Women's College World Series: Home run balls, vigilant ushers and the souvenir of a lifetime

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- John Pillow stood watch in the right-field stands on Thursday at the Women's College World Series, ever vigilant.

Among the usher's many duties, one stood out. When he hears a bat crush that yellow softball, his head swivels around, tracking the path of the ball. If it manages to clear the outfield fence, that ball is his.

He's not a collector, looking to flip a prized memento on eBay. He's a defender of one of the most unique traditions in college sports. The Oklahoma City ushers pride themselves on tracking down home run balls and returning them to the families of the players who hit them.

"The people that work out here [in the outfield], it's an honor to give it to them," Pillow said. "Because they might not ever be back here again."

(Unless, of course, you're NCAA home run champion and Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo, who has seven career WCWS long balls. "Some players, like Alo, you gotta give it to different parts of the family," Pillow said.)

While he was talking, Alo's teammate Jana Johns launched a blast that lands between the fence and the bleachers. While the decidedly pro-Sooners contingent deliriously celebrated a grand slam that gave the Sooners a 13-1 lead, Pillow sprang into action. A security guard snagged the ball on the field level and pointed toward Pillow, who stood out in his neon yellow usher's shirt. As dozens of young fans reached their gloves out to ask for the ball, the guard politely explained it was going to Pillow, who was sending it back home with Johns' family.

Pillow marched from right field, past home plate, into the OU family section on the third-base side. There, he found 9-year-old Blair, Johns' little sister, beaming with excitement. It was the second straight year Blair got to collect one of her sister's home run balls in OKC.

"I think our families -- and especially my little sister -- getting the ball at the games last year and today is super cool, because when they can see it, they can achieve it," Jana Johns said after the game. "I know [Blair] was so excited because she wants to be here one day too. So it just gives you something to look up to. I think it's really awesome that they allow them to do that."

The WCWS staff and ushers aren't exactly sure when the tradition started, just that it's beloved and something they hope never changes. Mary Koch, who was working along the first-base dugout on Thursday, said this is her 20th season and it was already a part of her duties when she got the job.

"I like to run and hold it in the air," Koch said. "Everybody's always pointing to where the mom and dad are and it's so fun to go hand it to them."

Ralph Soto, an usher who is in his second year manning left field, said most fans are aware of the tradition, and even those who aren't become happy to play along when they learn it's a rite of passage.

"Most of the fans are pretty understanding about it," Soto said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be here playing in the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. The ball is something that would mean a lot more to them than it would mean to me. So that's why we do it."

In the first game of the day, Texas' Mary Iakopo launched a homer to left field that almost left the stadium, hitting a lemonade trailer. Anthony Ulibarri, a first-time visitor from Colorado, retrieved it and couldn't wait to give it to his daughter, who was waiting back in the stands.

Soto said later that the ushers were able to get the ball back to Iakopo, trading Ulibarri a new ball for his daughter.

"Most of the time, the fans are very accessible," said Willie Godwin, who was working in left field. "We can get to them, we can get the ball and they're happy. They got the ball, they got a memory."

But it's not always so smooth. When Oklahoma's Tiare Jennings hit a grand slam in the third inning on Thursday, the ball went into an area under the temporary bleachers in center field. Ushers never found the ball. Employees at a concession stand behind the bleachers said a young fan went behind some netting and retrieved it, chalking it up to someone who didn't know the tradition. No one was sure if anyone was ever able to make the swap.

But every usher spoke about the rare occasion when a fan didn't understand the assignment, with even the authorities jumping into action to preserve history.

"Last year, there was a home run hit here in the OU-UCLA game," Soto said. "A spectator jumped in between the fence and the stands and he grabbed the ball. He went running off into the concession stand area and then he went up into the stands. He had an ear of corn, and I tried to get the ball from him. I chased him down and, eventually, he was intercepted by the police."

"He came up over on the first-base side, got up into the stands, tried to run up through the different aisles and got caught right up in Section 10," said Frank Freidhoff, in his 11th year as part of the staff.

"The guy ate the corn and then he got escorted out of the stadium by the police," Soto said. "They did get the ball from him."

For families, it's a keepsake that can't be replicated.

Northwestern had the toughest draw of the first day, facing the Sooners, who came into the game 55-2. And despite a disappointing 13-2 run-rule loss, it was a memorable day for Lisa Rogers, the mother of Wildcats second baseman Rachel Lewis, who hit a home run in the third inning.

"I never save home run balls," Lisa said. "But I'm keeping this."

The last game of the night brought the day's most dramatic home run, the eighth in Thursday's four games. Down 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth to Arizona, Oklahoma State outfielder Karli Petty crushed a ball into the center-field bleachers, the game winner in OSU's 4-2 comeback win.

Petty's mom, Michelle Williams, watched a young fan make a perfect catch, only to see a stadium staffer standing in front of the OSU family section minutes later holding the ball up as fans pointed to Williams.

"For them to get it for us, as a mom, that means a lot," Williams said. "It's special, because they work so hard to be here and it's every girl's dream to be able to do that. We're sitting way over here, and saw that little girl catch it."

She knows exactly where it'll go.

"I'm sure every family is different," Williams said. "But I've always kept Karli's 'firsts.' Her first home run ball, first college home run. This is her first College World Series home run. So it's pretty special to have every ball for her firsts."

Ian Johns, the father of Jana and Blair, said it was incredibly moving when Pillow handed the ball to the family.

"It's hard to even put it into words," Ian said. "It's something they work their whole lives for. You have a symbol of all the hard work and can keep it forever."

There are other perks. The ESPN cameras know to follow the ball, and they're often right behind the usher when the delivery is made.

"I think it's any girl's dream to play on that stage, and just being able to get the ball has to mean so much," Jana Johns said about seeing her little sister get the ball. "And you get to be on TV, too. So that's pretty cool."

Koch, who loves her job so much that she got her husband Ed, a retired firefighter, a job on the first-base side for his birthday 10 years ago, said it's a tradition worth protecting.

"As long as I'm alive it'll continue," she said. "And I plan on working here until I die."