JOCELYN ALO, THE best home run hitter in the history of NCAA softball, lords over home plate.
She announces her arrival with an elaborate choreography, a dance she has perfected. She arches her back over her left leg, once more over her right. She lifts the bat over her right shoulder. Thumps it against her back in three short, violent bursts. Bang. Bang. Bang. Whips it through the air, the bat made into a blur like light trails on a highway.
The scoreboard reveals that Oklahoma is in a rare bind: trailing in the fifth inning. At home. On the last day of the regular season. But the bases are loaded, and Alo has a chance, with one swing, to do what she does. Take this game over. Before that, though, she waits.
Alo watches as Kelly Maxwell, Oklahoma State's ace, hosts a conference in the circle, conferring with the catcher and coach. She stands in wait as an assistant runs out with a towel for Maxwell, who wipes her arms, her hands, her face; then she continues to bide her time as Maxwell approaches the umpire to request a new softball. Over Alo's shoulder, a man yells out -- "She's shook! She's shook!" Maxwell bleeds the seconds -- 30, then 60; 90, then 120 -- enough time for the whole of the Oklahoma softball squad to join Alo on the field and lead the sections behind home plate in a Boomer Sooner call-and-response.
Take a behind-the-scenes look at how Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo turned herself into the NCAA's career home run leader. Produced by Candace Jordan; Edited by Jenna Kijowski.
Patty Gasso has coached this game long enough (28 years in Norman alone) and coached Alo long enough (five seasons, at this point) to understand what comes next. Alo has struck out twice already -- looking, at that -- but she won't let it happen again. Alo is that undeniable. Her team is that undeniable. Gasso takes in the view from the third-base line. No shot, she thinks, looking at Maxwell. She's got no shot.
Once the pitcher has composed herself, or steeled herself, or just gulped and decided to walk the plank, she examines her armband once more, like the numbers and signs embedded there hold the escape route out of this mess. That's how Alo knows she's got her but good. She can read Maxwell's thoughts, plain as the giant video screen over left field that broadcasts her season stats: You sure you want to throw this, Coach?
Alo enters the batter's box and digs her left leg back, then shimmies her bottom half. She plans to swing at the first strike launched her way, and here it is hurtling toward her, but she watches it blaze by instead, down the middle. Dang, she thinks. On her second attempt, she rips a foul down the third-base line, then steps out of the batter's box, takes a breath to collect herself. By the third pitch, she figures she'll swing at anything close, because the umpire has been ringing her up all day. And she pounces, muscling a deep fly ball to right-center field.
The ball takes its sweet time, on a leisurely midair stroll. It's not until she's rounding first that Alo watches the wind usher it into the first row of the bleachers. And there it is, what practically every last soul in this stadium expected to see from the moment she began this dance. A go-ahead grand slam.
"It's how the whole season has gone," Gasso says of her defending national champions. "This ridiculous, magical, perfect time."
The most inevitable hitter and the most inevitable team in softball have trampled another pesky opponent, because they almost always trample pesky opponents. Here is what one week of living and breathing Sooners softball in Norman -- from the locker room to the pews of Sunday church; from film sessions in the bowels of a field house to lunches far off campus -- makes plain: The University of Oklahoma softball team is not just breaking the mold on dominance. It's breaking the mold on how to be dominant.
WITH 2½ HOURS to go before the second game in their Bedlam series against Oklahoma State, the Sooners are huddled in their "classroom," a corner room in the squat building that sits a fly ball's length away from the third-base dugout. (The barebones outpost also houses their training room and locker room.) They've just wrapped their pregame film crash course and, appropriately enough for the team that has now hit a Division I-best 133 home runs on the year, there's a lot of talk of crushing. "That pitch should be crushed," says JT Gasso, the Sooners' hitting coach -- and Patty Gasso's son. "Righties, you should crush this one," he offers again a few moments later.
The elder Gasso sits nestled in a corner, mostly ceding time to her son, but she weighs in before the team breaks to take the field for batting practice. It's still early enough that there are no fans swarming the stadium yet. Still, even without the din of crowd noise outside the classroom to compete against, Gasso's voice doesn't carry and you practically have to strain, sidle closer, to hear her say it.
"You're women amongst girls," she says.
Gasso means this figuratively, of course, but she's also plainly right. At 52-2, Oklahoma's stat line as a team is -- to put it clinically -- preposterous. The Sooners lead the country in batting average (.369), ERA (0.81), home runs per game (2.46), scoring per game (9.26) and slugging (.730). They regularly do their opponents dirty, outscoring them 500-47 for the season, blanking them 31 times overall (including seven no-hitters) and run-ruling them in 37 out of 54 attempts. Pause to really marinate with this: In a season that has spanned more than 50 games, almost 70% of the time opposing teams have, essentially, begged for mercy. On Sunday, the Sooners beat Texas A&M 20-0 in five innings, which was the largest margin of victory in NCAA tournament history and sent them to the super regionals against UCF.
None of this is especially new. After the Sooners beat the top-10 Cowgirls in the second game of the series (6-0; a rare non-run-rule outing), they secured their 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title. In the nine Women's College World Series that have been played since 2012, they've won four and finished runner-up in two more. They own the second-longest winning streak in NCAA softball history (41 games in 2019), and the third- and fourth-longest (40 apiece from 2020 to 2021, and again from 2021 to 2022). By the time their most recent run was snapped by Texas in April, their 38 straight victories to kick off 2022 was the best start to a season in NCAA annals.
The Longhorns clawed to a 4-2 win that day -- Oklahoma's lone defeat this year until the universe briefly forgot gravity existed and the Sooners fell to Oklahoma State in extra innings in the Big 12 tournament title game -- then rejoiced like they were the Red Sox slaying Babe Ruth's curse at last. Let the record show there was dousing-by-Gatorade-cooler for Texas' winning pitcher.
"I had to tell them that it's an absolute honor," Gasso says. "But that's who we are now. If someone beats us, we've made their career."
OUTSIDE THE FRONT GATES of Marita Hynes Field, at the head of a line that wends its way from the stadium and down (and down and down) Wadsack Drive, are a handful of fans who met doing exactly this: getting to softball games early. They maintain they usually arrive an hour-and-a-half before the gates open, though on the first day of the Bedlam series they've assumed their positions by 3:15 for a game that doesn't begin for nearly four hours. Donita Maynard, who paints a crimson streak in her hair, explains they all do this because they must do this; they're on the waitlist for assigned seating -- waited four years just to get general admission season tickets, in fact -- so if they want a decent view, sacrifices must be made.
(The waitlist to get into the stadium, incidentally, has ballooned to 625 people -- nearly half of the venue's official 1,378 capacity -- and progress to the front of the pack is halting. Oklahomans don't surrender their season tickets, you see; they pass them down like heirlooms, to children and grandchildren, to friends and neighbors.)
A few weeks earlier, Maynard stood in her customary spot when sirens started their distinctive Oklahoma wail. Oklahoma weather -- hail, blustery winds, tornadoes -- was threatening, and the guards walked her way to plead with her to return to her car, which she refused to do, lest she lose her coveted place in line.
"'If the tornado picks us up, it better put us right back,'" she says, relaying her thinking in the moment. "Remember that, Irma?"
Irma remembers. She's been attending games at Marita Hynes Field since it opened 24 years ago, and before that, across the street, when she parked herself on the mostly empty bleachers at Reaves Park. "Me and the parents, and sometimes not even the parents," she jokes. She mostly jokes.
This quarter-mile stretch of South Jenkins Avenue tells practically the whole arc of Oklahoma softball. Long before Gasso was the highest-paid softball coach in college, the team played at Reaves, a city park it shared with local slow-pitch teams. The Sooners had to clean the grounds up themselves before and after games. "Beer bottles, soda cans, dirty diapers," Gasso says, in a way she manages to make sound nostalgic.
In about two years' time, they'll move down the road again. The Love family, the Oklahoman billionaires who founded their namesake convenience stores, donated $12 million toward the new $28 million stadium that will also bear their name -- a field that will finally, in Gasso's estimation, match the heights this program has reached. The Sooners won't have to leave their facility to partake in an ice bath or a hot tub. They'll have a dining area, a study area, a meeting area. And it'll house 3,000 people, a number that, for a spell, didn't seem like enough.
When the team traveled to Palm Springs, California, for the Mary Nutter Classic in February, 5,000 people encircled the field, sitting on the grass, standing on its fringes. When those 5,000 converged on the Sooners after a slate of games on the penultimate day of the tournament, the staff had to emergency game-plan a bubble, dividing themselves into two columns, in order to create a walkway for their players to safely make their way through the throngs. Those throngs were screaming, many were crying. Kinzie Hansen walked through the mayhem, and her eyes widen, the whites bulging, even now, all these months later, at the memory of it.
"We're still human," she says. "I'm just 20 years old."
There has long been a demand for their time -- autograph sessions that stretch into the night after they've wrapped -- but this kind of Beatlemania clamoring is new. Maybe Taylor Swift clamoring, Gasso jokes, to keep it relevant for this generation of players. Patrick Mahomes is tweeting about Grace Lyons, or as he dubbed her, OU's "nasty shortstop," these days. That's what this year has wrought. That is what they have built.
PATTY GASSO TRIES to not look the part. As wins begat wins, and run-rule routs compounded run-rule routs, and championships precipitated championships, her affinity for wearing Oklahoma gear around Norman took a nosedive. She's not exactly a master of disguise, but when she slides into her seat at a local French bakery six hours before she'll lead the Sooners to her 14th Big 12 regular-season title, she is certainly not broadcasting herself as one of the university's Mount Rushmore-grade coaches. Her signature OU visor and ponytail combo? Gone, traded in for her hair down, loose. Her crimson Oklahoma pullover? Swapped, for a purple plaid button-down.
She has hardly settled into her seat when a middle-aged man wearing aviators walks by on his way out of the restaurant.
"Good game last night, Coach," he says. "Keep it up."
Gasso is so far from where she started, she hardly registers what she's doing as the same job. She spent the first five years of her collegiate career at Long Beach City College, burnishing impressive credentials: 161-59-1; four South Coast Conference titles; California Community College Coach of the Year honors. But by the time Oklahoma administrators handed Gasso the keys to the program before the 1995 season, they offered her a verbal pat on the back -- "Here's your budget; good luck!" -- and a mandate to let them know how it all panned out. "It was like, 'We're not going to keep up with you,'" she says. "'We've got to worry about the football.'"
Now, Oklahoma's longtime athletic director, Joe Castiglione, catches games from a right-field perch, in the same primo spot where the Love family often takes in the action for themselves. Now, Gasso asks -- with a tinge of trepidation, it must be noted, because old habits die hard -- if there is "any way" she can get new speakers for the stadium and, ta da, behold said speakers the next day.
This is what the piling up of wins and supersizing of expectations in Norman have fostered. A Belichickian deference for Gasso, even as she approaches the game -- and this season, especially -- without all the grim-faced Belichickian gravity. Gasso is practically an iconoclast, bucking the notion that to dominate at an elite level, you have to be pathological about how you go about doing it. She doesn't set foot in the softball facility until a few hours before first pitch. Which is why she is even able to eat a leisurely Friday lunch as the Sooners are on the cusp of clinching another conference title. Stewing over film until her eyes glaze over boasts little appeal for her. She has done what needed doing, she figures, and she'll spend her time elsewhere. As in, anywhere else, really.
Whatever the opposite of self-flagellation is, Gasso has cultivated it, though her mastery is a skill only recently honed. Twenty-eight years ago, when she started out, or 18 years ago, or even eight years ago, would she have been at the facility, eyes on their way to a rheumy glaze, instead of a French bakery?
"Probably," she concedes.
The truth is she wasn't an iconoclast back then at all. She was very much somebody who devoured wins and choked down losses, her identity as a coach anchored to whichever side of the box score ledger she landed on that day. "I, at one time, was really living in that space," she says. "And it was miserable."
In the time between 2016, when Gasso won her third national championship with Oklahoma, and the 2017 season when she returned so many of the playmakers from that title-winning team that they were expected to do it all again, they floundered. Gasso. Her charges. "Expectation was something that was weighing on us and everybody was trying to outdo their performance from the year prior," she said in the aftermath. "So we were all a mess. Including me."
She was a mess who met an author named Brett Ledbetter, who morphed into her mentor. Gasso credits him for nurturing what was not in her nature: the notion that she could be a coach without being consumed by coaching.
And so it was that Gasso began to sand away her edges. "Our alums will call me and say, 'Why are you changing? Why are you becoming so soft?'" she says. "I don't think I'm becoming soft. I think I've become smarter."
She would apologize to her team, where once it had only been the team apologizing to her. She opened the door -- literally, her home's front door -- to freshmen, to offer proof that she was a real, live person who experienced real, live things like joy.
Joy? Life outside a softball field? In this economy?
"I gotta live," she says. "I can't keep ... I gotta live. Even on game day, I gotta live."
Gasso repeats her affirmation three more times, until it transforms into a mantra. I gotta live. I gotta live. I gotta live. She is true to her word that softball belongs at Marita Hynes Field and not in her home, or with her husband, or her grandkids, or at this little French bakery, either. Rush to the field after lunch? Not when she has to pick up a few dog treats and some medicine from the pharmacy. But now she eyes the rest of the team, discerning whether they're taking heed.
Signs point to yes. (Perhaps not coincidentally, since Gasso has lent out her mentor to her mentees. She assigned his book "What Drives Winning" for team reading ahead of this season. It's almost like the echoes of 2017 -- a defending national championship team; returning star power aplenty; lofty expectations -- were on her mind.) A few hours before Game 2 against Oklahoma State, softball merits hardly a mention in the locker room. A few players are debating the merits of Stitch Fix, a clothing app. Another is mock-yelling at her lockermates to turn away, lest they see her love handles. Lynnsie Elam, the senior catcher, is elbow deep in braiding Grace Lyons' hair, in what appears to be an intricate, time-consuming affair. No jangled nerves here; no nervous tics or neurotic shaking of legs.
Exactly 10 minutes before the first pitch is thrown, the team huddles at the center of the locker room, a dingy, well-tread crimson-and-white block OU underfoot. For the briefest of moments, it seems possible softball might actually enter the conversation -- a fiery pregame speech, perhaps?! -- but, no, it's a fiery pregame sermon, of sorts. Lyons has chosen Philippians 4:6 as the daily verse, which she speedreads aloud to the team gathered around her.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
There's a collective amen, and then, almost like it's an afterthought -- some girls have already started to break free from the huddle and have to scoot back to rejoin the chorus -- they shout: "One, two, three, WIN!"
THEY DO WIN, naturally. And the next day too, for a clean sweep of Oklahoma State and an unblemished record at home for the season. The most kudos you can offer the Cowgirls in that three-day span is that they weren't run-ruled once, the only Big 12 team that faced the Sooners all year to pull off such a ... "feat."
The way they do all this winning has -- surprise! -- whipped up expectations in Norman for more winning. Gasso will tune in sometimes to the local radio show, which is meant to be about Oklahoma sports in general but winds up hyper-focused on softball. "They're talking about OU football and OU softball in the same voice," she says. "They'll talk a lot about, 'OU softball is the No. 1 sport.' And I'm like, 'Oh, stop that now.'"
And still the Sooners deny they can feel the bulk of those expectations. The weight of it all, they insist, is not a 10th teammate taking the field with them.
Gasso knows the potholes and pratfalls of a road pockmarked with expectations. She's walked it herself, in 2017, and with many a player before. Jocelyn Alo hit 30 home runs in her 2018 freshman year, then figured she'd better hit something like 40 in her encore as a sophomore. She pushed and chased and, ultimately flailed, until her love for the game curdled, turned into something sour.
"I would just sit in my car and I would just cry after games because I didn't ...," Alo says, breaking to compose herself. "I didn't enjoy where I was."
Alo's relationship to the game grew so toxic that Gasso excommunicated her from the team for two weeks -- no practices, no games, no locker room. She banished Alo from softball, period -- no watching the games she was missing on TV as an end-around, either. Would it feel like a limb being cut off, this excision of softball from Alo's existence? That was part of Gasso's hope. The other:
"I wanted her to know that we could win without her," she says.
Such are the perks of being in the business of dynasties. Alo's backups are starters at most other top programs. Likewise for Lyons, who joined Alo as one of the 10 finalists for this year's USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. If Jordy Bahl, another top-10 finalist for player of the year, has an off day, well, the country's stingiest ERA (0.42) belongs to her teammate, Hope Trautwein, and the sixth-stingiest (0.99) belongs to another Sooner, Nicole May. (It's a dynamic this postseason might put to the ultimate stress test, with Bahl battling what Gasso deems "soreness," as well as an uncertain return to the circle after missing both the Big 12 tournament and NCAA regionals.)
Gasso reminds her players of this often, not as a threat but as a balm. All this winning? It can and will forge ahead without any one player. "So if you think you are that good, you are not," she says. "If you think you are carrying the weight on your shoulders, you are not."
GASSO'S FAITHFULNESS TO this doctrine -- that no one player is irreplaceable, nor any different from the player beside her, no matter how decorated -- is practically religious. When she walks into the locker room before the final game against Oklahoma State and catches Alo on her cellphone, the reprimand is swift and cutting. "Alo! Get rid of your phone in here. Come on." On the precipice of the last regular-season game in the last year of her historic career, Jocelyn Alo is not above catching some flak.
Gasso has amassed an embarrassment of softball riches in Norman, so she has the luxury, by dint of talent and depth, to mean it when she says Oklahoma can win without any one player, so no one player should feel burdened. But the other reason she doesn't agonize over this team pushing, and chasing, and ultimately flailing -- like Alo three years ago, but more insidiously, systemically -- is literally religious.
Lyons identifies and reads aloud a verse before every game. After Philippians 4:6 for Game 2, it was Timothy 6:11 for Game 3: "But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness" -- though she ad-libs "woman" for this particular delivery. Postgame, they congregate by the circle and invite their opponents to pray with them. The writing is, quite literally, on the wall. On Lynnsie Elam's locker (Joshua 6:4-5); on Jordy Bahl's locker (Ephesians 1:11); on Alyssa Brito's visor that resides in her locker ("Glorify Him"). The evidence is right there, sitting alongside the small vials of dirt the players have collected and saved from their most cherished victories -- Bedlam in years past, Big 12 championships of yore.
The gossamer line between religion as unifier and something thornier, divisive, is a boundary the team has not crossed, according to Gasso. They're all in different places spiritually, and accept that. No one feels left out if they don't attend their teammate's baptism in a hotel pool -- as happened in Palm Springs during the Mary Nutter Classic. Most, but not all, players attend pregame chapel -- the makeshift service where a speaker comes to the facility, shares a bible verse, and then guides them in prayer -- and that's fine too. "They understand that it's a personal choice," Gasso says. Whether by coincidence, or influence, or some combination of both, however, the personal choice for most of these players is to opt in.
Faith is this team's drumbeat. Gasso says as much: "It's a different kind of peace and that's how I can explain it. That's why you see this freedom." And she believes it makes them different, and makes them handle the hullabaloo of all this differently. So do her players. It's so interwoven into the tapestry you can almost miss it -- how Kinzie Hansen posits God must have scripted Alo breaking the NCAA career record for home runs while the Sooners played in her home state of Hawai'i. It's so strident, you can't miss it at all. When asked to consider how she felt, and how her teammates felt, after Texas sullied Oklahoma's spotless record, Elam confessed she felt determined to suss out what went wrong, then turned to what felt right. "Tomorrow's Easter," she thought to herself at the time. "How can you be mad about Jesus, and the resurrection, and living in heaven for eternity?"
That is to say, many of these players live their religion extremely out loud, which is why they'll tell you they do not live -- nor die -- for their record, or for titles, or for softball at all. The bus ride from Austin to Norman is six hours long, a straight shot north, and the team spent the first hour in silence, sitting with this unsettling, foreign sensation: defeat. Maybe an hour and a half, they'll grant.
Don't they hate losing? Hate it in an eats-away-at-their-insides, Jordanian, take-it-personally kind of way? Don't they have to, to win and win and win and win?
"I hate to lose," Lyons says, and you can hear the but coming before she utters it at all. "But it's not going to affect my character. My identity is not in sport. And I think a lot of us here can agree with that."
Lyons' point, Gasso's point, all of their points, boils down to this: They're not softball players. They are people who play softball.
"The idea of someone being better than them? They don't like that." Patty Gasso
The day after they've swept Oklahoma State, a Sunday, Lyons heads to Summit Church, the same church she attends most weekends with a rotating cast of teammates. It's Gasso's church too, though she booked a 6 a.m. flight out of Oklahoma for the day after the series to visit her mother in California, so she's absent this weekend.
The church and service are in keeping with the team's brand of faith. It borders on casual (Lyons arrives in jeans and sneakers, which match the jeans and sneakers the church's rock band wears to kick off the day), is steadfastly devout (a host of young families climb the front stage to dedicate their children to the church), and conscious of inclusivity (the pastor, on this Mother's Day, reminds his congregation it's not a joyful or easy day for those dealing with infertility, or suffering miscarriages, or coping with single parenthood). Today's topic doesn't seem terribly pertinent for a softball player still in college, but as the temperature rises and foreheads glisten with the escalating Oklahoma heat, Lyons jots down notes, nonetheless.
After the service has concluded, Lyons mingles outside with the other congregants -- teammates who are also here, Brito and Tiare Jennings, but mostly just an assembly of fellow Oklahomans. It's a rare day off from the game for Jennings and Lyons, who are hashing out plans that have nothing to do with softball at all -- studying for finals; an afternoon fishing outing -- when a man approaches Lyons, intent on discussing the latest series, the team's imminent push for another national title.
They are not softball players, just people who play softball, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
THERE'S A MOMENT in the bottom of the third inning, in Oklahoma's final game against Oklahoma State, when a whiff of hubris blows gently through Norman, the softest of breezes on an otherwise scorcher of a day in early May.
Kelly Maxwell has just struck out Alo for the second time in as many tries -- froze Alo with a clever throw that danced outside then bent back in -- and Alo looks for a beat too long at the umpire, just shy of stare-down territory, and cracks the faintest hint of a smile. Though a few days later she'll concede defeat, fess up that, with the benefit of film study, the umpire was right about it being a strike, in the moment she's indignant. Maybe even a little offended. Isn't this umpire aware of who the career home run leader is?
The reveal is fleeting, but illuminating: Piety has not paved a smooth road to puritanism. There's audacity here, after all.
"The idea of someone being better than them?" Gasso says. "They don't like that."
So when Alo strides to the plate two innings later, it's only natural that practically everyone -- her father, Levi; her coach; Grace Lyons; Alo herself; the usher named Carla who's stationed by the dugout and refers to the squad as "my girls" -- knows in a way that's guttural that she will not swoon a third time. And they'll cop to knowing as much.
They're not bombastic about the knowing, but it's a healthy spoonful of bravado, of self-celebration, all the same -- born from understanding who they are and how they play this game. Like no one else who takes the field in opposition to them.
When Gasso calls Alo and Lyons, Elam and Brito, the whole lot of this team, women amongst girls, she's not just painting a visceral picture of the talent gap. She's offering a reminder that they are who everyone else is desperate to be.
"What you're doing, no one can match up," she says. "Living in that elite world, everyone's trying to figure out how to get there with you." She pauses.
"They just don't know how."
But Gasso still won't confer greatness on this team. Not yet, she says. "Not until you hold up that trophy."
ON THE LAST DAY of the season, with the Big 12 regular-season title theirs again, JT Gasso pauses the film the team has been reviewing. They're back in the classroom, where a few hours earlier, about a dozen teammates had gathered for chapel.
"I want you guys to look right here," JT says. "What's on the table? What is that?"
That is the team's most recent addition to their hardware stockpile: the 2022 Big 12 regular-season trophy.
"We worked really, really hard for this and it's real," he goes on. "Now we're getting stuff. Moving forward, we're getting stuff."
Hansen throws up her hand, points to her ring finger, a nod to the stuff they all see in their future on the eve of another Women's College World Series: a sixth national championship. In front of her, stashed in a corner of a desk like an afterthought, are the five national title trophies they've collected so far. They're in no particular order, practically thrown on top of another in a heap because they have nowhere glamorous to live just yet. Not for another year or two and a move down the street, anyway.
For now, here in this cramped room, who they are and what they've done and what they can still do is distilled into its purest form. There they are: the believers, the most fearsome softball players in the country, the people who play softball. There they go: off to accomplish more, the most, greatness.
Photography by Deanne Fitzmaurice. Hair and makeup by Sharon Tabb.