For the first time since 2008, WCWS stars can chase their Olympic dreams
OKLAHOMA CITY -- For most of the past decade, Saturday at the Women's College World Series marked the beginning of the end for some of the best softball players in the world.
Saturday wasn't always the final act, mind you, even for those seniors who were among many eliminated on a day the World Series shifts from benevolent to ruthless and cuts its field in half. There was a pro league that was short on riches but at least resilient. There was a national team and the chance to play in international competitions. For a select few, a full-time living awaited in Japan.
To have that opportunity to play for your country, it's such a big honor, the highest honor you can have as an athlete.Kelly Barnhill
But the final time a player walked off the field at Hall of Fame Stadium as a collegian -- in front of thousands in the stands and many more watching on television -- was the final time they would play in a game that felt like it mattered as much to the rest of the world as it did to them.
For nearly a decade, while the rest of the sports world geared up for Olympic stages, first in London and then Rio de Janeiro, softball's spotlight never got any brighter than Oklahoma City.
A part of the Olympics from 1996 through 2008, when the spotlight helped make household names out of the likes of Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Jessica Mendoza and Cat Osterman, softball was then cut from the program. It will return in Tokyo in 2020, not yet on a permanent basis but, along with baseball, as a sport of consequence to the host country.
Which means that for the first time in a long time, the World Series is for some just a step on the road to a world stage in the Olympics.
"When they took softball out of the Olympics, when I found out, I actually went to my room and cried for over an hour," said Florida sophomore Kelly Barnhill, the espnW player of the year and a member of Team USA. "Then when they put it back in, I cried again.
"To have that opportunity to play for your country, it's such a big honor, the highest honor you can have as an athlete. And to have that platform to be a role model to younger kids. To be someone they can look up to like I looked up Jennie Finch."
While it might not have looked like it Friday when she launched a home run deep into the Oklahoma night, Washington's Ali Aguilar grew up a slap hitter. She would stand in her living room as she watched the Olympians on TV and imitate the hitting motions of slappers like Caitlin Lowe and Natasha Watley. She owned a Finch jersey. When the national team came through Sacramento, near her hometown, she was among the legions of girls who showed up.
The national team will again head to Sacramento this summer, this time with Aguilar in tow as a prospective Olympian.
"If you play softball and you go to college, you probably have that dream of playing in the Olympics," Aguilar said. "It's just really cool to be able to bring that back to the sport and allow softball players to strive for something after college, as well as pro softball. It's huge for our game."
And the link between Oklahoma City in 2017 and Tokyo in 2020 is more than aspirational. World Series rosters include six players who are part of the current Team USA roster: Florida's Barnhill and Delanie Gourley, Oregon's Jenna Lilley, UCLA's Paige Halstead and Delaney Spaulding and Washington's Aguilar. Aguilar and Spaulding were the starting middle infield when the United States won the WBSC World Championship a year ago, ending a long drought in an event that mattered to participants but generated little attention. Gourley also pitched in the final.
Nor is Team USA the only national team represented this week. Washington pitcher Madi Schreyer is part of the Canadian national team selection camp roster. LSU's Sahvanna Jaquish and Shemiah Sanchez and Florida's Aleshia Ocasio have already played for the Puerto Rican national team that will try to qualify for Tokyo. Washington's Taran Alvelo and Morganne Flores will soon join them.
But in part because of softball's years in the international wilderness, when the American program lacked the United States Olympic Committee funding and sponsorship interest that provided past players at least modest stipends in the run-up to Olympics, the national team has become a young woman's game. The current roster of 20 players includes 11 who played in college this season and another three who are only a year removed from their college days.
A generation of players went missing. Some, like former USA Softball Player of the Year Ashley Hansen, never played beyond college. Others, like former Tennessee star Lauren Gibson, played for the national team for several years but eventually followed life in other directions. Still more, like Lauren Chamberlain and Sierra Romero, focused on National Pro Fastpitch, the six-team summer league that provided consistent high-level competition and at least some earning power.
As much as the sport's return to the Olympic program reignites dreams, it isn't a magic cure-all. The sport doesn't just pick up where it left off when Japan's Yukiko Ueno beat the United States for gold in 2008. Always territorial, the American softball scene remains fractured. Spaulding was not selected in April's NPF draft. Aguilar lasted until the third round, and then was selected by the Houston-based ScrapYard Dawgs, one of the few teams that has in the past managed a working relationship with USA Softball. (At least some portion of the team will be in attendance Sunday at the World Series.) All things being equal, either might have been the first pick or certainly among the first few picks.
As long as the primary outlets for post-college softball are at cross purposes, if for no other reason than because neither can afford to share players when the summer season is so short to begin with, it will be difficult for the United States to put its best foot forward.
"It's going to be a situation where it's a little more pressure on us to work with other entities, such as the NPF, to figure out how we can work together," USA Softball executive director Craig Cress said earlier this spring. "I understand what they need. I think they understand that we want the best athletes. We just have to figure out a happy medium there.
"Softball is a team sport, and we can't just take the best 15 athletes a few days before the competition and take them somewhere and expect to do well."
As fans still filed into the stadium Saturday morning in Oklahoma City, Spaulding ripped a two-run single that proved the game-winning hit as UCLA eliminated Texas A&M and extended its own season at least as far as another game Saturday night. She staved off what is inevitable for all. But whenever it comes, it won't be the end or even the beginning of the end.
"After this week, unfortunately, I'm going to hang up my UCLA cleats," Spaulding said. "But I have another dream. That's what I'm going to be striving for, is 2020. I'm very excited. I'm going on the right path right now, but I've got to keep performing."
For a generation, Oklahoma City were the two words that mattered most to softball players in the United States. It made Saturday at the World Series that much more bittersweet for players like Spaulding. Now two more words share top billing: Tokyo 2020.
"They mean everything," Spaulding said. "Tokyo 2020, that's my dream."