Historic homer eludes Oklahoma softball star Jocelyn Alo, for now

There were no homers to be had for Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic, but the No. 1 Sooners remained undefeated. AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Nineteen times over three days the mobilization commenced. Each time it started with a supervisor's call over a handheld radio to a group of volunteer security guards. "She's on deck," he said, and with that five or six men and women headed over and positioned themselves beyond the outfield fence.

Their mission was to retrieve a softball, should it come anywhere near them. The ball, should it be hit, would come off the bat of Oklahoma senior Jocelyn Alo, and it would be the 96th home run of her career, breaking the NCAA record.

Dennis Baker, a softball dad from Long Beach who took the task more seriously than others, held a yellow game ball and said it would be traded to the fan who ended up with the home run ball and later signed by Alo, providing the ball-chasers didn't get there first.

"Beyond that, we're bribing them with a T-shirt and a hat," he said, laughing. "I think people will do the right thing."

Before Alo's first at-bat against Cal State Fullerton in the 27-team Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic on Friday afternoon, Baker gathered a couple of his chasers for a brief tutorial. He told them to read pitch location to get a better sense for the ball's trajectory, should it be hit. "If they're pitching her outside, shift toward right field," he said. "If they go in, shade to left." When I asked him if he expected scouting to be part of his weekend's duties, he said, "It's just basic stuff."

Mark Abercrombie, a local softball dad who runs a mobile-home park in Palm Springs, walked away from his scouting session and said, "I'm not that strategic. I'm just going to run hard."

Back then, before the start of undefeated, No. 1-ranked Oklahoma's five-game weekend, the idea that Alo would leave on Sunday without the record seemed laughable. The 200-foot fences at the complex's fake Wrigley Field (complete with a wall painted with the fake fans and the fake brick and the fake clock) appeared to be an affront to her. Even given the expected reluctance of opposing pitchers to attach themselves to Alo's record-breaking homer, it felt inevitable that a pitch would leak out over the plate far enough and fat enough for her to clear the fence.

But, as many learned over the course of five games and many, many hours, never underestimate Alo's power. From Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State on Friday to Arizona and Tennessee on Saturday to Utah on Sunday, the pitchers and their coaches proved resistant to the storyline. Every time Alo came to the plate, the chasers loosened up, the camera phones raised from every corner of the park and the pitches sailed just badly enough -- or good enough, depending on perspective -- to keep her from No. 96.

Oklahoma won all five games and Alo's weekend was a fever dream of advanced metrics: 3 for 8 with 10 walks, one hit by pitch and roughly 1,200 feet of foul balls. The .737 on-base percentage over five games would be remarkable for just about anyone but her. The only way it could be perceived as a failure is by someone who was there solely to see her break the record. (Guilty.)

Through each of those 19 plate appearances, Alo showed no strain. She hit second, third and -- in the final game -- leadoff, and none of it proved tempting enough to invoke a challenge. She rarely chased out of the zone and took her walks because they were the right play, even if no one among the thousands in attendance were there to see her toss away her forearm guard and jog to first base. Her team hit 15 home runs in the five games, so the strategy of not getting beat by Alo meant they were being beaten by someone else.

"I don't know what they tell her," Alo's mom, Andrea, said about the Oklahoma coaches, "but she's incredibly calm up there even with all this going on."

There were so many people crowded around Fake Wrigley on Saturday -- a sea of popup shade covers, wagons, blankets, strollers and burnt skin -- that it seemed impossible for the ball chasers to even see a home run, much less discern pitch location. Among them were about a dozen of Alo's family members and several more friends. As Alo walked for the third time against Tennessee, her father, Levi, attempted to change his daughter's fate by moving from camp chair to camp chair while someone in the Oklahoma crowd yelled, "There's a lot of pressure on her." Levi hoisted an arm over the camp chair and attempted to reassure his people. "Sometimes she'll go along like this for a while and then bang! bang! bang!"

One of the few pitches she found to her liking, a high fastball off the plate outside, came Friday against Long Beach State and came within two feet of landing near her family's spot beyond right field. "It got a lot closer than I thought," Levi said. "One more pushup and she would have had it."

Former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain sat in the stands on Saturday and Sunday, hoping like the rest of us to watch Alo break her record of 95 collegiate homers. "I just care so much for Joceyln as a person that I can't help but root for her," Chamberlain said. "It's not like this record is broken every year. I had it for seven years, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. I've gotten a lot out of it, and now she deserves it."

Alo will get the record, if not March 7 at home against Minnesota then almost assuredly the following weekend during a four-game visit to her home in Hawaii, a trip Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso promised three years ago.

Levi has been on the road following his daughter since Feb. 6, traveling from Southern California to Oklahoma to Houston and back to Southern California. On Friday he told me, "I'm going to keep going if she doesn't break it, but I feel it today. I feel it." He felt it again on Saturday but less on Sunday, when the entire family seemed resigned to holding up their phones and recording at-bats that would be consigned to the trash bin.

As the ball chasers mobilized and demobilized 19 times, Levi spent the weekend changing seats and standing in different spots to alter whatever mojo was in the air. A particularly zealous Oklahoma fan came up to him late Friday and asked, "When's she getting No. 96, big man?" to which Levi responded with a half-hearted shrug. Waiting for a record is clearly hard on the arteries; he has a habit of relieving the stress by shaking his arms to loosen up, as if he might be called upon to play. When I asked if he was nervous, he said, "Nah. I don't have to do nothing."

They all had flights back to Honolulu late Sunday, and Andrea expressed relief that, in less than two weeks, Alo will be coming to the island instead of the other way around. She has just one more game, in Norman, next weekend, and when I asked Levi if he was going to forego that game and miss out on the chance to see his daughter make history, he smiled and nodded to Andrea.

"You never know," he said as his wife shook her head and rolled her eyes.