Latinas are embracing softball

Sydney and Sierra Romero have already faced off in the NCAA softball championships and could conceivably do so again internationally for Mexico and USA one day. Courtesy of Ty Russell, AP Photo

The crack of the bat against a ball can be the instant a love affair starts with a sport. For NCAA champion Sydney Romero, it was also a special moment of family bonding as she and her sister watched their father play.

"One of the games we went to, he hit a home run over the fence," said Romero, a sophomore infielder for Oklahoma. "Watching him play inspired me and motivated me to continue to play softball."

Mexican-American Romero is now part of a wave of Latinas in softball.

According to NCAA.org, from 2010-2011 to 2016-2017, Hispanic/Latino participation in softball grew from 1,074 to 1,479, an increase of 37.7 percent. African-American player participation also increased during the same time period, about 12 percent, while white and Asian participation decreased slightly. Of the 19,679 student-athletes listed last season as playing softball, Hispanics were the largest minority group, making up 7.5 percent of softball players or 1,476 self-identified players.

"It's really awesome to see," said Romero, noting increased participation from Latinas not only in the United States, but also across the border.

Her Sooners team went on a goodwill trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. "We hosted a clinic with young kids; we were teaching them, showing them all these techniques, speaking in Spanish, and it was just really awesome to share our knowledge to grow the game, like it is in the U.S."

Many Latinas begin playing softball regionally, since the sport is popular in Southern California, Texas and in Florida -- all areas with higher concentrations of Hispanics.

Earning a college scholarship sometimes means playing elsewhere in the country. Sierra Romero, Sydney's older sister, played her entire college career at Michigan with the Mexican flag stitched onto her glove. Florida's Aleshia Ocasio stayed in her home state for college, but she has traveled to Puerto Rico to play for their national team since she was in high school.

"I've gone there for tournaments. I've gone there to visit family," Ocasio, a junior, said. "Communicating with the Puerto Rican team can sometimes be tough, because I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but we all speak softball."

Like the Romeros, three-time Team USA Olympic softball gold medalist Lisa Fernandez, now an assistant coach with UCLA softball, got a push at the start from her father, who once played semipro ball in Cuba.

"My dad, growing up, was supportive of who I was and how physical I was," Fernandez explained. "He always encouraged me to play aggressively, to play with your heart, be proud. It was very impactful. That gave me the confidence to believe in myself and ultimately, to achieve, in my career, what I was able to achieve."

Fernandez, who also has Puerto Rican heritage on her mother's side, became an icon for a whole new generation in the sport.

"Kids approach me at games, at tournaments, 'I went to one of your camps, I went to one of your clinics and it was a great experience.' or 'You inspired me.'" Fernandez said. "That's what it's all about, to be able give back."

"[Fernandez] was one of my big heroes growing up, watching her play for the Olympic team," Romero said. "I remember going out to her games and seeing her both pitch and hit. Amazing. It was awesome."

"I hope it gets as big as baseball. We're working so hard." Pitcher Aleshia Ocasio

Softball is ripe, the women believe, for even more growth in the Latino community.

"The heritage and tradition of baseball within the Latino community is huge," Fernandez noted. "There's no reason why it should not transcend into the female aspect in our sport, which is softball. I completely encourage and believe in that ability to provide opportunity. Our sport is tremendous for athletes of all sizes and all shapes to contribute and excel. For what baseball has been able to do for the Hispanic community, it should be the same for the female side."

"A lot of girls play, not only in the U.S., but in Puerto Rico," Ocasio said. "I hope it gets as big as baseball. We're working so hard. I'm really excited to see where it goes."

Puerto Rico, in fact, has its softball team ranked No. 7 in the world, currently the highest international ranking of any Puerto Rican national team.

"It was a great honor to represent my culture," Ocasio said of competing for Puerto Rico at the 2015 Pan American Games, where she helped the team to a bronze medal. "It was a fun experience."

One thing that should push development along is increased international competition. Since softball has been reintroduced as an Olympic sport for the upcoming Tokyo Games, it seems likely to increase in popularity.

"It used to be a small pool of athletes where the majority of softball was played," Fernandez observed. "Now, it's getting widespread, and we have a number of athletes from different countries who are playing the sport at an extremely high level."

"I'm really excited about the opportunity," noted Ocasio about the Olympics. "I'm happy that I'm with Puerto Rico. We have to qualify still, but I have high hopes for my team."

Sydney Romero is even open to playing for Mexico.

"That would be awesome to do if USA didn't work out. I'd be up to it, for sure."

The infielder affirmed she and her sister, who have already played for the USA junior and senior national teams, respectively, were thrilled with the news softball would be played at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

"We were so excited. It's been a dream for so many young kids."

"It's tremendous," said Fernandez of the news. "It's one thing to play for your school; it's a whole other thing to play for your country."

Ocasio was recruited personally by Puerto Rican coach Edwin Mercado, who spoke to her father about her representing Puerto Rico. Fernandez anticipates many Latinas playing softball in the U.S. are likely to be sought out to play for countries where they or their parents have lineage, as coaches from abroad scramble to assemble strong teams for international play.

"I've been able to know some of the coaches of [Mexico]," Fernandez said. "They're highly competitive. They are seeking those athletes, either playing currently in Mexico or here in the U.S."

Other Latin American countries are bound to follow that example, scouting in the U.S. even as they develop programs in their own countries.

Whether at home or abroad, Latinas bring something unique to the sport, according to Fernandez.

"One thing that you definitely get with the Hispanic athletes and Hispanic culture is the expression, and the emotion that you can see these athletes playing with. I love being born with that and have my parents as role models in encouraging that style of play and that commitment to whatever it is that you're doing."

To read a version of this story in Spanish, visit ESPN Deportes here.