The story starts in a cow pasture. Or, more precisely, on a softball field in the middle of said cow pasture in sleepy Shafter, California (pop. 7,010), in the spring of 1979. That’s where 17-year-old Shelly Aguilar (today Shelly Carlin), the senior standout catcher of West High in nearby Bakersfield, was warming up before a game. In the distance, she spied two women getting out of a car and walking toward the bleachers. Carlin instantly recognized one of them: Sharron Backus, the head softball coach at UCLA, which had won the Women’s College World Series the year before. The other was UCLA Women’s Athletics Director Judith Holland, a driving force for equality in athletics not only at the university, but in the U.S. “I was mortified,” Carlin ’83, M.B.A. ’85 says today. “Sharron Backus and Judee Holland had come to see me play in a cow pasture.”
It was less than a decade since the passage of Title IX, momentous federal legislation that outlawed sex or gender discrimination in any education program or activity. Post-Title IX, Carlin had seized what she saw as a burgeoning opportunity for girls’ sports, participating in volleyball, basketball and softball in high school. A stellar talent, she would be recruited in all three sports by various schools. “Yes, there were scholarships, yes, we were NCAA, but it was very new,” she says of the university’s softball program. “I wanted to go to UCLA to get an education.”
In the end it would be Carlin’s play, not the field, that would prove important. The next day, she received a call: Backus and Holland wanted her to play softball at UCLA. Carlin’s maternal uncle had played football at UCLA in the 1940s; she would be the first on her father’s side to graduate from college. She was both a trailblazer and a keeper of family tradition.
She would end up being part of something bigger than either.
The Perfect Mix
Before Sue Enquist ’80 was Backus’ assistant coach on the 1982 team, she had been the very first softball player to receive a scholarship to UCLA. The San Clemente native arrived on campus in the fall of 1975, the same year that UCLA fielded its first softball team. Enquist became an All-American outfielder on Backus’ history-making 1978 team, which shut out each of its opponents on its five-game march to a Women’s Championship World Series title. Enquist would eventually succeed Backus in 1997, winning 11 titles as a player and a coach.
The 1982 team, she says, was made up of superstar talents and intelligent, hardworking players, all driven to excellence by Backus. “The greatest compliment I can give you,” Enquist remembers Backus saying to the team, “is a high standard.”
“I hadn’t won a championship. That was my last chance,” says Gina Vecchione ’82, who that year was a senior outfielder and was tied for team leader in RBI. “We had these phenomenal freshman pitchers.” (A year later, Sports Illustrated would publish a story on those two pitchers, Debbie Doom ’86 and Tracy Compton ’86, calling them the “deadly duo.”) “They came into the team,” Vecchione says, “and I was like, ‘Thank you, baby Jesus. Here we go!’”
“Being a part of that team taught me to be the best possible person I can be in all aspects of what I do,” says Tracy Compton Davis, now a math teacher and softball coach in Santa Maria. The 5’10” power pitcher, who posted a microscopic 0.21 ERA in ’82, says “quiet thunder” was a big focusing concept from the coaches: “Don’t talk about it. Do it with action, not with words.”
Vecchione grew up in New Rochelle, New York, as a basketball fan. In softball circles, she’s called almost exclusively by her nickname “Puppy,” given because of the way her men’s 10.5-size shoes stretched out beneath her 5’3” frame. “If you were to say, ‘Do you know where Gina is?’ they won’t know who you’re talking about,” says Vecchione, now an associate head coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “But Puppy? ‘Oh, I just saw her over there.’”
Vecchione had been at Southern Connecticut State University on a basketball scholarship. When she wasn’t playing hoops, she competed for the famous Connecticut fast-pitch travel team the Raybestos Brakettes, softball’s version of the Yankees. One of her fellow Brakettes — Enquist — knew Vecchione would be a perfect fit at UCLA and implored her to call Backus. Backus accepted “Puppy” onto the team strictly on Enquist’s word.
Arriving at the L.A. airport, Vecchione asked Enquist to take her straight to Pauley Pavilion. “I went in there, and it was amazing, because I used to watch it on TV,” she says of the revered Westwood arena. “Every athlete on campus was a future professional: tennis, Major League Baseball, NBA.” She adds with a wry smile, “I almost flunked out my first quarter because I was at all the events.”
Hitting the Big Time
At the previous year’s Women’s College World Series (WCWS), the Bruins had fallen just short, losing in the semifinals to archrivals Cal State Fullerton. The team was convinced that 1982 would be different. And they had a big incentive, with the formal NCAA-sanctioned championship designation on the line.
It’s hard to overstate what a crossroads that season was for women’s sports nationally. In that year of 1982, 10 years after the passage of Title IX, the NCAA added 12 women’s sports, including softball, to its championship program. UCLA’s men’s athletics had basked in NCAA glory throughout the 1970s: Coach John Wooden’s basketball teams captured the last of their 10 NCAA titles in 1975, and the following year, the Bruins football team won the Rose Bowl over undefeated Ohio State. Now, the powerful collegiate athletics governing body was throwing the might of its resources behind women’s sports. UCLA was ready. “’82 was the charter team,” Enquist recalls. “The first to have the NCAA experience.”
The UCLA Softball Coaching Tree
First baseman Debbie Hauer Allinson ’82, now a retired U.S. history and government teacher, says she always made it a point to teach Title IX to her students. “I wouldn’t have gone to college if it weren’t for this opportunity to play. So many girls I knew were in that same boat,” she says. “It was a fight. It was a struggle. Just like any civil rights movement, it’s a long, long process.”
Barb Booth ’84, M.B.A. ’91 — like Carlin a junior catcher that season — agrees that the impact of Title IX was immense. “I think about all the women who played sports that are now out in the work world contributing,” she says. “Women who had those opportunities to play sports like I did.”
Enquist remembers what set that season’s squad apart. “It was a team that could self-regulate. A team that could make their own adjustments on defense and at the plate,” she says. “Their group intelligence was, for me, one of the best.”
UCLA has built the most decorated program in the history of collegiate softball. It’s the only one to have captured a national title in five consecutive decades, up to its most recent NCAA title in 2019.
One Shining Moment
The Bruins arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, then the home of the WCWS, brimming with confidence. Following a strong season, they had beaten Wyoming handily 4-0 and 5-0 in the regionals to qualify.
“The only monkey on our back was Cal State Fullerton,” Allinson says. “Our record was outstanding. But we just could not beat them.” Indeed, the Titans had won 11 consecutive meetings with the Bruins over the previous two years. Now they would test them in the semifinals.
It was a tense pitchers’ duel and went into extra innings. One team would have to find a way to break the deadlock.
Doom cruised through 10 shutout innings, throwing 12 strikeouts. It was up to the Bruin bats to make a difference in the bottom of the 10th. Vecchione singled but got thrown out later in the inning. Rightfielder Barbara Young Paden ’84, M.S. ’88 singled with two outs. Up to the plate stepped Booth, who drove a ball hard into right field past the Fullerton right fielder. Young sprinted around from first to win the game.
“Puppy was in the mouth of the dugout when the run scored, as I was running from first to second,” Booth says, chuckling. “I remember her tackling me! We were going crazy.”
Coming off the high of finally defeating Fullerton, the next day’s matchup, versus Fresno State in the final, felt almost anticlimactic. The 10-inning nail-biter had left the Bruins emotionally and physically fatigued. On top of that, the weather in Nebraska had been cold, rainy and windy throughout the tournament, with Omaha’s Seymour Smith Field a muddy mess. The day of the final was equally gloomy. That didn’t stop more than 1,500 spectators from attending.
The conditions didn’t favor explosive offense. But with Doom pitching, the Bruins were confident that it would be only a matter of time before Fresno State fell. “If we scored with Doomer on the mound, we felt pretty strongly they wouldn’t,” Vecchione says. Or, perhaps more succinctly, that Fresno State would be Doomed.
As with the semifinal, the championship game went into extra innings scoreless. But in the top of the eighth, Fresno State pitcher Wende Ward walked the two batters at the bottom of the order. Sensing an opportunity, Backus ordered a brazen and successful double steal. With runners now at second and third, the Bulldogs decided to intentionally walk Bruins All-American shortstop Dot Richardson ’84.
With one out and the bases loaded, Allinson walked up to the plate. Freshman second baseman Stacy Winsberg ’86, who had grown up on the same street as Allinson, scored from third on the senior’s sacrifice fly to right field. The Bruins now had a lead for Doom to defend. They added another run on an error.
Doom came out in the bottom of the inning and struck out the first two Fresno State batters. One out away from defeat, Fresno State brought a pinch hitter into the batter’s box. Booth, catching for Doom, could taste the victory. “I’m thinking, ‘This poor woman. Debbie’s just going to mow her right down.’”
On Doom’s first pitch, the batter made contact. No matter. The ball scattered back to the 6’1” right-hander, who threw the ball to Allinson at first for the final out. Allinson threw her arms up to the sky, waiting for her delirious teammates to pile on her in celebration.
UCLA’s Legacy Grows
The success of the 1982 team wasn’t just a landmark in softball. It was also the very first NCAA title in any sport for UCLA women’s athletics. The blue and gold have since amassed more NCAA women’s championships than any university not named Stanford. And when it comes to softball, the Bruins lead the pack.
UCLA has built the most decorated program in the history of collegiate softball. It’s the only one to have captured a national title in five consecutive decades, including the 1978 AIAW win, up to its most recent NCAA title in 2019. The Bruins’ 12 NCAA championships put them four ahead of their closest competitors, the University of Arizona, and doubles third-place University of Oklahoma’s tally of six. More softball Olympians and All-Americans have come out of UCLA than any other university. Two members of the storied 1982 team won gold medals in 1996 with the very first U.S. Olympic softball squad.
Forty years after that first NCAA title, UCLA is stronger than ever.
“They’re always among the national title contenders. If they don’t win a game, it’s a story,” says Eric Lopez, an ESPN play-by-play announcer and host of the In the Circle softball podcast. “If UCLA didn’t build that first dynasty, I don’t know if the sport would have grown as fast as it has.”
He points specifically to Richardson, who hit the first softball home run ever in an Olympics, and another that led to the gold-medal game victory over China. She also played a crucial role for Team USA again in 2000, helping it capture yet another gold medal.
“Softball has become a television success in an age when a lot of television is down,” Lopez says. “I think softball will end up passing basketball as the number one women’s sport in the country in the next decade or two, and it could end up being number three after football and men’s basketball.”
This past season’s Bruins were the No.5 seed at the WCWS. The team put forth a valiant effort in the tournament before succumbing to the top seed and eventual champions University of Oklahoma in the second half of a semifinal round doubleheader. In the first game of the doubleheader, the Bruins handed the Sooners just their third loss of the season, behind the big swinging of two-home run hero redshirt sophomore Maya Brady — NFL quarterback Tom’s niece — and redshirt senior Delanie Wisz ’22. But just as in 1982, UCLA was led by two ace pitchers, redshirt junior Megan Faraimo ’22 and redshirt senior Holly Azevedo ’21, both of whom were named 2022 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 25 Finalists. You’d be forgiven for drawing parallels to a certain team of 40 years ago. While the 2022 squad didn‘t quite replicate the success of 1982, they proved UCLA is still a “force to be reckoned with,” as Brady told the Los Angeles Times after their 51-10 season came to a close.
Allinson, for one, is excited when she thinks about how far female student-athletes have come. “Just to see what they have now — the tech, equipment, exposure, the growth of youth leagues,” she says. “This is what Title IX has done. It’s given opportunities to thousands of girls — that experience of being a student-athlete.”
She recently visited the National Softball Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “It made me so grateful for the courage that the early founders had,” she says. “And I guess you could call our team pavers of the path as well.”
Carlin, who has thrived in corporate executive roles, shared some of the fruits of her success with the UCLA Athletic Department in late 2021. The catcher who was once scouted on a cow pasture became the first former softball student-athlete to pledge $1 million to the university. In honor of the gift, the coaching position will now be known as The Shelly Carlin UCLA Head Softball Coach — the title currently held by another former Bruin catcher, Kelly Inouye-Perez ’93.
Carlin says she’s a little embarrassed about all the fuss, but the chance to lead and to set an example with the endowment was too great to pass up. “It’s about growing the sport and women’s sports in general,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable, but if having my name all over it helps other people do it, God bless ‘em. Because it’s going to help softball.”
Coaching Tree Graphic: UCLA head coaches: Sharron Backus, 1975–1996 (co-head coach from 1989-96); Kelly Inouye-Perez ’93, 2007–present; Sue Enquist ’80, 1989–2006 (co-head coach from 1989-96). Backus Branch: Dot Richardson ’84 – Liberty University Head Coach, 2013–present; Gina Vecchione ’84 – Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Associate Head Coach, 2012–present. Backus and Enquist Branch: Lisa Fernandez ’95 – Mark Kalmansohn UCLA Assistant Softball Coach, 1997–99, 2007–present; Jennifer Brundage ’96 – University of Michigan Assistant Head Coach, 1998–present. Enquist Branch: Stacey Nuveman Deniz ’02 – San Diego State Head Coach, 2021–present; Christie Ambrosi ’00 – Saginaw Valley State University Head Coach, 2020–present; Tairia Flowers ’05 – Loyola Marymount University Head Coach, 2021–present; Claire Sua-Amundson ’05 – Cal State East Bay Head Coach, 2015–present. Inouye-Perez Branch: Sam Duran ’15 – Utah Valley University Assistant Coach, 2021–present; Mysha Sataraka ’16 – Loyola Marymount University Assistant Coach, 2020–present; Paige McDufee ’17 – Texas State Assistant Coach, 2021–present.
Read more from UCLA Magazine's July 2022 issue.