More than Tom Brady's niece: Meet UCLA softball standout Maya Brady

Maya Brady makes great diving catch in center field (0:26)

Tom Brady's niece Maya Brady makes a nice diving catch in center field for UCLA. (0:26)

Editor's note: This story originally ran in February, as UCLA's season was getting started. Now with the Bruins headed to the Women's College World Series, take a look at how star Maya Brady ended up in Westwood.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- There is a photo that UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez still has, one that remains highly sentimental, because it helps explain how the Bruins landed one of their future superstars.

A superstar who happens to have a famous superstar uncle or two.

In the photo, 9-year-old Maya Brady stands front and center in UCLA gear, smiling big. The entire team, dressed in uniform, smiles all around her. Inouye-Perez is off to one side of the photo. Maya's "Uncle Tommy" Brady is in the photo too, off to the left.

Maya Brady fell in love with UCLA softball after watching the Bruins win the Women's College World Series in 2010. Already a talented softball player in her own right, Brady zeroed in one player in particular: freshman outfielder B.B. Bates, a player who looked like her, inspiring her to believe it was possible that she, too, could play at UCLA one day.

She attended a summer softball camp at UCLA, and then her travel ball coach, Mike Stith, arranged to take young Brady to a game and a meet-and-greet with the team. Her mom, Maureen, sister and uncle (yes that Tom Brady) came on the visit with her, and she finally had the chance to meet her role model.

"I remember being so nervous because it was my first UCLA game that I had ever gone to," Brady says now. "I was that shy little 9-year-old kid that the coaches would ask questions to, and I would just smile and look at my mom because I couldn't even speak.

"My uncle Tommy was with me because he had moved to L.A. at the time and UCLA was right next to his house, so we wanted him to go with us to make it even more special for me."

Brady had already made an impression on the UCLA coaches without even knowing it. Inouye-Perez remembers a play Brady made during a summer camp that she still talks about today.

"She was a really skinny little thing, and they were taking ground balls and there was a high chopper," Inouye-Perez said. "She came in and she charged it, turned it into a short hop and threw it on the run to first and I went, 'Oh, look at that girl. Just pure athleticism.' I told her when she came up afterwards to visit, 'I remember you. You turned that high chopper into a short hop,' and she got the biggest smile on her face."

The visit left Brady more certain than ever that UCLA was where she wanted to be. Now, here she is, 12 years later, leading the Bruins back to the Women's College World Series as UCLA takes on Texas Thursday (Noon ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

"Having so much admiration for them after the World Series win, and then going there and being in that atmosphere around the team and coaches really made me a die-hard UCLA fan," Brady said. "B.B. Bates was such a huge idol for me, because I simply felt like I could relate to her. She not only gave me the confidence that someone like me could play at UCLA, but I could go and play college softball in general."

Getting to UCLA, of course, was not as simple as saying, "I want to play at UCLA." Brady was born into an athletic family, as her last name suggests. In addition to Tom Brady, her mom and aunt Nancy both played collegiate softball. Her aunt Julie played collegiate soccer and is married to former Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis. Sister Hannah is a volleyball player.

The weight of expectation comes with being in her family. Brady embraced all that, and her Uncle Tommy has not been shy about lavishing her with praise -- most especially on social media -- where he has called her "the most dominant athlete in the Brady family ... by far!"

What stood out to Inouye-Perez from the very beginning -- in addition to Brady's athletic ability -- is not just the way the entire Brady family embraced UCLA, but the way Maya Brady learned the same work ethic and competitiveness that has become a trademark of the Brady family.

Inouye-Perez played against Maureen Brady, a superstar pitcher at Fresno State in the 1990s who led the Bulldogs to two WCWS appearances and had 80 career wins. So the two have a long history together, and always shared a mutual respect.

Brady credits her mom for helping her push her limits. Maureen Brady worked as a traveling nurse while raising her two daughters as a single mom. But she made it her mission to make sure both Maya and her younger sister, Hannah, had the same opportunities in sports, and did whatever she needed to do to make that a reality.

"Seeing how my mom operates in life is on another level, and I genuinely don't know if anyone works harder than her," Brady said. "She constantly reminds me of how nothing is handed to you and how hard and unforgiving life can be, so I take what she tells me and I try to apply it in my own life, whether that be in the classroom or on the field."

Brady started out playing both softball and soccer. In fact, she wanted to pitch just like her mom. But coaches never put her in the circle, instead telling her she should play shortstop. Along the way, she developed into a terrific hitter -- something her mom helps her with as well.

"I developed as a hitter definitely with the help of my mom guiding me to think like a pitcher, and her telling me what she would throw me," Brady said.

By the time UCLA coaches saw her play for the first time outside one of their camps, Brady was in seventh grade and showed more of the athletic ability and speed that make her so special. When it came time for her recruitment, Brady committed to UCLA as a freshman in high school. But over her softball career, as she developed her strength, Brady went from being a slapper at the plate to a far more dominant power hitter.

That was on full display when she was a true freshman in 2020, when she was selected the Softball America Freshman Player of the Year after leading the Bruins with seven home runs and tying for first with 28 RBIs in a COVID-19-shortened season.

Last year, she made first-team All-Pac-12 after hitting .333 and tying for the team lead with 14 home runs. Already one of the strongest players on the team, her next step is finding more consistency with her swing.

Brady said she focused this past offseason on "going back to the basics and what I was comfortable doing, and focused on what had got me to UCLA in the first place. Sometimes you overthink what you need to work on, so the help of my old travel ball coach really helped me a lot."

Inouye-Perez said, "Being a first-team All-American as a freshman now creates expectations, and expectations can lead to pressing or wanting to do more. And she wants that, she wants to be recognized as the best player in Division I softball, and with it, she knows comes execution. So I love seeing her grow and develop. She's a fierce competitor and wants to be known as somebody who can do damage at any time.

"The fortunate thing for her is, she's in a program where she's going to get some big games like this Sunday. People are going to pitch their aces against us. So she's going to get more experience, and hopefully, if all goes as planned, deeper into a season to allow her to get more big moments. That, by nature, makes athletes better because you learn how to embrace it. You learn how to approach it. You learn how to be successful in those moments."

Veteran teammate Aaliyah Jordan, one of the best hitters for the Bruins, immediately took Brady under her wing when she arrived at UCLA. She saw Brady grow from a shy player who did not say much into someone who now takes the lead in cracking jokes and goofing off. But where Jordan has tried to help the most is in giving advice a big hitter needs to hear.

The two are hitting partners and have grown close over the past three years. When Jordan leaves after this season, she knows it will be Brady who carries forward as a team leader, one who has learned how to not only help her teammates but help herself.

"She has an amazing swing, so I don't really need to teach her much there, but I would say helping with the mental game of not riding the roller coaster of emotions and having confidence in yourself," Jordan said. "And knowing that you've put in the work to be successful in any given situation.

"Every pitcher is going to give her their best pitch. Sometimes she might get a little bit in her head about that, but she has the ability to stay true to herself and say, 'I'm Maya Brady.' She can hit literally any pitch, it could be five feet over her head. It could be two inches off the ground. She'll still hit it out."

Indeed, making a name for herself as Maya Brady is important, too. Already, she has worked on NIL deals this season, but the goal was always to get back to Oklahoma City.

There might be a little girl somewhere watching her, being inspired the way she was when she saw Bates play for UCLA in the WCWS 12 years ago. What Brady might not know is that Bates had her own source of inspiration as a young girl. Watching future Olympian Natasha Watley play for UCLA made Bates want to be a Bruin, too.

The connection certainly is not lost on Bates, who remembers meeting shy, 9-year-old Maya Brady all those years ago.

"For Maya to point me out, because we had a lot of athletes come through that are African American, was pretty awesome," Bates said. "I got to sit in the bleachers and watch Natasha Watley, and that inspired me, and I was able to manifest and visualize my dream school. So I can only imagine what it did for her."

From Watley in the early 2000s to Bates in the 2010s to Brady in the 2020s, there might just be a UCLA softball player 10 years from now who has a similar story ... and a similar photo to share.

"I want to give little girls the same vision and same goals that B.B. gave me," Brady said. "When I see little girls at the game I just think of myself in that clubhouse with the 2010 team, and how much we affect these girls and make their day by doing the smallest acts."