WCWS 2022 – Jocelyn Alo and Oklahoma softball cement themselves as the GOATs

OKLAHOMA CITY — Patty Gasso finally broke. For the first time in 364 days — when Oklahoma last won a national championship — the architect of college softball’s premiere program found herself at a loss for words.

She survived the final out of the Women’s College Worlds Series win over Texas on Thursday night, marking four titles in the last six tournaments, without letting her emotions get to her.

She survived Jocelyn Alo’s curtain call, a touching last goodbye to the best hitter the sport has ever seen.

She survived the confetti, the trophies, the hugs and the team photo in center field.

But after she made her way through the dugout, left the locker room and sat down for the postgame news conference, it began to sink in what happened, which is when the tears finally came pouring out.

And it was a question about the D-word — dynasty — that got her. She blinked hard when a reporter asked, “When you hear this program talked about in the same sentence as UConn women’s basketball, Alabama football, those sorts of other programs, what does that do in your head?”

“I guess I don’t believe it,” she said.

She paused, trying and failing to regain her composure.

“I don’t know how to answer,” she continued tentatively. “I don’t think that way.”

It was all so surreal, she said. She found herself watching the postgame celebration like a fan.

“They don’t realize how good they are,” she said. “I don’t realize how good they are.”

How good? How about the best ever?

Gasso put the onus on the media for that one, saying, “You guys all have the stats.”

Fifty-nine wins and the best batting average and the best ERA in college softball this season speaks for itself. But looking at the WCWS on its own, Oklahoma set a record for home runs (17) and runs (64). Looking at those measly three losses on their own, consider what happened the next time out: The Sooners won all three follow-up games via the run rule and a combined score of 39-0.

“I could rank them very, very high, if not the highest, because everything they do looks so easy to me, and they do it so fast,” Gasso said, coughing up her own opinion after all.

Oklahoma’s dominance showed up in brilliant flashes — a 16-1 blowout of Texas in Game 1 that was over before it ever really began, or consecutive four-run innings that took the lead and snatched Texas’ soul in Game 2.

It showed up when Jayda Coleman dropped back in center field on Thursday night, ran toward the wall and leaped, pulling back a would-be two-run homer. Afterward, Coleman said, “What’s crazy is we practice that all the time.”

Pitcher Jordy Bahl said, yeah, she’s seen her do it “over and over and over.”

“She’s robbed me,” Alo said, adding nonchalantly, “It’s just a normal thing for her.”

And therein lies the greatness of this team: how they set the bar so high — and reached it time and time again — that the spectacular became routine, expected, normal. Gasso had to admit that when it came to her star slugger, Alo, she even began to anticipate a home run every at-bat. And she wasn’t that far off.

But it wasn’t just Alo redefining slugging. Texas’ top power hitters had 11 and 12 home runs, and no one else was in double-digits. Oklahoma, meanwhile, had six players with 13 or more home runs, including Grace Lyons (23), Tiare Jennings (29) and Alo (34).

Jenny Dalton-Hill was a key part of those all-time great Arizona teams in the mid-1990s. In four seasons, she won three championships. But she points to those big bats as the difference-maker in any theoretical matchups of the best ever.

“I’m always going to say ’94 Arizona was better because I was on that team, but I don’t know,” she said. “I think this team is probably more complete. This team has more power top-to-bottom. I wish we could just say, ‘All right, 1994 Arizona, you take on 2022 Oklahoma.’ It would have to be a video game because none of us could even run anymore.”

She laughed before turning serious again.

“I think this one honestly could go down as the best team in the history of our sport.”

WHEN THIS MARCH toward immortality began in the fall of 1994, there was no stadium for Oklahoma softball to call home. There wasn’t even a dedicated field. There was only Reaves Park and a dugout so small it couldn’t hold all of Gasso’s new players after she arrived in Oklahoma after five years at Long Beach City junior college in California.

Before practice, they had to take it upon themselves to pick up spent beer cans from the night before.

“Just trash everywhere,” Gasso recalled.

Young and ambitious, having left the center of the softball universe of the West Coast for her first Power 5 job more than 1,300 miles away, Gasso put her head down and went to work scouting junior colleges for a quick infusion of talent. But that was only a temporary solution. So she aimed higher and set her signs on a left-handed pitcher from California named Lana Moran.

Without the benefit of a rich program history and unencumbered by a fear of rejection, Gasso charged ahead. Her attitude: “Make them say no.”

Moran was the first big yes.

And then it was on to the likes of Leah Gulla, Amber Flores and Keilani Ricketts.

“I fought like heck to try to get them here,” Gasso said, “but that’s kind of how it began.”

Gasso eventually landed Lauren Chamberlain, who was the most accomplished hitter of all time when she ended her career, and Oklahoma became a destination program.

When the Sooners opened Marita Hynes Field in 1998, they couldn’t predict they’d outgrow it before long. Two years later, Gasso led the Sooners to their first WCWS and won it all. After that, they were a mainstay in Oklahoma City.

But in order to become the dynasty they are today, one more change needed to take place. Gasso, who had to be relentless in order to build something from scratch, realized she had to dial it back. She had to learn to coach smarter rather than harder and allow herself to make life about more than softball.

And, wouldn’t you know it, by putting her family first, by smoothing out her sharper edges, she created the kind of family atmosphere that would attract a Paige Parker, who would attract a Jocelyn Alo, who would attract a Tiare Jennings. Oklahoma amassed talent like compound interest, spitting out a team this season that’s so deep it boggles the mind with a half-dozen All-Americans.

Gasso no longer has to push recruits until they say no.

“The difference that Patty Gasso has is visibility,” Dalton-Hill said. “She has built a brand that stands for excellence and stands for a bar that has been raised above others. Because of social media, she’s now able to recruit the right kind of athlete before she’s ever made it into a face-to-face conversation with them.”

Before this year’s NCAA tournament began, star freshman Jordy Bahl heard a pop in her right forearm and was immediately sidelined. Without the co-Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, most programs would have gone into a nosedive. But Gasso had already brought in help during the offseason in former North Texas ace Hope Trautwein, a senior transfer who once tossed a 21-strikeout perfect game and was coming off Conference USA Pitcher of the Year honors. Trautwein fit in beautifully at Oklahoma, ending the regular season with an ERA of 0.09, and made the transition from the best No. 2 pitcher in softball to the team’s go-to starter.

Bahl’s monthlong absence barely registered as a speed bump on the road to back-to-back national championships.

Reaves Park couldn’t hold them nearly three decades ago. Now, Marita Hynes Field can barely contain all their star power.

So they’re building again. In the parking lot roughly 50 yards beyond the left-field fence, there’s a sign touting Love’s Field — a $42 million stadium and softball complex that projects to be ready by 2024 and promises to start with 3,000 seats and keep expanding.

The only question now is how they’ll honor Gasso on the new grounds.

Oklahoma’s legendary football coaches have statues outside of the football stadium — Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops — so a precedent has been set.

“I’m sure that’ll happen for Patty,” Stoops said, “but I didn’t want mine up until I was retired.”

Sixty years old and showing no signs of slowing down, there’s no telling when Gasso will choose to walk away from the finely tuned machine she has created.

STOOPS WON HIS first national championship in 2000, the same year as Gasso.

“You know, I played in three more and sadly lost all of them,” Stoops said, laughing. “She’s played in a whole bunch more and won most all of them.”

Self-deprecating jokes aside, Stoops knows what greatness looks like. A Hall of Fame coach himself, he knows what playing with the weight of expectations feels like. And to see what Gasso has created and how easy her team makes it look night after night, he can’t get over it.

He’s no softball expert, he admitted, but he can see how this team never lost its passion for the game and credits Gasso pushing all the right buttons.

“Their emotional state, to me, that’s the key,” Stoops said.

It’s Jayda Coleman starting Game 1 of the championship series with a double and screaming at the dugout in celebration.

It’s Alo jogging the bases, her arms stretched out wide like an airplane, diving into a swarm of supportive teammates at home plate.

It’s Taylon Snow lining out and telling Jana Johns, “Pick me up.”

“She goes out and hits a home run,” Snow said. “It’s pretty awesome to see those things happen.”

But in order to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s team dynamic, you can’t overlook the senior catcher who has sacrificed for the good of the program.

A three-time captain, Lynnsie Elam was Oklahoma’s heartbeat.

Elam came to Oklahoma as a coveted recruit five years ago and played as such, starting as a sophomore and junior. But when Gasso felt the need to split time and get fellow catcher Kinzie Hansen on the field last season, Elam didn’t put up a fight. Instead, she embraced a restructured role, made the most of her opportunities with 14 home runs this season and continued to lead whether she was in the starting lineup or not.

Gasso called her “the best leader I’ve ever had.”

Late Thursday night, Gasso took turns praising the five-person “super senior” class. She spoke about how Trautwein stepped up in Bahl’s absence; how Jana Johns and Taylon Snow got hot at the right time; how “Joce is Joce.”

Then she got to Elam.

“Lynnsie Elam is our captain and has been our captain and is the glue that makes this team stick,” Gasso said. “She absolutely is the glue. And what I love about her, she’s not always in the game, but she is still our captain in the dugout. What she’s done for this program, I don’t know how I could ever repay her, but she is one of those players that will be associated with greatness forever.”

Alo, who roomed with Elam as freshmen, said she wouldn’t have made it this far without her. It was Elam who made sure she woke up on time for morning weight-lifting sessions, who offered to drive her to Walmart when she didn’t have a car, who asked time and time again, “Do you want to go to the cages and hit?”

“You won’t meet a better person or better player,” Alo said, “and she’s worked really, really hard for what she’s accomplished these past five years, and she deserves every accomplishment that’s coming her way.”

AS FAR AS what’s next for Alo, only time will tell.

Earlier this week, she gave no hint as to which professional league she’ll be joining: Athletes Unlimited or WPF.

“I don’t know which one I’m playing in yet,” she said, “but I know some Sooner fans and fans all over the world are going to continue to follow me.”

That feels like a safe bet. The Oklahoma faithful have been in on the Jocelyn Alo Experience for five full years now and aren’t ready to let go.

But what she has accomplished this season by shattering the home run record has introduced her to an even wider audience. Tom Brady dropped into her DMs after Monday’s games. Texas coach Mike White said she should run for mayor whenever she returns home to Hawai’i.

She’s not softball-famous. She’s famous-famous.

Gasso compared her to Babe Ruth. With her ability and flair for the dramatic, it’s impossible to look away.

All week long in Oklahoma City, she has had the gravitational pull of the sun. Fans put off bathroom breaks and stood at attention — no matter the score or situation — when she stepped into the batter’s box for fear of missing something special. Little girls have run toward home plate, pressing their iPhones against the screen to try to capture her next towering home run.

Alo said it was cool having girls follow her down the hallway of the team hotel. But at a certain point she had to hang a “Do not disturb” sign on her door.

“They pay to see Jocelyn Alo,” Gasso said. “… She keeps saying, ‘I want to leave my mark.’ She’s left her mark. She’s done it. Right now it’s just icing on the cake for her.”

She exits the game with a record 122 career home runs and only five runs off Dalton Hill’s record career RBI mark of 328. Her legacy as the greatest hitter of all time is safe — for now.

Because what’s truly terrifying for the rest of college softball is what (or whom) she leaves behind.

“I know the world is in awe of what Jocelyn is doing,” Dalton-Hill said. “I know I am. But Tiare Jennings quietly is doing the exact same thing.”

Alo put a scare into Dalton-Hill this week that she would catch her career RBI record of 26 years. But Dalton-Hill, who serves as an ESPN analyst, is resigned to the fact that Jennings is over halfway to her RBI record — with two full seasons to go?

“She had 92 in her first year and almost 90 this year” Dalton-Hill said, “and the career total for the record is 328. So you can’t tell me she’s not gonna be able to do more than Jocelyn Alo.”

Granted, losing Alo’s bat will cause a ripple effect throughout the rest of the lineup. But, remember, five of the team’s top six hitters are expected to return next season. Bahl should be healthy again, and Nicole May will be back. And that’s to say nothing of incoming freshman left-handed pitcher Kierston Deal, Extra Innings Softball’s No. 1-ranked recruit in the 2022 class, and whatever star Gasso is able to pull from the transfer portal a la Trautwein a year ago.

The home run queen left the softball capital of the world late Thursday night, heading toward an uncertain future.

But she’s confident the team she leaves behind will be making a return trip to Oklahoma City soon.

Sure, Alo said she thought the 2022 Sooners were the best of all-time, but she didn’t stop there.

“One thing about Sooner softball — and I’ve seen it year in and year out — is they just continue to get better,” Alo said. “I don’t know what next year holds, but I know that they could make a run for the best team, too, and years to come.”