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Former Merced star Bubba Nickles’ selfless play has been key for UCLA’s softball team

UCLA junior Madilyn Nickles has been one of the top hitters for the UCLA softball team this season. Photo By Rand Bleimeister/UCLA Athletics.
UCLA junior Madilyn Nickles has been one of the top hitters for the UCLA softball team this season. Photo By Rand Bleimeister/UCLA Athletics. Merced

Bubba Nickles had done it again.

A second ball soared over the fence, the junior outfielder’s grand slam giving the UCLA softball team a nine-run lead.

It was the final blow that sealed a victory against Missouri in five innings last Saturday in an NCAA regional. The Bruins’ first score that day also came on home run by Nickles — leading off the first inning.

Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said the game was “probably one of the best performances I’ve seen from Bubba as a Bruin.”

Nickles would clear the bases again the next day, with a three-run double against the Tigers. It came in the second game Sunday after UCLA surprisingly lost the first game to Missouri. With the season on the line, Nickles had three hits and five runs batted in as the Bruins advanced to a super regional with a 13-1 win.

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Madilyn Nickles, UCLA Don_Liebig Don Liebig/ASUCLA Photography

UCLA (49-6) faces James Madison (51-8) in a best-of-three series beginning Friday at Easton Stadium. If the Bruins are to advance to the Women’s College World Series, Nickles’ play figures to be essential. She finished the regional with seven hits, five runs and 11 RBIs.

“Everything that we have to do, she goes 110%,” redshirt sophomore outfielder Aaliyah Jordan said. “She just is always going hard at everything she does.”

Nickles has made clutch plays for the second-seeded Bruins all season. She leads the team with 16 home runs and 69 RBIs and has the second-best batting average at .408. She had a 21-game hitting streak and has gone hitless in only seven games..

The secret to her stat-stuffing season? Ignoring those numbers. It was in the fall when Nickles told Inouye-Perez that she wanted this season to be different — the result of an epiphany Nickles had over the summer. She needed to change her mentality in games, to focus more on her teammates.

“I want to do everything for them,” Nickles said.

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Former Merced High star Madilyn Nickles continues to shine for the UCLA softball team. Photo by Rand Bleimeister/UCLA Athletics. Rand Bleimeister

Not that she wasn’t before.

“She’s the epitome of selfless,” Inouye-Perez said. “She’s always been that.”

Nickles is willing to play any position needed. She spent the fall before her freshman year pitching as several of the Bruins’ pitchers recovered from injuries, and kept a pitchers’ toe on her cleat in the outfield as a sophomore, just in case. She was a shortstop in high school but switched to outfield without complaining when Inouye-Perez asked it of her.

Nickles, the Gatorade national softball player of the year as a senior at Merced High in the San Joaquin Valley, could have been the star of a smaller program, Inouye-Perez said, the one do-it-all player. But Nickles grew up relishing her family; they’ve watched every softball game she can remember and are her closest friends.

Nickles, whose first name is Madilyn, got the nickname “Bubba” from her father, as he cheered her on at youth softball games. She wanted a similarly tight-knit environment in college, and she saw that in UCLA when she went to softball camps and met with the coaches. Nickles committed in the fall her freshman year.

“It’s a dream come true for a coach,” Inouye-Perez said of Nickles, “because she’s so selfless.”

Still, despite the sacrifices Nickles made for UCLA, the hours she spent outside practice hitting on her own, she felt she could do more. The problem was in Nickles’ mind-set. As she practiced and played she mainly focused on making herself better, on boosting the Bruins with her batting average. It ramped up the pressure to perform and her frustration at falling short.

There were so many more ways Nickles could contribute. Things that aren’t reflected in results. Over the summer she began to understand.

“I would see my statistics or my outcomes be the indicator of how I was helping the team,” Nickles said. “But, really, that had nothing to do with helping the team. It was about what I was communicating with them through my effort.”

Where she used to hunger for more repetitions in the batting cages, Nickles took a step back to give her teammates extra time hitting. Where she once spent hours training alone, she invited friends to join her. Once a week, she and Jordan take turns driving an hour for an evening workout with a hitting coach. She cheers for her teammates in practice and spends extra time showing the freshmen how to handle all of college softball’s responsibilities.

Instead of growing frustrated over hitting difficulties, she was at peace after plate appearances, as long as she did her best. As long as she led by example. Said Nickles: “All my effort into my at-bat will be so that the rest of the team can know that they can do it too.”

The change has fueled Nickles’ success this season, Inouye-Perez said. She is more relaxed when she plays, more exuberant when her teammates excel. She strives for their achievements as much as her own.

“If we come off of the field with a loss we’re all just so happy with each other,” Nickles said. “Because we know that everything we did was out of helping each other.”

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