Carlson: Toughest road to WCWS for No. 1 seed? OU softball must face it
Jocelyn Alo had the same routine every spring.
After the school year in Hawaii was done, she would fly to California with her dad and a couple of her sisters. They not only had family in the Bay Area but also had an old Suburban parked there. They would visit family for a few days, then drive south to Los Angeles.
By Memorial Day, Alo would be in the batting cage at the softball facility where her summer team trained.
“And they would stay here all summer,” her summer coach, Mike Stith, said.
That’s what Alo did from seventh grade all through high school.
“A lot of people don’t understand there was a lot of commitment,” Stith said. “It’s not just the practice to get better. It’s the commitment mentally as a young kid to do what needs to get done.”
That do-what-needs-to-be-done mentality will be needed more than ever from Alo in these next few weeks.
On Sunday, Alo and her Oklahoma teammates learned they are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA softball tournament. A reason to celebrate, for sure. But the Sooners also learned that to make it to the Women’s College World Series, it will face one of the toughest roads ever for a top seed.
We knew this tournament would be stacked after the pandemic gave seniors another year of eligibility. Rosters are loaded. Sure things are few. But the degree of difficulty is even higher than expected for OU
It’s not so much the regional, though Wichita State and Texas A&M are no slouches.
It’s the Sooners’ likely super-regional opponent — Washington or Michigan.
A week ago, Washington was ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ poll. Yes, No. 5. Of course, rankings don’t determine seedings in the NCAA tournament, but even after Washington split a four-game series with Stanford this past weekend, pretty much everyone who tries to predict such things thought the Huskies would be seeded somewhere between No. 7 and 12.
Instead, the selection committee put Washington at No. 16.
It finished second in the Pac-12, ahead of Arizona and Arizona State but was seeded behind both teams.
(And Oregon, which finished ahead of Arizona and Arizona State, wasn’t seeded at all.)
Washington was so miffed about its seeding that players walked out of their watch party live on ESPN.
Michigan might have been equally perturbed Sunday night. It was ranked No. 18 in last week’s coaches’ poll, and while it probably wasn't in line to host a regional, going to Washington seems harsh.
The Wolverines were the runaway Big Ten champion, after all.
So, how did this happen?
It likely boils down to the RPI, which factors together a team’s winning percentage, its opponents’ winning percentage and its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. Washington, after those losses to Stanford, fell to No. 16 and Michigan sits at No. 31.
But the selection committee doesn’t seed solely on RPI. If it did, Alabama would be the No. 1 overall seed, and OU would be No. 4.
Regardless of how the decisions were made, the Sooners have a dangerous road ahead.
Washington, for example, has a fantastic ace in Gabbie Plain; she led the Huskies to the national championship series as a freshman in 2018 where they lost to Florida State. She may well be part of Team Australia at the Olympics later this summer and is one of 10 finalists for USA Softball’s player of the year.
So is Washington shortstop Sis Bates. She is one of softball’s most electric players. In the field, she can get to just about anything. At the plate, she can hit just about anything. She makes the Huskies go.
Which brings us back to Alo.
There are lots of great players in college softball right now. But for the road facing the Sooners, no superstar is better suited to lead the way than Alo.
For starters, the Sooners are likely to need their bats firing on all cylinders. Teams that stand in their way are going to be able to score some runs, so OU will need to put up even more runs.
That makes Alo key.
She is darn near impossible to get out. Yes, she has the ability to blast homers, leading the country in that category, but it is her whatever-it-takes mentality that will be vital. She isn’t an all-or-nothing hitter. She doesn’t hit a bomb or strike out. She figures out ways to change games even when she isn’t hitting homers.
This past weekend at the Big 12 Tournament, for example, Alo wasn’t the Sooners’ big bopper — Kinzie Hansen provided the fireworks with five homers in three games — but Alo still had six hits, including one homer, and drove in four runs.
Somewhat fittingly, Alo had a two-run single in the sixth inning of the championship game that run-ruled Oklahoma State and gave OU the title.
“We can do it any day and anyhow,” Alo said after the game.
That’s been her way throughout her career, starting with those summer spent in California, living away from family and friends, sacrificing to work on her craft.
"That's who she is," said Stith, her summer coach with the Batbusters.
Yes, Jocelyn Alo is a superstar. But she’s a grinder, too.
And with the road the Sooners face these next few weeks, they will need their leader to be both.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.