Meet Softball’s Smash Sisters
By Aimee Crawford
Baseball had the Bash Brothers. Now softball has the Smash Sisters.
The Oklahoma Sooners, the nation’s No. 1 team for most of the 2021 season, feature a pair of power-hitting teammates who have slugged their way into the record books, shattering both home run marks and windshields along the way.
Leading the way is national player of the year Jocelyn Alo, a senior who has paced Oklahoma’s explosive offense in 2021. Her 30 home runs equal the program record she set herself in 2018, matching former Sooner Lauren Chamberlain, who also hit 30 in both in 2012 and ’13.
Teammate Tiare Jennings, a true freshman, smashed her 26th homer of the season on Thursday during the opening game of the 2021 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City — moving her into sole possession of second place in the country. The day before, Jennings had been named the NFCA Freshman of the Year. It was the first time that one program has swept both POY awards. But the Sooners have been making history all season.
Oklahoma locked in on the longball starting with their first game, thumping an NCAA-record 13 home runs in a 29-0 rout of UTEP so epic that even TMZ took note. The Sooners haven’t stopped swinging for the fences since. OU hitters have gone yard a total of 147 times, 44 more than the next-best team, Wichita State. Their offense also leads the country in every other major offensive category: home runs per game (2.81), batting average (.421), on base percentage (.507), slugging percentage (.809) and runs: 576 (11.52 per game average).
“You cannot ignore the bats of Oklahoma,” said ESPN analyst Kayla Braud. “They are the best team in the country. And they may have the best offense of all time.”
Alo and Jennings have been the headliners, but OU’s offense is dangerous from top to bottom. Sophomore Kinzie Hansen has 21 homers, and Grace Lyons (14), Lynnsie Elam (12) and Jana Johns (11) have also reached double-digit dinger totals.
“[Opposing pitchers] really to have to pick their poison,” Alo said. “If they don’t pitch to me they’re gonna have to pitch to a Kinzie Hansen or a Tiare Jennings or a Grace Lyons. It’s crazy how much power we have within this team. Even on the bench we have a ton of power. So … good luck with that.”
Will all that offense be enough to power the Sooners to their fifth national championship?
Despite Jennings’ home run heroics, Oklahoma (50-3) lost 4-3 in extra innings to unseeded underdog James Madison on Thursday in the opening round of the Women’s College World Series as Dukes righthander Oddici Alexander held the Sooners to a season-low three runs on just six hits. The Sooners struggled to figure out the movement and speed of Alexander’s pitches. It looked like OU was mounting a threat with one out in the bottom of the eighth, when Alo reached first on a four-pitch walk, but was left stranded after back-to-back flyouts.
“Some of our plans got lost,” said Sooners coach Patty Gasso after the game. “You can see that by the way we were swinging. So we need to figure out why. The video will tell us exactly what we need to know.”
First among those plans is getting good looks for Alo. She has homered in 28 of OU’s 52 games and has averaged a home run every 5.2 at-bats. Alo is 11 home runs short of the OU and NCAA records for career home runs, 95, held by Chamberlain, a Sooners legend who still lives in the area and even sported an OU jersey with Alo’s name and number on the back during the super regionals in Norman.
“As a home run hitter myself, I like to see the long ball,” said Chamberlain after the Sooners swept Washington in the super regional in Norman. “It shows how deep the lineup is, how many good players who are not in the lineup who they can pull off the bench and still hit bombs.”
Alo has been going yard regularly since her T-ball days growing up in Hau’ula, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. She can still remember the rush she felt after her first over-the-fence home run.
“I was like 10 or 11,” she said. “It was on a baseball field, and I was playing baseball with the guys.”
Alo was breaking in a new bat and swung at the first pitch she saw.
“I hit it over center field, totally gone,” she said. “None of the guys had ever hit one over the fence. I was like, ‘Yeah!’ My second at bat, I had another one to left field. So to do it twice in one game, and against the guys, was very nice.”
Alo went on to lead her high school team to three state titles and be named Hawaii’s Gatorade Player of the Year twice. She kept swinging for the fences.
“I kind of just wanted to hit the ball far every time,” Alo said.
After a huge freshman year at Oklahoma in 2018, when she hit 30 home runs for the first time, tying the Oklahoma single-season record set by Sooners legend Lauren Chamberlain, and equaling Big 12 single-season record and the NCAA DI freshman single-season record and led the team at the WCWS with a .500 batting average, Alo struggled as sophomore.
Gasso forced her to step away from the team, and softball, for a few weeks. Alo rediscovered her love for the game — and the joy of crushing balls over the fence. “I would say my sophomore year I wasn’t having fun,” she said. “Now I’m having a blast every single day playing softball.”
Like Alo, Jennings wasted no time in making her mark at OU, going 12-for-13 and belting five home runs — including three in that season-opening victory over UTEP — in her first two college games.
“[Tiare] is a real student of the game. Her power got happening very fast,” Gasso said. “Once she got here she really started training hard with our strength coach. I thought she’d be a good hitter but I wasn’t expecting this.”
In addition to her 26 homers, Jennings leads the nation with 87 RBIs and owns the fifth-best batting average in the country (.486).
“She’s a feaking baller,” teammate and fellow freshman player of the year finalist Jayda Coleman says of Jennings.
After her hot start, Gasso moved Jennings into the leadoff spot — and she has remained there ever since.
“It doesn’t matter what spot you hit in on this team … everyone is a great hitter,” Jennings said. “Everyone has your back.”
Before the start of the season, Gasso, now in her 27th year as Oklahoma’s head coach, had her team watch the film “Gladiator” together.
“We left them alone in the theater room to watch it,” said Gasso. “They loved it. They gravitated to the message and made it their own.”
Gasso had done the same thing in 2000 — and that Sooners team went on to win the program’s first softball national championship. The film, which stars Russell Crowe as a once-powerful general forced to become a common gladiator, resonated with the Sooners then … and now.
The “Are you not entertained?” charge served as a rallying cry for the season, as the Sooners vanquished foes throughout the regular season — winning by run rule in 34 of its 52 games — and the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament. Players continued to watch clips of the film as motivation.
“Just seeing the strength and determination that those gladiators had to have, that’s what you want to surround yourself with,” said senior infielder Taylon Snow. “And we’re lucky to have this many people on our team that have that mentality and want to go out, compete and grind and get a job done.”
Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Austin Carriere / OU Athletics, Instagram