The bond that ties the unofficial ninth team at the Women's College World Series
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Saturday at the Women's College World Series often has something of a cutthroat vibe. Mind you, it's not personal -- all right, it's rarely personal -- but it is normally the day in which half the teams head home to play no more until February. That is not an environment conducive to goodwill and cheer among peers. If your rival has a good day, it may mean it's your last day.
That isn't quite the case this year in Oklahoma City, and not just because of delays on the first day that altered the schedule enough to ensure only two teams faced elimination on this kinder, gentler Saturday, with the larger cull to come Sunday.
It also has to do with the presence of a ninth team, at least unofficially, a group not quite numerous enough to fill out a lineup card but one that shares a bond as strong as any uniform. At least seven players of Polynesian heritage took the field or were likely to take the field Saturday: Alabama's Leona Lafaele, Georgia's Tina Iosefa and Kaylee Puailoa, Oklahoma's Fale Aviu and UCLA's Mysha Sataraka, Selina Ta'amilo and Brianna Tautalafua.
While seasons ended for No. 6 Alabama and No. 12 UCLA, the first teams headed home, some of their players remain connected to what is still to come.
"To know that another Polynesian has made it in Division I softball is so amazing," Lafaele said this week. "And all we have is love for each other. Even though we don't know each other at all, I'm supporting them 100 percent -- maybe not their teams, but them as individuals? Yes."
Those aren't just words. She didn't know Georgia's Iosefa and Puailoa much beyond sight, but when Georgia came to Alabama for the final regular-season SEC series this year, Lafaele presented her fellow seniors and Samoans with leis, a staple of traditional Polynesian culture.
"I wanted them know that I recognized they [are seniors] and I'm proud of them," Lafaele said.
And when it came to the banquet that World Series teams attend before games begin, there was no one Lafaele was more excited to see than UCLA pitcher Ta'amilo. She didn't know Ta'amilo, mind you, had never met her. But Lafaele's mother scanned the rosters once the field was set, did some further research and discovered that while the softball players were both born in California, their families shared ties to the same Samoan town.
So Lafaele made a beeline for Ta'amilo and greeted her like an old friend.
"We already considered each other family," Ta'amilo said.
Lafaele does the same when she sees someone she thinks might be Polynesian in an airport. Or at a restaurant. Or on the street. Pretty much anywhere. It is the embodiment of aiga, the Samoan word for family that extends far beyond the nuclear definition.
"It has shaped me into the person that I am today," Lafaele said of her heritage. "I am so proud of who I am and what my culture is. You don't see us anywhere besides maybe football, because the guys are always doing it for us -- Troy Polamalu, all of them, they're up there as superstars. But you don't really see any female Samoans really doing it for our community. So everything I do, I look at it as if my cousins, who don't really know who they are yet or what it means to be Samoans, I'm showing them what it means to be proud of your culture.
"Just putting us out there so people know we are here."
According to NCAA demographic data, 1 percent of Division I softball players in the 2014-15 academic year were classified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, specifically "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific Islands."
That is actually a greater proportion than what Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders constituted in the 2010 U.S. Census, so this isn't necessarily a matter of opportunities denied. But it is a matter of visibility -- and not just for the well-intentioned person in Alabama who once asked Lafaele if being Samoan meant she was from Somalia. Our role models don't need to look like us, but shared experiences resonate.
"I think it's great that me, Mysha, Bri and other girls from other teams, that we can represent our culture on the softball field, especially at the World Series," Ta'amilo said in reference to her teammates. "So when people see us, younger Polynesian girls, hopefully we play as role models and inspire more Polynesian girls to play the game. And hopefully other people who don't know about our culture see us play and are fascinated.
"I just think that our culture is beautiful, and we're about family."
The shared sense of experience won't take the sting out of Saturday's 8-4 loss to Florida State that eliminated UCLA, the first time in 26 trips to the World Series that the Bruins ever lost their first two games here. The pitching consistency that UCLA found in the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament but lacked in the regular season disappeared again after Sataraka staked the team to a 4-0 lead with a first-inning grand slam. But it is one more way in which the program with the biggest brand name in college softball still reaches a new generation.
There is a smaller Polynesian community in a place like Athens, Georgia, than Southern California, to be sure, but the same is true there, too. It turned heads when Puailoa hit the walk-off home run that eliminated top-seeded Florida in a super regional -- making SportsCenter's Top 10 plays will do that. But the criminal justice major who is on track to graduate next year would like to be a model of success in other ways.
"I feel like Polynesians haven't gotten their big break, just because they're so held back [focusing] on the athletic side," Puailoa said. "Just knowing that I've been able to overcome that, and I've got to give a lot of credit to my parents for pushing me in that area [of academics]."
While all of the Polynesian players in the World Series were born in California, with the exception of the Hawaiian Sataraka, their success may resonate beyond those shores.
"[In Samoa] it's mostly focused on male sports, football, because that's what we're always good at," Lafaele said. "Our boys are huge, they're strong, they're fast, so of course that's what they're going to try and develop. But I definitely think they've been doing a better job of trying to get female sports more integrated. It's just hard because out there in Samoa, they don't have the resources that we have. They don't have the coaching. Softball hasn't really made its way."
In the penultimate at-bat of her college career, Lafaele drove a ball over the fence in left field. It looked for a few minutes as if the 33rd home run of her time at Alabama might spark one more comeback in a season full of them. Down four runs even after that ball cleared the fence, the Crimson Tide soon added two more and had the bases loaded for the top of its order.
It wasn't to be. Seven good teams have to lose to make the World Series work. LSU's Allie Walljasper came on in relief and worked out of the jam. Her team plays another day.
The pain was as evident on Lafaele's face. Alabama had been, after all, her second family for four years. That bond is the reason the entire team was on hand last year for a party her real family threw when the Crimson Tide played near her Sacramento home.
"They value family so much, and I never knew how much," teammate Haylie McCleney said. "But it made sense how much they valued it because it fit her to a T."
Which is why you imagine Lafaele will still have an eye on what Iosefa, Pauiloa and Aviu do Saturday night and through the remainder of the week for the tournament's ninth team.
"You have to support your fellow Samoan sisters," Lafaele said. "Because who else is going to do it?"