speed and depth for the NCAA tournament. Two years after last playing the sport as a senior in high school, Jaquez scored a run in her collegiate softball debut during the NCAA super regional, helping the No. 6 Bruins sweep Georgia to advance to their eighth Women’s College World Series in nine years. UCLA (42-10) faces No. 14 Alabama on Thursday in the first round at 9 a.m. PDT (ESPN) in Oklahoma City’s Devon Park.

It will be the second time in three months that Jaquez is participating in a deep postseason run. After she was a do-it-all spark plug in UCLA’s run to the Sweet 16, the former McDonald’s All-American is ready to do anything to help the Bruins to chase their 13th NCAA softball title.

“If I’m not out on the field, I know that I can give my all in the dugout,” Jaquez said of her role on the softball team. “So just being a good teammate and being supportive.”

Softball head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez knew the Bruins lacked the pinch running depth after injuries decimated the UCLA roster. Assistant coach Kirk Walker and director of operations Claire Donyanavard identified Jaquez as a potential answer.

In addition to earning McDonald’s All-American status on the hardwood in high school, Jaquez played third base on the softball team as a senior and, with UCLA utility player Rylee Pinedo, won the Division I CIF Southern Section title as a junior.

Walker and Donyanavard contacted women’s basketball director of operations Pam Walker to gauge the possibility of Jaquez joining the softball program. After getting approval from basketball head coach Cori Close, Walker called Jaquez late on Mother’s Day, five days before UCLA’s NCAA tournament opener against Grand Canyon, and said the softball program was interested in having her as a pinch runner.

Jaquez couldn’t stop smiling all day.

“Just having the opportunity to play basketball and softball is genuinely a dream come true,” Jaquez said.

In middle school, Jaquez briefly thought she wanted to play college softball, but soon realized she felt more passionate about basketball. Even though she became a star on the court, Jaquez still made a point to tell people she also played softball in high school, hoping to maintain a connection with the sport she started playing in preschool. She missed even the mundane things about softball like playing catch. She couldn’t wait to bring her glove up to the stadium to join the team and learn all of UCLA’s dugout cheers.

“For a superstar like Gabs to be able to come into a program like ours and fit in seamlessly shows me she’s not an ego person,” Inouye-Perez said. “It’s not about her, it’s not about anything more than she just wants to help UCLA softball.”

Close called it a “no-brainer” to greenlight Jaquez’s return to softball. Her only fleeting concern was potential injuries. But basketball teammates and coaches helped pack the stands at Easton Stadium during UCLA’s regional and super regional rounds to cheer on Jaquez.

Assistant coach Tony Newnan, sitting several rows behind home plate, took out his phone to record Jaquez’s debut as she trotted from the dugout in the bottom of the fifth on May 23 to pinch run for catcher Sharlize Palacios. Like a proud father, Newnan kept recording as Jaquez advanced to second on a ground out from Megan Grant. He sprung to his feet with his phone raised as Jaquez scored on a three-run homer by Jordan Woolery.

Even the white face mask on Jaquez’s batting helmet couldn’t hide the wide smile on her face.

“When I saw her face round those bases and put her arms up right before she jumped on home plate, I was just like, ‘Oh, it’s worth every bit of sacrifice,’” Close said on the phone.

Jaquez would typically spend weekends in May with her family at home or hanging out with friends. But she’s happy to trade them for a trip to Oklahoma City.

Two months after the basketball season ended, Jaquez is still practicing with the basketball team, which is limited to eight hours a week of physical activity. She takes the court in the morning then makes the trek up De Neve Drive to Easton Stadium in the afternoon. One day before leaving for Oklahoma City, Jaquez was patrolling the outfield during a light practice and also catching balls in the infield. Inouye-Perez said she’s learning Jaquez is an even better athlete than advertised.

“She’s so down to do whatever we need,” said Woolery, a sophomore first baseman. “She brings such a good energy and I think she’s a piece that we needed this year.”

Jaquez and Woolery have shared classes together on campus and were fans of each other from afar. Last season, Jaquez and UCLA point guard Kiki Rice attended a softball game together. Members of the softball team watched UCLA’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Creighton in Pauley Pavilion and had a screening party in the Easton Stadium clubhouse for the Sweet 16 game against Louisiana State. Jaquez had 14 points and five rebounds in the loss.

The sophomore averaged 10.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 25.2 minutes per game. After playing mostly as an undersized small forward and averaging 6.3 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman, the 6-foot Jaquez spent the offseason working on her perimeter skills to expand her positional versatility.

“Gabs has a winning, others-centered, team-oriented mentality,” Close said. “She outworks you.”

The mindset is a perfect fit with Inouye-Perez, Close said. They are both, simply, Bruins.

“All [Jaquez] cares about is winning and that’s how K.I. is,” Close said. “Kelly, all she cares about is fostering the Bruin bubble and winning championships and she wants to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Inouye-Perez has spent 36 consecutive years in the Bruin bubble. She won three NCAA titles as a player, three as an assistant and two as a head coach in 2010 and 2019. The third-longest tenured active head coach at UCLA, Inouye-Perez is at the center of the tight-knit athletic department. She maintains a group chat with UCLA’s head coaches across different sports, and the relationships pay off when teams need to call in reinforcements.

Jaquez is not the first crossover star for the softball team under Inouye-Perez’s watch. The exclusive list includes U.S. women’s soccer national team star Sydney Leroux, and Kodi Lavrusky and Lauren Brzykcy, who led the Bruins to NCAA championships in women’s soccer in 2013 and 2022, respectively, and beach volleyball Olympian Lauren Fendrick.

“I’m getting the best of the best as far as options,” Inouye-Perez said. “That’s part of being a Bruin, is you surround yourself with some of the most amazing athletes in the world. … The fact that we all work together, to me, shows it’s Bruin family, and all of us will do anything we can to help win a national championship.”

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