Oklahoma softball star Jocelyn Alo became the sport's best hitter by leaving it entirely

[Editor's note: This college softball story was originally published on May 28 before the start of the 2021 Women's College World Series.]

THE BALL DISSOLVED like an aspirin into the sodium glow of the ballpark lights. It cleared the infield, the outfield, the 220-foot center-field fence, the eight or so rows of bleacher seating behind that fence and a chain-link fence 20 or so feet beyond those bleachers. Rumors, and postgame reporting, indicated the ball's arc ended on the roof of a car.

The pitcher turned and watched the ball for as long as it took to disappear. The hitter -- maybe the best hitter in the history of college softball -- touched the bases, crossed home plate and threw up the shaka to her family in the stands, and still the pitcher stood with her back to the plate, staring into the mysteries of the night. The look on her face did not convey the usual emotions of anger or surprise; in their place was a sort of deep curiosity, mingled with admiration. She appeared to be conducting an investigation, committing the scene to memory for future retellings. Even an atheist can appreciate the architecture of a church.

This home run occurred during the semifinal round of the 2019 Women's College World Series against Alabama, and the hitter -- maybe the best hitter in the history of college softball -- was Oklahoma's Jocelyn Alo. But really, it's the reaction inspired by any number of Alo's homers, like the one in late April against Baylor (through a 20 mph wind, over the left-center field fence, into the parking lot, into the rear window of an innocent Honda Odyssey) or the one in a travel-ball tournament in Stockton, California, before her senior year of high school (over the center-field fence, over another fence at least 50 feet beyond the center-field fence, onto a street beyond the second fence). The lore surrounding Alo began when she showed up at a summer camp at BYU as an anonymous Hawaiian seventh-grader. She started the camp playing with her age group but, partly for safety concerns, was quickly elevated to playing with the 18-year-olds. She hit repeated homers off the older folks, too, and was offered a full scholarship by the BYU coach before the week was over. "But if she keeps doing this," the BYU coach confided to her father, "she probably won't go to BYU."

Oklahoma has been ranked No. 1 for almost the entire season, and the Sooners took the No. 1 national seed into the postseason. Their offense is -- to put it in dry, clinical terms -- insane: a .424 team batting average, best in the nation; 11.5 runs per game, best in the nation; 142 home runs, best in the nation. Alo, a senior, leads the nation in home runs with 28 after leading the nation with 30 as a freshman in 2018. Her statistics seem concocted in a lab: a .477 batting average with 78 RBIs, a slugging percentage of 1.106 and an OPS of 1.675. With one pandemic-gifted season of eligibility remaining, she is 14 homers away from breaking the all-time NCAA record of 95, held by Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain.

"Jocelyn's hit the ball farther than any female I've ever seen in my life," says Oklahoma's Patty Gasso, a Hall of Fame coach who has won four national titles at Oklahoma over the course of 26 seasons. "And in the biggest moments, the ball seems to travel the farthest."

Tiare Jennings, a freshman infielder, is the Sooners' leadoff hitter with a .488 average and is tied for the second-most homers in the country. Before she comes to bat for the first time in every game, she and Alo have a conversation in the on-deck circle that begins with Jennings asking Alo what she should look for, and almost always ends with Alo saying, "You've got to get on base for me," and Jennings responding, "OK, Queen, I will."

There's an aura that surrounds Alo: self-assuredness mixed with a Hawaiian calm and a complete understanding of her place in the game's hierarchy. The aura is what prompted one of the first people I spoke with about Alo to describe her by saying, "She's humble, but she knows she's a badass."

THE SWING IS condensed, fast and fierce, powered by repetition and atypical strength in the forearms and wrists. The bat -- 34 inches, 25 ounces, always end-loaded and never balanced, for maximum torque -- travels from back shoulder to front shoulder in the blink of an eye. Her swings and misses are somehow more frightening than her massive homers; as soon as the bat crosses the plate, she backhands it back to the beginning, like a hyper-speed rewind, as if the bat's no heavier than a fly swatter. Each swing is a thesis on controlled vengeance.

The swing set its roots in a local park in Hau'ula, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Jocelyn was 4 when her older sister, Sabrina, began playing on a T-ball team coached by their mother, Andrea. Jocelyn was furious she was too young to join them, so her father promised to take her out and hit as often as she wanted. And so in that local park, a remarkably durable father-daughter journey began, with Levi tossing 1,000 pitches a day to Jocelyn. (This, of course, seems like a wild exaggeration, an impossibility in terms of both a father's time and a 4-year-old's attention span. But in separate conversations both Levi and Jocelyn swear she never tired of it. One thousand swings in two 500-swing intervals, pretty much every day.)

From the first time they journeyed to the mainland, where Levi's suspicions were confirmed by his daughter's performance at the BYU camp, the summers all played out the same way: Levi and Jocelyn would fly from Honolulu to Oakland, California, to pick up a spare Suburban from Andrea's parents in nearby Berkeley, load it with their summer collection of household items (pots, pans, shower curtain, plastic containers, microwave) and make the six-hour drive to Anaheim, California, where they rented a one-bedroom apartment next to the Sports Training Complex, a softball facility run by a nationally known travel-ball coach Mike Stith. And then it began: two months of mornings in the batting cage, afternoons at practice and/or speed and quickness classes, weekends at tournaments as far away as Florida.

"Wake up, train, take a nap, train," Jocelyn says. "That was summer."

It was there, in Anaheim, as a member of the Orange County Batbusters, that the legend began to acquire layers. Alo committed to Cal as an eighth-grader a year after being offered a full scholarship by Oregon. She hit 11 homers in 12 at-bats at a high-level tournament after her sophomore year in high school. At these kinds of tournaments, there might be four or five games taking place simultaneously -- it's big business, after all -- but as word spread parents and players would gravitate toward the Batbusters' field whenever Alo came to the plate.

Levi went everywhere, scraping up the money to make every flight and watch every tournament. Andrea stayed home on Oahu to work her steady job and raise Jocelyn's two younger sisters. It was an itinerant life lived deep inside the youth-sports industrial complex, where many enter but few emerge. "When you're caught up in it that first time, you feel you always have to go to that next tournament," Levi says. "You have to go to Florida and New York, and it's the only thing in life. Now that I'm older, I realize -- man, Jocelyn missed a lot. A lot of family events, a lot of time with her sisters. I pushed her -- I did. I thought she had potential, and that's why I pushed her and why we sacrificed."

There were occasional trips to the beach with her teammates, and an end-of-summer Disneyland day, but Levi laughs and says, "I gotta say: When we were in it, we're in it. No off days. No matter what was going on, we're going to speed and quickness every day at 4."

Jocelyn's younger sisters, Lorraine, 16, and Sophia, 14, are good softball players, too. "I'm doing the same thing with them," Levi says, "but they're not missing out on as much as Joc did. I've learned." Asked to assess the talents of his two younger daughters, he laughs and says, "They ain't their sister, but they're all right."

Stith's program runs a conveyor belt directly to Oklahoma; nine of its summer-ball players are on the nation's best team. Stith has seen just about every incarnation of sports parent, and he says, "Levi is very intense and very jovial and fun to be around, but he did grind on Jocelyn and push her. It's not like they were in the cage hitting 11 hours a day, but every day I'd come strolling into the facility at 10 a.m. and they'd already be in there hitting. He pushed Jocelyn, no question she was pushed, but there was a lot of respect there."

Levi and I are on the phone, thousands of miles apart, but I can sense the shrug in his shoulders when he says, "I did it because I thought she could be the best."

She might be. Gasso says the list of best hitters in college history includes four or five players, and "without question, Jocelyn Alo is in that small group." After Alo decommitted from Cal ("I wasn't feeling Cal anymore," she says) and took a recruiting trip to Norman, Gasso was impressed by the swing -- who wouldn't be? -- but more intrigued by an off-hand comment Alo made about her high school wrestling career. ("When I was wrestling, I was in incredible shape," Alo says. "Seriously, traps out to here.") Gasso took to YouTube, where she found video of Alo winning the 184-pound state final as a sophomore by dislocating her opponent's shoulder. Gasso says, "I watched that and said, 'OK, I need her on my team.'"

Alo says she can, and has, hit a softball 395-400 feet, citing the homer against Alabama as Exhibit A. Given the physics involved -- a bat that weighs just 25 ounces with a 2¼-inch barrel connecting with a ball with a 12-inch circumference -- that distance seems preposterous. But when I ask Gasso if Alo's estimate is youthful exuberance, she says, "No, I would stand behind that."

Levi says, "I joke with Joc. If you were a guy, we'd be millionaires. She knows it. She laughs, too. We've got ourselves a first-round draft pick."

ALO LED THE nation in homers as a freshman, and not just in number but in distance and volume and breathtaking ferocity. She treated 220-foot fences like a personal insult. Along the way, she became an object of fascination. The seventh-grader who had drawn people from four or five diamonds to watch her hit was now one of the most feared hitters in college softball.

But here's where the soundtrack takes on a brooding, haunting tone. Along with the attention came pressure, and expectations, and in her sophomore season what Alo loved to do most in the world -- unleash that swing and watch the ball fly -- became a torment. Teams pitched around her, and some figured her out. Everything was off. There weren't enough homers, and the ones she hit didn't go far enough. She pressed. She fretted. She lashed out. "The attitude was, 'I need to ... I must ... if I hit 30 now I must hit 40,'" Gasso says, her words accelerating. "It was all need and must, and it didn't go well for her. She didn't like softball very much, and you could see it from the way she was playing." Suddenly, all of those eyes that had been trained on her since before high school took on a more jaundiced glare. She felt the attention shift, from idolatry to skepticism. Home runs had become an identity as much as a statistic, and as Gasso says, "Sometimes I felt she was living in between home runs."

Roughly midway through the Big 12 Conference season, Gasso made a decision: Alo would have to go away. "She wasn't happy; I wasn't happy," Gasso says. "It was hard to watch her play the game without passion, with frustration, with anger. That's not how she plays, and it wasn't just a funk. It was tense. There was a lot of pressure on her, and it looked like it was miserable. It was affecting our team, and I didn't like that, either."

Alo's sentence was two weeks. Two weeks away from softball -- no games, no practice, not even any softball on TV. Remove yourself from social media while you're at it, Gasso told her. "You don't know what you have right now because you don't like it," Gasso said. "Isolate yourself from us. Just live. Breathe deep breaths and decide what you want." Gasso told her to be a normal student for two weeks, and her starting position would be there when she returned.

Alo fought. She cried. She responded to Gasso's edict by saying, "Really, coach? If I'm messing up I need to be fed more. More work off the tee. More more more." That was the formula that got her to this point, more more more: 1,000 swings a day as a 4-year-old, in the cage every morning in Anaheim, speed and quickness at 4 every afternoon. Nothing could be accomplished with less, her entire career had proved that much. She called her dad, crying, and he assumed she had torn up a knee.

Levi called Gasso, who explained the situation the same way she did to Jocelyn. "Sitting out seemed like a good idea to me," Levi says. "I wouldn't say she had lost her love for the game, but she'd been hitting home runs forever and when they weren't coming, she put too much pressure on herself."

Alone with her thoughts, and separated from the game for the first time since she was 4, Alo considered a radical idea: playing for herself. To get there, though, she had to rid herself of the belief that she was letting people down: her father, who sacrificed time and money; her mother, who stayed behind; her younger sisters, who were deprived of her presence every summer for five straight years.

"I never wanted to feel like I was wasting my parents' money, and letting them down, if I wasn't performing," Alo says. "I knew that I had to go out and do what I do, but I was putting so much unnecessary pressure on myself, for no reason. I really did lose my love for the game, and I was close to quitting because I couldn't handle the pressure. I had to take a softball cleanse and get back to being that kid who loved hitting balls in the park."

Alo missed two weeks' worth of practices and three games, and the Sooners won all three. "I don't think she liked that much, either, but it turned out to be helpful," Gasso says. "There was too much pressure on her shoulders, and I think some of that pressure was relieved when she saw, Hey, we can do it without you." Alo returned to the team and finished the season with 16 homers for the NCAA runners-up. Her slugging percentage, an absurd .977 in 2018, fell to a merely ridiculous .730. "I had no passion, and that break allowed me to reconnect to the game," Alo says. "Now, if I don't do the things people expect me to do, I know how to handle it better. I trust myself and my abilities."

"Jocelyn came out of the bad times with more passion, a little more leadership," Gasso says. "She's gone through some tough times. What I did with her could have embarrassed her, but she turned it around and got focused on her career and made herself into a whole other person."

Alo was the national freshman of the year, and in the following season she became acutely aware of the attention generated by her talent. As everyone else turned toward her, she turned away. "Every game after that freshman year, all eyes were on me," she says. "My sophomore year, I strayed away. I was kind of scared and didn't know how to handle it. Now, I'm like, Hey, watch this."

GASSO MAKES THE point, repeatedly, that she is not speaking directly about the Alo family when she decries the state of the for-profit development system in youth softball. "Her family did it for wonderful reasons," she says. "Her dad sacrificed a lot of time and money because she had more opportunity on the mainland, and he understood that. But did it take her away from her family? Yes."

In 30 years as a head coach, 26 at Oklahoma, Gasso has seen it too many times: the push for a scholarship at any cost, and the damage left in its wake. "Kids come out of this world and they don't know how to think on their own," she says. "They're dependent, they're robotic, they lose their soul sometimes. 'Oh, you lost your $300 bat? I'll just buy you a new one.' They go into college and as good as they are, a lot of them are broken. A lot of what's going on is parents living their dream. They can tell people 'My kid got a scholarship. Look at us.' Ultimately, your kid might not be as happy as you think they are."

Alo swears that's never been the case. "From the beginning, I really wanted to do it, and that's what set me apart from a lot of people," she says. "I never felt forced to do something." She wears No. 78, Levi's number when he played junior college football at Laney College in Oakland. "That's my best friend," Alo says of her father. "We've gone through a lot together on this whole softball journey."

Levi and his mother -- known as Grandma Nita to everyone in the family -- attend as many games as possible. They fly to Oakland, spend a night with Andrea's parents, fly to Oklahoma City the next day. Levi is a big man who hates flying -- or, as he says, "I hate flying coach" -- but he seems to find himself looking down at all that water every other week or so. He and Grandma Nita will be there for every minute of the Super Regionals and -- if the Sooners advance, as expected -- the Women's College World Series. The sacrifices have changed form, become gifts.

Alo will return next year for a pandemic-allowed fifth year of competition, which means her career will consist of four full seasons plus the 24 games she played in the shortened 2020 season. (The nearly nonexistent options beyond NCAA softball made her decision to return an easy one. Japan's professional league is a possibility down the line, but softball people say, "The closest thing to professional softball in the U.S. is coaching softball." A new league, Athletes Unlimited, might change that.) The extra season has created a minor controversy: if Alo breaks Chamberlain's record, will those extra 24 games and eight homers in 2020 cheapen the achievement? Necessitate an asterisk? Arizona's Jessie Harper, who also has a shot at the record, enters the Super Regionals with 90 career home runs. She hit 10 last year and returned this season for her fifth season of eligibility.

Chamberlain and Alo speak frequently, and Chamberlain encouraged her to take advantage of the extra year, no hard feelings. Alo's returning for the record, sure, but also for the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush of squaring one up and watching it fly. Oh, and one other reason: the joy she once thought was gone forever. "Yeah, why wouldn't I want to come back for an extra year?" she asks. "This is a dream, and I just want to live out this dream as long as I can."