The Road to Oklahoma City starts here.

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From Top Recruit to Student Manager to the WCWS, UCLA’s Madison Pacini Never Gives Up Dream 

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For a certain sort of seventh grader dreaming of places they want to visit when they grow up, New York and Paris might have some appeal. But they aren’t Oklahoma City. Times Square and the Eiffel Tower are great. But they aren’t the ballpark that sits just off Interstate 35, next to a race track and a science museum. 

Madison Pacini was one of those seventh graders. Growing up near San Diego, she watched Oklahoma and Tennessee play for the title in the 2013 Women’s College World Series. She watched Lauren Chamberlain, the face of a program then in the earliest days of its golden era, launch moon shots into the night. She dreamed of playing on that field—like thousands of her peers across the country. Except she was good enough that it really was a dream, not just a fantasy. 

Sure enough, she got there. Even if she didn’t imagine she would have to wait for her moment until 2024, two years after she graduated from college.

Or that five years, two universities, an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree and much of the work toward a second master’s degree would pass between her eighth and ninth collegiate hits. 

After beginning her college career at Tennessee, tearing her ACL for the second time and then deciding to step away from softball to focus on earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration—the first of what will soon be her three degrees—she is playing in the World Series with UCLA. A student manager for the Bruins a season ago, she returned to the field this season and is hitting .333, primarily as a pinch hitter, for the No. 6 seed and 12-time champion. She put a child’s dream on hold to focus on an adult’s future. But only on hold; she knew where to find it when the time was right. She knew it would be waiting for her in Oklahoma City. 

“I’m just super grateful for the opportunity,” Pacini said this week. “Super ready and anxious to get to our first game in OKC. Super excited to play. This is something that you dream of as a kid and just manifesting an opportunity like this is incredible.” 

Growing up, Pacini imagined herself wearing a Bruins uniform in World Series dreams—like just about anyone who learns the game in Southern California. But despite being recruited by Kelly Inouye-Perez out of Bonita Vista High School, where she was a three-sport standout and the school’s female athlete of the year in 2018, while also playing for the SoCal Choppers, Pacini opted to go to one of the schools on the field in that 2013 title series: Tennessee. 

She made 36 appearances and seven starts for the Lady Vols as a freshman in 2019. She hit a home run against Notre Dame, a triple against Mississippi State and drove in a key run to help beat Florida. But after missing her high school senior season with a torn ACL, she tore it again after her freshman year in Knoxville. She didn’t play in shortened 2020 campaign. Physically, she recovered. But after her second year, she stepped away from the softball program at Tennessee. For the next two years, she was solely a student. Initially interested in majoring in mechanical engineering, but struggling to juggle classes, labs and softball, she had switched her focus to accounting. She tried to channel her energy into that, joining an accounting society—which presumably didn’t play “Rocky Top” quite as often at its gatherings. 

“I could have entered the portal and played softball elsewhere, but it was just strictly to promote academics,” Pacini said. “I wanted to finish out my degree at Tennessee, just knowing that having that on my resume would definitely set me up for my career. So it was just about making a sacrifice. You’ve got to sacrifice something you love to get something that you want.”

She still never thought she was done with softball. 

Accompanied by her family, Pacini was honored in senior ceremonies (photo courtesy UCLA Athletics).

After completing her undergraduate degree in 2022, UCLA made academic sense for graduate studies. She would like to eventually put her accounting background to use in law enforcement. A master’s in legal studies, a shorter program than a law degree, equips students with the tools to understand and apply legal principles—not becoming a lawyer but gaining fluency in the law, in effect.

For obvious reasons, UCLA also appealed as a place to resume her softball career. 

So, she emailed Inouye-Perez about playing. And heard exactly nothing in return. 

Realizing that being UCLA softball coach likely means an email inbox that is full to overflowing at the best of times, she dug through her contacts from years earlier to try and find another way to reach out. Finally, she found a phone number and the two set up a time to speak. 

One complication was that the Bruins had nearly 30 players on the roster a season ago, still juggling the effects of expanded COVID-era eligibility. Factoring in Pacini’s anticipated workload as she adjusted to graduate studies, they agreed she would serve as a student-manager. 

Any successful program makes its managers feel valued—and makes sure its players appreciate their contributions. It’s nonetheless also true that most managers weren’t previously recruited to play for the team in question. Setting up equipment, helping in the batting cages and staying ready to help where needed could have tested her pride. She welcomed the chance to take some occasional hacks and get to know the players—at least those she hadn’t played against in high school or travel ball. 

“They treated me like I was their teammate,” Pacini said. “ A lot of the girls knew that I was going to be part of the roster, and they kind of just took me in. They invited me to a couple of team events here and there, I got to travel with the girls and was still a part in the team—but not a part of the team, if that makes sense.”

She swears she wasn’t nervous stepping back onto the field as a player last fall. She knew she didn’t have time to be nervous, that the year would pass in the blink of an eye. She just wanted to savor it. On Feb. 24, she was in the starting lineup when UCLA played Baylor in the Mary Nutter Classic, the Palm Spring staple where the Bruins often play in front of partisan crowds at least as big as those in Westwood. She flied out in her first at-bat, then popped up in the second at-bat. In her final at-bat, facing RyLee Crandall, she went up with the plan to sit on the change. 

“She threw me a changeup, and I just put the best swing I could on it and hit a single up the middle,” Pacini recalled. 

It had been 1,736 days since her last collegiate hit.  

Having earned her master’s in legal studies last May, she’s now working toward a master’s in project management—she even managed to wrangle an extension for a group project because of her travel commitments this week. She has a job offer from a “Big Four” accounting firm to begin work in a few weeks. The rest of her life is right around the corner. First, she has some more softball to play.

There are all sorts of paths to the Women’s College World Series and all sorts of stories within Hall Fame Stadium, as most still know it. Sometimes they are like Lauren Chamberlain: big, bold stories and moments that inspire a generation. 

Sometimes they remain in the dugout, almost literally hidden just below the surface. 

But everyone there is living out a dream, no matter how long they had to hold onto it. 

“The game keeps you young,” Pacini said. “I still feel like my eight-year-old self playing. I’m just trying to have as much fun as possible within the last couple weeks that I have with this sport.”