Haylie McCleney hasn’t played at Rhoads Stadium for more than a year, but she never left it completely behind.
The four-time All-American softball player at the University of Alabama now plays for USA Women’s National Team. The outfielder from the Birmingham suburb of Morris will make her return Thursday night when the U.S. plays the Alabama All-Stars in an exhibition doubleheader. Now a graduate student and aspiring strength coach at Florida Atlantic University when she isn’t playing softball professionally or for the national team, she still carries a piece of her college field around with her.
UA assistant coach Alyson Habetz gave the seniors some dirt from the batter’s box after the last home game of their careers. McCleney added to it.
“I got some grass that was from center field,” she said. “I still carry that around in my car. It goes everywhere with me in Florida now.”
This marks McCleney’s sixth summer with the national team – either the junior or senior squad – and the first time to play in her home state wearing the red, white and blue.
“I’ve wanted to play in Alabama for the longest time,” she said, “ever since I’ve been on this team. It’s just special for me because my family doesn’t get to see me a lot just because with Team USA we’re so far away from Alabama all the time and we never really made a stop in the Southeast region.
“So I’m going to have a lot of close family and friends that get to watch me play in the Team USA jersey for the first time.”
One of those observers isn’t human. Timmy, the family’s 5-ear-old English bulldog, will be on a leash in his usual perch outside the fence on the third-base side, either watching her play or napping, just like in her college days.
“One hundred percent, we’ll both be there,” said McCleney’s father, John. “We’re very excited.
“We were in Oklahoma (for the World Cup of Softball) a couple of weeks ago, but Timmy didn’t make it.”
McCleney batted .500 at the World Cup with a .650 slugging percentage. She hit one home run, drove in seven runs and scored eight times in seven games. She believes attendees at the exhibition games will see a better player than the one who left UA.
“A lot of people maybe think college is your peak,” she said. “I don’t think that’s true. A lot of people continue to grow and get better. The more you play this game, the better you’re going to be at it. That’s how it goes.”
McCleney has played in Oklahoma City, Japan and Texas (with the Charge franchise in the National Pro Fastpich league) this summer, as well as in Florida and California. The U.S. will play in August in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in a qualifier for the World Cup and the Pan Am Games, and in Takasaki City in the Japan Cup.
“To see the world and everything it has to offer, just to help grow the game on an international level, is huge,” she said. “We know there are a lot of big softball fans here in the states, but to go across the world and see how much of an impact we can have globally, it kind of puts things in perspective for us.”
McCleney was in the stands when the U.S. Olympic team played in Vestavia in 2008. Now she will be on the other side.
“I had no idea I’d end up being on Team USA at that point in my life,” she said, “because in 2008 I still thought I was going to play basketball for Pat Summit at Tennessee. And then I stopped growing.”
McCleney said she misses her teammates and coaches at Alabama, but relishes the opportunity to play with some of the best players in the world.
And she’s proud to trade in her crimson and white uniform for the tri-colored American one.
“I still get goosebumps and butterflies when I put on a practice jersey,” she said. “It’s a grind, so it might be easy to take for granted, but it’s an honor and a privilege and a dream come true, honestly, every single day.”
USA Women’s National Team vs. Alabama All-Stars
When: 6 p.m. doubleheader on Thursday
Where: Rhoads Stadium