If you’ve ever played softball, you probably heard the term “hitter’s count.” It’s a reference to the game’s invisible count, which is how many pitches—or “pitches,” to use the colloquialism—a batter has to see and/or swing at to get to the next base. The rationale is that if the batter can’t make contact on the last out of an inning, the run(s) still count(s) and the inning is not a “W.”
In 2009, Jocelyn Alo was a 5-foot-6, 103-pound softball player for the Oklahoma Sooners. That year, she was third on her team in batting average, third in home runs, third in RBI, and fifth in hits. But after the season, her coach told her she was too small to play.
The bullet dissolved in the sodium glow of the park lights like an aspirin. He cleared the field, the outfield, the fence in center field, the eight or so rows of bleachers behind that fence, and the chain-link fence about 20 feet behind those bleachers. Rumors and reports after the game indicate that the arc of the ball landed on the roof of the car.
The pitcher turned and stared at the ball until it disappeared. The batter – probably the best hitter in the history of softball – touched base, crossed home plate and threw a ball to his family in the stands, while the pitcher still stood with his back to the ball and contemplated the mysteries of the night. The expression on his face did not express the usual emotions of anger or surprise, but rather a kind of deep curiosity mixed with admiration. She seemed to be researching the scene and remembering to tell it later. Even an atheist can appreciate the architecture of a church.
CRUSHED #WCWS | @OU_Softball pic.twitter.com/642MnZPnEZ
– NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) June 3, 2019.
That home run came in the 2019 Women’s College World Series semifinal against Alabama, and the hitter – arguably the best hitter in the history of college softball – was Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo. But really, it’s a reaction inspired by some Alo home runs, like. the hit against Baylor in late April (in 20 mph winds, over the left-center fence, into the parking lot, into the rear window of an innocent Honda Odyssey) or the hit taken at a travel-ball tournament in Stockton, California, for his senior year of high school (over the center field fence, over another fence, at least 50 feet past the center field fence, into the street behind the second fence). Alo’s story began when she appeared at BYU’s summer camp as an anonymous Hawaiian seventh grader. At the beginning of camp, she played in her age group, but was soon transferred to the 18-year-old group, partly for safety reasons. She also repeatedly beat the older guys, and before the week was over, BYU’s coach offered her a full scholarship. But if she continues like this, BYU’s coach has admitted to her father that she probably won’t go to BYU.
Oklahoma was in first place for most of the season and the Sooners entered the postseason as the number one team in the country. Their attack – to put it in dry, clinical terms – is futile: Team batting average of .424, best in the country; 11.5 runs per game, best in the country; 142 home runs, best in the country. Alo, a senior, leads the nation in home runs (28) after leading the nation with 30 as a freshman in 2018. Their stats seem to have been made up in the lab: a .477 batting average, 78 RBI, 1.106 batting average and 1.675 OPS. With one season to go, she has 14 home runs to break the NCAA record (95) held by Oklahoma’s Lauren Chamberlain.
Jocelyn hits the ball farther than any woman I’ve ever seen in my life, said Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, who won four national titles in 26 seasons with Oklahoma. And in the most important moments, the ball seems to fly the furthest.
Tiare Jennings, a freshman infielder, leads the Suners with a .488 average and ranks second nationally in home runs. Before the first at bat of each game, she and Alo have a conversation in a circle on the field that starts with Jennings asking Alo what to watch for, and almost always ends with Alo saying: I want you to go to the base for me, and Jennings says: Okay, Quinn, I will.
Alo has a certain aura about him: A confidence mixed with a Hawaiian calm and a total understanding of her place in the hierarchy of the game. It was this aura that led one of the first people I spoke to about Alo to describe her as such: She is humble, but she knows she is strong.
Alo perfected one of the best swings in college softball at Hau’ula Park, where she swung 500 times a day with her father, Levi. Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire
A swing is a compressed, fast and furious punch, performed by repetition and the atypical strength of the forearms and wrists. The club is 34 inches long, weighs 25 ounces, is always end-loaded and is never balanced for maximum torque – it goes from back shoulder to front shoulder in an instant. His swings and misses are somehow scarier than his powerful home runs; as soon as the bat passes the plate, it sends it back to where it started, as if rewinding at high speed, as if the bat were no heavier than a flapper. Every swing is a controlled retaliation count.
The swing originated in a local park in Hau’ula, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Jocelyn was four years old when his older sister, Sabrina, began playing on the tee-ball team coached by his mother, Andrea. Jocelyn was angry that she was too young to join them, so her father promised to take her for walks and beat her as often as she wanted. So began the surprisingly long father-daughter outing to a local park, where Levi gave Jocelyn 1,000 litters a day. (Of course, this seems like overkill, impossible in terms of a four-year-old’s father time and attention span. But in separate conversations, both Levi and Jocelyn swear she’s never bored. A thousand strokes in two intervals of 500 strokes, practically every day).
Since the first trip to the mainland, where Levy’s suspicions were confirmed by his daughter’s performance at a BYU camp, the entire summer has gone the same way: Levi and Jocelyn flew from Honolulu to Oakland, California, picked up an extra Suburban from Andrea’s parents in Berkeley, loaded it up with their summer collection of household items (pots, pans, shower curtains, plastic containers, Microwave ovens) and made the six-hour trip to Anaheim, California, where they rented a one-bedroom apartment next to a sports training facility, a softball facility run by Mike Stitt, a nationally known travel ball coach. And so it began: two months in the batting cage in the mornings, practice or speed classes in the afternoons, tournaments in faraway Florida on the weekends.
Wake up, workout, nap, workout, says Jocelyn. It was summer.
It was there in Anaheim, as part of the Orange County Batbusters, that Legend began to unravel the layers. Alo moved to California in eighth grade, a year after Oregon offered him a full scholarship. After her sophomore year of high school, she hit 11 home runs in 12 at-bats in a high-level tournament. These tournaments might have four or five games played at once – it’s big business, after all – but when word got out, parents and players flocked to Batbusters Field whenever Alo was on the field.
Levi drove everywhere and collected the money to catch every flight and see every tournament. Andrea stayed home in Oahu to work full time and raise her two younger sisters, Jocelyn. It was a nomadic life, lived in the heart of the youth sports industrial complex, where many enter but few leave. When you hit the first time, you feel like you should always be at the next tournament, Levy said. You have to go to Florida and New York, and that’s all there is to life. Now that I’m older, I realize that Jocelyn missed out on a lot. Lots of family gatherings, lots of time with her sisters. I pushed her… I pushed. I thought she had potential, and so I pushed her, and that’s why we sacrificed.
Sometimes she went to the beach with her teammates, and at the end of the summer she went to Disneyland, but Levi smiles and says: I must say: Once you were in, you stayed in. No days off. Whatever was going on, we switched to speed and quickness every day at the age of 4.
Alo spent most of his summers at softball camps. She missed a lot, her father Levi says now. Thanks to Levi Alo.
Jocelyn’s younger sisters, Lorraine, 16, and Sophia, 14, are also good softball players. I do the same with them, Levy said, but they don’t miss as much as Jock. I learned. When asked how he assesses the talents of his two young daughters, he smiles and replies: They’re not his sisters, but they’re good.
Stitt’s program runs like a treadmill straight to Oklahoma; nine of his summer basketball players play on the best team in the country. Stith has seen just about every incarnation of a sports parent, and he says Levi is intense and a lot of fun, but that he still got Jocelyn excited and pressured. Not that they are in a cage 11 hours a day, but every day when I arrived at the gym at 10, they were already there fighting. He pushed Jocelyn, no doubt she was pushed, but there was a lot of respect in that.
Levi and I are on the phone, thousands of miles apart, but I can feel him wince as he talks: I did it because I thought it might be best.
It is possible. According to Gasso, the list of the best hitters in college history includes four or five players, and without a doubt Jocelyn Alo is among that small group. After Alo turned down her contract with UCLA (according to her, I didn’t feel like I was in California anymore) and went to Norman, Gasso was impressed with the momentum — who wouldn’t be? — but he was even more intrigued by Alto’s casual remark about his wrestling career in college. (When I was still wrestling, I was in incredible shape, says Alo. Seriously, the traps are here). Gasso turned to YouTube, where she found a video of Alo winning the state finals in the 184-pound second class and dislocating his opponent’s shoulder: I looked at it and said: Okay, I need her on my team.
Alo says she can hit a softball 395 to 400 feet, and cited a home run against Alabama as an example. Given the physics – a bat that weighs only 25 ounces and has a barrel of 2¼ inches connects to a ball 12 inches in circumference – such a distance seems absurd. But if I were Ms. Gasso asks if Alto’s assessment is youthful enthusiasm, she replies: No, I agree.
Levy said: I’m just kidding with Jock. If you were a man, we’d be millionaires. She knows. She’s laughing too. We have a first round pick.
As a freshman, Alo led the country with home runs, not only in number, but also in range, volume and amazing wildness. She treated the fences as a personal affront. Gradually she became an object of admiration. The seventh-grader who used to chase people away four or five windows to see her hit was now one of the school’s most dangerous softball players.
But here the soundtrack takes on an unsettling and haunting tone. With attention comes pressure and expectations, and in his second season, what Alo loved most – taking a swing and watching the ball fly – became torture. The teams acted around them, and some made them laugh. Everything wasn’t right. There weren’t enough home runs, and the home runs she hit didn’t go far enough. She continued. She was worried. She flashed. The decor was : I have to… I should be… if I’m 30 now, I should be 40, Gasso said, speeding up his words. Everything was a should and a must, and it wasn’t working well for them. She wasn’t a big softball fan, and it showed in the way she played. Suddenly, all the eyes that had been on her since school had become even more vivid. She felt her attention shift from idolatry to skepticism. Home runs have become as much a statistic as a personality, and as Gasso says, I sometimes feel like I live among home runs.
Midway through the Big 12 Conference season, Gasso made a decision: Alo had to go. She wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy, Gasso said. It was hard to watch her play the game impartially, with frustration, with anger. That’s not how she plays, and it wasn’t just funk. It was intense. There was a lot of pressure on her and she looked miserable. It affected our team, and I didn’t like that either.
Alo’s sentence was two weeks. Two weeks without softball – no games, no practices, not even softball on TV. Get off social media while you’re at it, Gasso told him. You don’t know what you have now because you don’t like it, Gasso said. Isolate yourself from us. Just live. Take a deep breath and decide what you want. Gasso told her to be a regular student for two weeks and that when she returned, she would find a new job.
I was on the verge of quitting the sport, Alo said of this difficult period in the 2019 season. I had to go back to being the kid who liked to hit balls in the park. AP Photo/Alonzo Adams
Alo defended himself. She was crying. In response to Gasso’s decree, she said: Really, coach? If I’m no good, I need to be fed more. More work with tees. More. That’s the formula that got her this far, more, more, more: 1,000 strokes a day on 4, every morning in the cage in Anaheim, speed and quickness on 4, every day. You can’t do anything with less, his entire career has proven that. She called her father in tears, who assumed she had torn her knee.
Levi called Gasso, who explained the situation exactly as she had explained it to Jocelyn. Staying on the sidelines seemed like a good idea, Levy said. I wouldn’t say she lost her love for the game, but she was constantly hitting home runs, and when they failed, she put too much pressure on herself.
Alone with her thoughts, detached from the game for the first time since she was four, Alo had a radical idea: to play herself. But for that, she had to shake off the belief that she was abandoning people: her father, who sacrificed his time and money; her mother, who stayed home; her younger sisters, who had to live without her every summer for five years.
I never wanted to feel like I was wasting my parents’ money and disappointing them by not performing, Alo says. I knew I had to go and do what I did, but I was putting so much unnecessary pressure on myself. I really lost my love for the game and was about to give up because I couldn’t handle the pressure. I had to get away from softball and become that kid who liked to hit balls in the park.
Alo missed two weeks of practice and three games, and the Suners won all three. I don’t think she liked it very much, but it was helpful, Gasso said. There was too much pressure on her shoulders, and I think she was somewhat relieved of that pressure when she saw him: Hey, we can do this without you. Alo returned to the team and finished the season with 16 home runs on an NCAA finalist team. Their slugging percentage, which was an absurd .977 in 2018, has dropped to a paltry .730. I had no passion, and this break gave me a chance to reconnect with the game, Alo says. Now if I don’t do what people want me to do, I know the best way to handle it. I have confidence in myself and my abilities.
Jocelyn came out of the bad times with more passion and a little more leadership, Gasso said. She’s been through some tough times. What I did to her may have embarrassed her, but she changed her mind, focused on her career and became a completely different person.
Alo was the best freshman in the country, and the following season she felt very clearly the attention her talent brought. When everyone turned to look at her, she looked away. She says after her freshman year, all eyes were on me at every game. In my second year, I got lost. I was a little surprised and didn’t know how to react. Now I’m talking: Hey, look at this.
With a second-place finish in 2019, the Soosers are the No. 1 seed in the postseason and once again have a chance to win the Women’s College World Series title. Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images
Gasso repeatedly emphasizes that she is not talking directly about the Alo family when she denounces the state of the commercial funding system for youth softball. Her family did it for wonderful reasons, she says. Her father sacrificed a lot of time and money because she had more chances on the continent, and he understood that. But did she take her away from her family? Yes.
In his 30 years as a head coach, 26 of them at Oklahoma, Gasso has seen this all too often: the pursuit of scholarships at any cost and the damage done in the process. Kids come from this world and don’t know how to think for themselves, she says. They are dependent, they are robotic, they sometimes lose their soul. Oh, you lost your $300 bat? I’ll buy you a new one. They go to college, and no matter how good they are, many of them are broken. Most of what happens here is parents making their dreams come true. You can tell people: My son has a scholarship. Look at us. In the end, your child may not be as happy as you think.
Alo swears it never happened. I was determined to do it from the beginning, and that’s what sets me apart from a lot of other people, she says. I never felt compelled to do anything. He wears number 78, Levy’s number when he played football at Laney College in Oakland. He’s my best friend, Alo said of his father. We’ve been through a lot together on the way to softball.
The best time to see my home runs on video isn’t even when I’m doing them….. It’s my dad’s reaction that gets me every time. We did it, Dad.
– Jocelyn Alo (@78jocelyn_alo) June 7, 2018
Levi and his mother – who everyone in the family calls Granny Nita – attend as many matches as they can. They fly to Oakland, spend the night at Andrea’s parents, and fly to Oklahoma City the next day. Levi is a great man who hates to steal. At least that’s what he says: I hate flying on intercity buses – but he seems to catch himself looking at all that water every two weeks or so. He and Mamie Nita will attend every minute of the Super Regional and, if the Sooners win as expected, the Women’s College World Series. The offerings changed shape, became gifts.
Alo will return next year for her fifth year in Pandora, meaning her career will include four full seasons plus the 24 games she played in the shortened 2020 season. (The almost total lack of options other than NCAA softball made his decision to return easy. A Japanese pro league is a possibility, but softball experts say supervised softball is the closest thing to professional softball in the United States. A new league, Athletes Unlimited, could change that). The extra season has caused some controversy: If Alo breaks Chamberlain’s record, do those 24 games and eight additional home runs in 2020 detract from that achievement? Do you need an asterisk? Arizona’s Jessie Harper, who also has a shot at the record books, enters the Super Regional with 90 home runs in her career. She scored 10 points last year and is back for her fifth season this year.
Chamberlain and Alo speak often, and Chamberlain advised him to take advantage of the extra year, no offense. Alo comes back, for the record of course, but also for the camaraderie and adrenaline of comparing himself to the other and seeing how he flies. And another reason: The joy she had once imagined was gone forever. Yeah, why wouldn’t I want to go back for another year? It’s a dream, and I want to live that dream for as long as possible.