Jocelyn Alo legend comes full circle with record-breaking home run in Hawai’i

THE FIRST PARK that couldn’t contain Jocelyn Alo is 100 yards from the ocean and 100 yards from the house where she grew up. There’s a fence separating the backyards from the ballfield now, and homemade signs dot the road that hugs the beach along Oahu’s northeastern shore. Keep the Country Country one reads, and New City, What a Pity is another. Everyone wants a piece of paradise, or at least a piece of what someone else believes that paradise is worth. The local Hawaiians know this story; it long ago settled in their bones.

Five generations of the Alo family have lived in this remarkable place, in the shadow of the razor-sharp green mountains, their tops shrouded in clouds. Jocelyn grew up as her father, Levi, did and his father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him: on a 2-acre lot with six family homes on Hau’ula’s Kukuna Road. At the end of Kukuna — Hawaiian for grow, fittingly — there are two iconic coconut trees that provide a sort of gateway to the beach. Levi proposed to Jocelyn’s mother, Andrea, beneath them, and several years later the family spread the ashes of Levi’s father, Pete, at the feet of those very same trees.

Over the years more houses have sprung up in the lots surrounding the Alo compound, but the charm remains. Chickens run from yard to yard, with no respect for property lines, and the breathtaking mountains — now famous for providing the setting for the Jurassic Park movies — are so vibrant it’s like seeing the world through a green filter. Some change is inevitable; Levi and Andrea have moved closer to Honolulu to make it easier to get to the airport on their journeys to the mainland to watch Jocelyn, the Oklahoma Sooners’ slugger who broke the NCAA softball record for home runs Friday night when she hit her 96th career homer at the University of Hawai’i, against the University of Hawai’i.

But back when Jocelyn — full name Jocelyn Aloha Pumehana Alo — was 4, there was no fence separating the Alo homes from the ballpark. She and Levi would walk the 100 yards with a bat, a bucket of balls and an unwavering belief — and yes, more than a little fear — that this little girl had the talent to take her far away from the life the Alos had sunk into this land. One thousand pitches a day Levi would throw her, 500 each in two separate sessions, a figure that sounds apocryphal but everyone swears is true.

Her talent kept taking them farther and farther away from this village, and farther from the people who gave it its essence: to a travel team in Southern California, where Levi and Jocelyn would rent a tiny apartment next to a batting cage in Orange County and work to create the kind of talent that more and more parks were unable to contain. From summer tournament to summer tournament, Florida to Georgia to New York, each one a chance for better competition, more exposure, grander opportunities. The talent was like a gravitational pull; people at adjacent fields would leave their own daughters’ games to watch her hit. The father knew his daughter had the ability and determination to accomplish great things, and he was willing to sacrifice — and impose the same sacrifice upon his daughter — to give her the best chance of making it happen.

His beliefs were first validated on the mainland at a BYU camp when Jocelyn was in seventh grade. She hit the ball so ferociously that she was deemed a threat to the girls her age, so they moved her up to play with the high school girls and she put fear in their eyes, too. At the end of the camp, the BYU coach presented Jocelyn with her first Division I offer, but he pulled Levi off to the side and said, “If she keeps hitting this like this, she won’t be going to BYU.”

When they were home, Jocelyn would train by running up the hills on the mountain end of Kukuna. “If it’s good enough for Walter Payton and Jerry Rice,” Levi says, “then it’s good enough for us.”

The stories pile up, one atop the other. Here’s one: The baseball coach at Jocelyn’s high school, Todd Koishigawa, struggled to motivate his starting catcher. Koishigawa saw potential in the kid, but everything he tried seemed to fail. So one day he decided to bet big: He brought Jocelyn to the baseball field from softball practice and announced to his team that from that day forward, Alo — a catcher at the time — would be playing with the baseball team.

Koishigawa monitored the reaction of his catcher and immediately realized his mistake. “His face dropped,” Koishigawa says. “He knew if she was playing baseball, there was no chance he could ever beat her out.”

Koishigawa, who went on to scout and coach in the Diamondbacks’ system, ran a batting cage on Oahu. Jocelyn and Levi were there almost every day of Jocelyn’s high school years, and Koishigawa says, “We used to turn the machine up to 90 mph just so we could watch her rocket line drives into the back of the cage.”

Patty Gasso, Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame coach, stood on the field Friday night and turned to wave a hand toward the Alo family — many, many of them — who gathered in front of the third-base dugout at the University of Hawai’i to greet Jocelyn after her record-setting performance. “You look at the history of Jocelyn Alo, and the history of this family. Her father spent so much money getting her on the mainland — a tremendous amount of money to move her onto a competitive level. The commitment is something else. There’s a whole other level that we on the mainland don’t even know about.”

THE END WAS frustratingly slow. She hit homer No. 95 to tie the record set by former Sooner Lauren Chamberlain against Texas State on Feb. 20. That homer was like a siren call sent out to college softball teams throughout the land: Don’t be the one to give up the record-breaker.

Alo was walked, repeatedly, incessantly, needlessly. Sixteen times over the next eight games she was walked, and the strategy rarely seemed to have purpose; in seven of those eight games, the undefeated and No. 1-ranked Sooners run-ruled their opponents.

Chamberlain sat in the stands two weeks ago at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, California, confident she would see Alo break her record over the course of the five games the Sooners would play. “I just care so much for her as a person that I can’t help but root for her,” Chamberlain said. “It’s not like this record is being 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 Jocelyn deserves it.” Fans crowded the field to see Alo break the record. Volunteers roamed beyond the outfield fence, determined to retrieve the record-breaking ball. Instead, the tournament served as the beginning of a slow, frustrating process.

The frustration reached its peak in the third inning of the Sooners’ 8-0 run-rule win over Cal on Friday afternoon. Alo was walked intentionally with nobody on base and the Sooners up by eight runs, and the crowd — which included the softball team from Campbell High School, Alo’s alma mater — reacted with anger and disbelief. When the inning ended, Gasso came out of the Sooners’ dugout and had what appeared to be a friendly but pointed conversation with Cal coach Chelsea Spencer.

“I’ve got to tell you the truth,” Gasso said, careful not to single out Spencer. “I respect these coaches who pitched to her. This is a competitive sport, and if you want to see what your pitchers are made of, put them in front of one of the best hitters and see what happens. I respect every coach who allowed their pitchers to go after Jocie, and many times they were very successful. But if you’re afraid you’re going to get blown up on social media, what does that mean to this sport? Come on.”

But in a twist that somehow made it all make sense, Alo hit a two-run shot deep into the night on Friday against Hawai’i pitcher Ashley Murphy, a senior who challenged Alo with a curveball up and out over the plate and watched as it boomeranged off the net in right-center field, roughly 40 feet above the wall.

(“I truly respect [Hawai’i coach] Bob Coolen,” Gasso said. “He might have had every reason to say, ‘Not on this Hawai’i field.'”)

Alo practically levitated around the bases, sprinting from one to the next with her index finger raised triumphantly. Coming around third, she threw the traditional Hawaiian shaka hand signal into the air and pumped a fist at her family in the stands. Her teammates mobbed her at the plate, and she later came out of the dugout for a curtain call, a lei around her neck. Her reaction was equal parts exuberance and relief.

“Huge relief,” she said. “Now I feel everyone can relax and we can elevate our game even more. And you know what’s funny? I think people will start pitching to me normally again. They just didn’t want to tap into this.”

This was taking place behind her: Levi, Andrea, Grandma Nita and however many Alos and extended Alos who waited to celebrate in front of the third-base dugout. “It’s not really a relief,” Levi said, “because I knew she was going to do it.” Andrea, though, said, “It’s a massive relief. Now she doesn’t have to think about it.”

The homer was Alo’s eighth of the season, and the eight-game stretch without a homer was tied for the second longest of her five-year career. Her season statistics, as with every one of her seasons in Oklahoma, are nothing short of ridiculous: a .511 batting average, a .690 on-base percentage and a 1.178 slugging percentage. It’s like she’s playing another sport entirely, but as Gasso says, “This is relief, it is pride, it is so many different emotions. The thing I’m most proud about Jocie is that it was always a team effort. It was not, ‘Let me hit this out,’ or ‘Let me try to reach this record.’ That’s not who she is.”

As Gasso and I spoke down the left-field line, Levi walked up and put a lei around her neck and a crown of flowers around her head. Gasso hugged him and said, “Doing this in front of this family — you cannot script this any better. And it wasn’t planned this way. I knew I owed her a trip [to Hawai’i], but this could not be scripted any better. Full circle. Unbelievable. Could not have been scripted.”

THE BANNERS HUNG from the backstop at the first park that couldn’t contain Jocelyn Alo’s talent:

Home Sweet Home, Jocelyn Alo

Hau’ula Girl, Welcome Home

She returned on Wednesday, the day before the start of the Rainbow Wahine Classic, and spoke to about 70 girls in the Ha’aheo girls softball program, plus many of their parents. She stood on the infield dirt and fought unsuccessfully to hold back tears as she told the girls, “This means a lot to me. I literally grew up here. … I want you guys to dream this big, too, and I want you guys to go further than I ever have.”

As the Ha’aheo players and her Sooners teammates conducted an hourlong camp on the field, Alo walked the perimeter of the park to thank everyone who came. “It’s a full-circle moment, for sure,” she kept saying. Levi stood on the field, 100 yards from the spot five generations of his family called home, and fielded endless questions about his daughter’s chances to hit the record-breaking home run — or even see a pitch that makes one possible.

Gasso, who had never been to Hau’ula, said, “What I saw on that field was humility. You’re seeing a softball field that’s just out in the middle of nowhere. No outfield fence. And what I will always remember are her emotions, just standing out on that field in front of 70-plus little kids, saying, ‘My dream is coming true, and I want you to be better than I am.'”

Jocelyn Alo, the best home run hitter in the history of NCAA softball, stood on that field about 100 yards from the home she grew up in, and 100 yards from the coconut trees that represent both beginnings and endings. She talked about the talent that propelled her farther and farther away from this humble field, to a world of ballparks that also proved too small to contain her. And in the end, that same talent that pushed her away ultimately brought her right back to where it started.