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'19 champ UCLA finishes No. 1 in softball poll

Defending national champion UCLA didn't have an opportunity to defend its softball title in the Women's College World Series, but the Bruins needed only half the season to erase any doubt that they were the favorites in 2020.

UCLA was the unanimous choice as the No. 1 team in the final ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 released Tuesday. The Bruins finished with a 25-1 record, the only team in the country with one loss when further play was canceled due to the coronavirus.

While UCLA's place atop the final poll might seem predictable, especially for a program with a record 12 national championships, the Bruins began this season with as many question marks as any champion in recent memory.

The Bruins were ranked No. 4 entering the 2020 season, behind Alabama, Washington and Oklahoma. That marked the lowest preseason ranking for a defending champion since Arizona State in 2012.

In addition to losing three seniors who started against Oklahoma in the final game of the 2019 Women's College World Series, UCLA began this season without two-time reigning national Player of the Year Rachel Garcia and All-American outfielder Bubba Nickles. Both players redshirted the 2020 season after being selected for the 15-player U.S. Olympic roster.

But propelled by a resounding win against Alabama among three victories against ranked opponents in their first 10 games, the Bruins ascended to the No. 1 ranking after the second week of the season and held that spot through Tuesday's final poll.

"I am very proud of my 2020 Bruins, and their ability to overcome the adversity of losing two of our best to the Olympics, with the hopes of defending our NCAA title," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez told ESPN. "What this team showed in our preseason was memorable and exciting. We are honored to be named the unanimous No. 1 today.

"I am confident we will all get through this difficult time together, with high hopes to get back out on the dirt in the near future."

Replacing Garcia as the team's pitching ace, sophomore Megan Faraimo had a 13-1 record with a 0.85 ERA and 149 strikeouts against just five walks in 14 appearances. And even without Garcia and Nickles in the middle of the lineup, the Bruins ranked fourth nationally in runs per game, second in on-base percentage and sixth in slugging percentage.

UCLA's only loss of the season came in extra innings against Texas on Feb. 27. The Bruins had a 7-1 record against teams ranked in the final poll.

Garcia and Nickles are eligible to return next season, but with the postponement of the Olympics until 2021, USA Softball has not yet announced its plans for the national team. Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola is the only other Olympian with remaining college eligibility.

Washington, Texas, Arizona and LSU rounded out the top five in the final poll, with LSU the only team in that group that began the season ranked outside the top 10.

Oregon made the biggest jump of any team between the preseason and the final poll. Ranked No. 24 initially, the Ducks were No. 8 in the final poll on the strength of a 22-2 record.

Preseason No. 1 Alabama checked in at No. 13 in the final poll, although seven of its eight losses came against ranked opponents.