How Olympian Haylie McCleney went from fiery freshman to leader for Alabama softball, Team USA
The Crimson Tide had just lost to LSU in the Women’s College World Series when McCleney was asked to reflect on her time with Alabama.
“Alabama is special,” she said. “And it’s a special program because we leave better people.”
Most players wouldn’t bash their team when answering this question. In fact, their words might sound similar, no matter the program. But McCleney’s words don’t ring hollow.
Hers have substance behind them because she’s the epitome of leaving as a better person.
McCleney never lacked for talent or ability. She was a four-time All-American, after all. Although she did improve as a player, she experienced her most significant growth in how she used energy. She went from using passion negatively while thinking about herself to finding positive energy outlets in helping others.
In the process, she became a better player and teammate, which set her on a path to playing in the Olympics for Team USA in Tokyo this summer.
“I watch her, and I see the nugget of that fiery kid,” said Kayla Braud, a former UA teammate who’s an ESPN analyst. “But now she’s that mature player that has honed in all that fire and emotion, and she has channeled it into being a leader for the Olympic team and being someone that you watch and just can’t take your eyes off of because she is so electric.”
She’s been electric from her freshman year on. At an early practice, McCleney was playing right field when Alabama coach Patrick Murphy hit a ball into foul territory. McCleney dove and made the catch with her body about 3 feet in the air, UA associate head coach Alyson Habetz estimated.
“I said to myself, ‘OK, I just can’t mess this kid up,'” Habetz said. “Just incredible athleticism.”
Habetz and crew could still help McCleney grow, though. Part of that was her physical game; for example, she had a problematic shuffle while batting that they helped her ditch.
But the area where Alabama provided perhaps the greatest assistance: Her mental approach.
“She was so passionate about the game that she would get angry a lot,” Habetz said.
Early on, McCleney used her raw emotion in negative, unhelpful ways. Once, she threw a helmet. Other times, she would go to the dugout bathroom and scream.
“At least she did it behind closed doors, but then everybody would hear it,” Murphy said. “It was kind of like, ‘Uh oh. Is Haylie frustrated? Does Haylie think this pitcher is really good?' It was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy with the team.”
The coaches had talks with McCleney about how she could better use that fire, and Habetz said she started seeing a turning point McCleney’s junior year.
Instead of getting frustrated after an out in one instance, she shouted ‘Let’s go!’ before she even arrived in the dugout.
“That’s how she released the negative energy,” Habetz said. “She turned it into something positive, and she ended up firing up the team.”
McCleney started yelling things like, ‘I just missed it!’ Or ‘We’re on her!’ Or ‘You guys can hit her!’ She took the same volume from her bathroom screams and used it to help the next person succeed.
“(She) starts with a nugget of being really competitive and wanting to win and wanting to be hyper focused,” Braud said, “to then expanding it to, ‘OK I have to have a greater knowledge and understanding of our game and failure and how to make adjustments.'”
When McCleney arrived, Braud said there were some circumstances when they felt like it was more about McCleney than the team. That also changed.
Outfielder Rachel Bobo Calhoun, who joined the Crimson Tide during McCleney’s junior year, said the Olympian displayed the same emotion she had during one of her patented diving catches as when a teammate threw someone out or had an impressive at-bat.
“That leadership to be able to fail and come back to the dugout and still give us that feedback that ‘Hey, I know I struck out, but we’re going to get her this next time and you’re going to get the big hit,'” Calhoun said. “She was an exceptional leader.”
Calhoun took a much different path to UA softball than McCleney. She wasn’t a prized recruit. She had to try out for the team.
Soon after Calhoun learned from Murphy and the staff that she made the team, she received her first congratulatory text.
It was from McCleney.
“She’s one of those people who could make a walk-on feel like a million bucks every day at practice,” Calhoun said. “She wasn’t one of those people who was too good to stay after practice and help a walk-on, throw balls to her, give her some instruction. She helped everyone on the team get better. I think that’s the true sign of a good teammate and character and person. It’s her caring about the people she didn’t have to care about.”
Contact Alabama reporter Nick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly.