NCAA stars help put Puerto Rico on the softball map

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Meghan King, who helped pitch Florida State to a national title in June, is one of several NCAA stars representing Puerto Rico at the WBSC World Championship.

IRVINE, Calif. -- As Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico last September, Karla Claudio got a text message from her sister saying the family was safe. It was the only direct communication that Claudio had with her parents and two sisters for nearly two weeks. With cellphones useless over large reaches of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm, Claudio, who was living in Florida, relied on messages relayed through friends.

Only after the interminable wait did she finally hear her mother's voice again. "I just knew it was bad when the first thing she said was 'Karla,' and then she started crying," Claudio said. "It's been a tough year."

Claudio's sisters have moved to Florida; her parents remain in Puerto Rico as the island struggles to rebuild and move on. As a member of the Puerto Rican national softball team, Claudio has traveled this summer to California for the International Cup, to Colombia for the Central American and Caribbean Games and now to Japan for the WBSC World Championship. She brings the island with her whenever she plays.

"We're here to make them proud," Claudio said. "And show how resilient the Puerto Rican people are."

Only a minority of the players on a roster full of current and former NCAA standouts share Claudio's firsthand experience of life on the island. But as Claudio sees it, that doesn't diminish their ability to be Puerto Rico's team. Where some see a roster ill-equipped for the challenge of representing the island, she sees players embracing their identity even as they lift Puerto Rico's softball fortunes.

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Aleshia Ocasio has played for the Florida Gators, the Chicago Bandits and the Puerto Rico national team this year.

A softball also-ran as recently as 2014, when it went 0-7 in the world championships, Puerto Rico is ranked sixth in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) and started 6-0 in Japan after winning a gold medal in the Central American and Caribbean Games. Puerto Rico and the U.S. play each other on Wednesday. And whether or not Puerto Rico claims the one Olympic spot available this year at the world championships by winning the tournament, it has a real chance to be among the six teams in the 2020 Games. Softball hasn't been included in the Olympics since 2008; Puerto Rico hasn't competed since 1996.

Much of Puerto Rico's improvement can be traced to a roster with players who grew up on the mainland and developed through the traditional path of youth travel softball and then NCAA competition. It's especially notable when it comes to pitching, still the most valuable commodity in softball. There's Washington's Taran Alvelo, Cal's Kamalani Dung, Arizona State's Giselle Juarez, Florida State's Meghan King and Florida's recently graduated Aleshia Ocasio. All grew up on the mainland but qualify to play under a different flag through nationality rules of the IOC and WBSC. (While Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens for more than a century, Puerto Rico has competed as its own athletic entity since International Olympic Committee recognition in 1948.)

International softball rosters replete with American accents are not uncommon. Teams like Canada, Mexico and even Venezuela feature players who were born and raised in the United States but qualify to play for the country that a parent or grandparent called home. Whether because of small populations, a lack of youth development infrastructure, cultural roadblocks when it comes to women's sports or some combination of all of the above, other countries often seek out Americans to accelerate competitiveness. The upside is the attention for the sport that success brings, both from the public and national Olympic committee budgets. One downside is that those who already play the sport in that country find fewer opportunities to compete internationally.

"It's a double-edged sword," United States coach Ken Eriksen said. "If those opportunities are there and it's within the rules, I can only hope the young people in those countries say, 'I love the way our team is playing.' And then the coaching gets better and 30 years from now we have nothing but native countrymen representing those teams in baseball and softball."

Reality is that it would be almost impossible for Puerto Rico to be competitive at the moment without expanding its pool of candidates. Consider Claudio as the counterexample. Still only 24, she has played for the national team since 2011. She grew up in a baseball family but was discouraged from playing that sport because the national sporting passion is still a bastion of masculinity. She was barely cognizant of fast-pitch softball when she was recruited by the junior national team from slow-pitch leagues in her hometown of San Lorenzo. Those national team opportunities eventually led her to the United States, where she played at Santa Fe State College in Gainesville, Florida, and the University of South Florida in Tampa. It is a remarkable story of individual passion and perseverance; it is a difficult blueprint by which to develop a world-class lineup.

Resources that were scarce for softball even before the hurricane are now practically nonexistent. When the team competed in the International Cup in July, coach Edwin Mercado lamented that the team had just one week together to prepare for a summer that would conclude with a chance at the Olympics.

Given all of that, time lived on the island is not among his biggest concerns in roster construction.

"It's really not important for them," Mercado said through an interpreter. "We'd rather have the program the way it is now because that way we can build the program a lot faster."

Enter the likes of Alvelo, who almost singlehandedly pitched Washington to the Women's College World Series in 2017 and then returned this season alongside Gabbie Plain, the Australian pitcher she might yet face in the world championship. Alvelo knew her paternal grandfather was from Puerto Rico, understood his still heavily accented English growing up. But as someone from a small town in the Midwest, that was about the extent of her immersion.

"Growing up in Ohio, you don't have a lot of people that speak Spanish or that are Puerto Rican," Alvelo said. "I kind of became disconnected from it. It's cool to finally find my roots. ...

"When you step out on the field wearing these jerseys, it's so much bigger than the colleges you play for or the organizations you come from, it's about the country we're representing and the people on the island."

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Karla Claudio grew up in a baseball family in Puerto Rico and has played for the national softball team since 2011.

There is a fine line in the movement of athletes throughout international sports between opportunism and authentic embrace, between understanding the history that comes with a uniform and the opportunities it can provide.

Not that those two things are always mutually exclusive. Claudio acknowledges that making the Olympics, putting softball in the spotlight back home, has enormous potential for change. The team captain who does a good bit of the recruiting and networking to bring in players, she is clearly in the camp that putting the best possible team on the field right now is in the best interest of Puerto Rico's softball future. She believes there is already growth from successes like a bronze medal in the 2015 Pan-Am Games, the first softball medal in any major event in two decades. That all-American pitching staff makes the team better. So do the runs produced by Florida State's Carsyn Gordon, Florida's Jaimie Hoover, LSU's Shemiah Sanchez and others who followed similar paths to the team.

It's really important to play with heart, to be proud to be here and thankful you get to wear this uniform.
Karla Claudio

But she also believes it's her responsibility to tell newcomers who might have only passing familiarity with the island, and who might have visited only a few times to play softball, more about the place and the people.

"To me, honestly, this is not just about making it to the Olympics," Claudio said. "It's really important to play with heart, to be proud to be here and thankful you get to wear this uniform. That's kind of the message I send to the girls every time we get together."

Hoover talked about better understanding her mom and herself through playing for Puerto Rico. Though not on the world championship roster, Loyola Marymount's Maddison Flores struggled to put into words during the International Cup the feeling she has listening to "La Borinqueña," the island's national anthem.

Does any of that make this the best model to inspire the growth of softball in Puerto Rico? That might be no easier to answer in the end than what it means to be Puerto Rican.

The rules can make you eligible to wear the uniform. Only the individual can know what it would mean to hear the anthem playing in an Olympic stadium in Tokyo.

"I'd probably be crying -- without a doubt, I'd be crying," Alvelo said. "The pride that I would feel would come not just from my team but from the island. It's something I can't even describe. I'm sure every country would say the same thing, that they'd be filled with pride and joy. But to know at one point where this team was to where it is now, we've worked hard. The people who were here before us worked hard, and they fought for where we are today."

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