UCLA Bruins head coach John Savage (22), Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
For most UCLA students, this week is spring break, and the furthest thing from their minds is an early morning of hard work. But for the 34 student-athletes on the Bruin baseball team, five days off from school offers up an opportunity for extra labor, not leisure.
UCLA (17-4) is currently ranked as high as No. 6 in the national polls, and sits in first in the Pac-12 standings, but that hasn’t stopped head coach John Savage from scheduling 9 a.m. practices throughout spring break. Instead of going home for a week of relaxation, or heading to Lake Havasu to party with the rest of the UCLA student body, the Bruins are putting in the time at Jackie Robinson Stadium to achieve greatness.
But in spite of the early-morning sessions, which have carried through finals week and spring break, you won’t hear a single complaint from the UCLA dugout. In fact, what you’ll see is quite the opposite.
The Bruins that Savage has assembled in Westwood have an innate hunger that manifests itself as an intense dedication to excellence. Rather than dragging their feet as they go through the motions, the members of the UCLA baseball team are psyched up to get out and grind.
With the JRS grounds crew slaving away to get the field ready for practice at 9:00, the players begin trickling in over an hour before the scheduled start time, eating their quick breakfasts as they file into the clubhouse. A significant number of Bruins show up early to get suited up, stretch out and prep the equipment for practice. The fielders and utility men hit the cages for a little warm-up before actual batting practice, while the pitchers get loose in the bullpen and run sprints in the outfield.
Around 8:30 a.m., JRS is buzzing with pre-practice activities, which is liable to include a coaches’ huddle where Savage likely covers the day’s agenda with his assistants. After everyone’s respective solo preparation, the team assembles for a short time before heading out at exactly 9:00 for group stretching and conditioning. And by 9:30, the Bruins are on the diamond running through their routine, which includes a heavy dose of oft-overlooked fundamentals like base running, bunting and beyond.
After a grueling workout in the Los Angeles sun, one would expect the Bruins to be worn down and ready for a break. Yet, in reality, they’re rearing to go and get back at it again the next time. To them, showing up early to get a head start isn’t a chore, it’s a necessity. That kind of dedication has been forged by Coach Savage, who has instituted a no-nonsense culture over the course of his nine seasons at UCLA.
It’s no coincidence that the commitment required by Savage has coupled a drastic improvement for Bruin baseball. Since the skipper took over in 2005, UCLA has made an NCAA Regional six times, including two trips to Omaha for the College World Series. The Bruins have also managed to win the Pac-12 each of the past two seasons, an impressive feat in a conference that has historically dominated college baseball.
Prior to Savage’s tenure, the Bruins had only made the CWS twice all-time, once in 1969 and again in 1997. But while those teams ended up being nothing more than a flash in the pan, today’s UCLA squad is poised to become a perennial powerhouse. The expectation for baseball in Westwood is now to compete for a slot in the CWS every year, and to take the next step by bringing home the program’s first ever national title.
Championships aren’t won or lost on the final play of the final game. They are the result of a cumulative process in which the blood and sweat spilled throughout the season translates to success on the scoreboard. If the Bruins’ winning attitude is any indication, UCLA is well on its way to the top…and there’s no one to thank more than Savage and his staff.