Jocelyn Alo’s choice of pro softball leagues shows the growth of the sport

OKLAHOMA CITY — Jocelyn Alo had options — the kind that have eluded female softball players in the past.

Oklahoma’s record-breaking slugger was drafted by Athletes Unlimited, entering its third season, and the new Women’s Professional Fastpitch League, led by their commissioner and former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain. The leagues will overlap this summer, forcing Alo to make a choice.

The all-time NCAA Division I leader (122) and the most outstanding player of the 2022 Women’s College World Series said Monday that she will play for the WPF’s Smash It Sports Vipers. Alo will debut on a multi-year contract next week, the league said.

“We are thrilled to have Jocelyn at WPF,” Chamberlain said. “We want to create a culture that lifts women up and rewards them for their greatness.”

Alo likes the fact that there was a choice at all. She said she was encouraged by the work both leagues had done and saw it as a promising aspect for the sport’s overall growth.

“I’m excited to see how good it’s going to be here because of the collegiate game and how many people want to see it and stuff,” said Alo, who is also a two-time US softball collegiate player of the year. “I’m happy for players who want to keep playing that they have the opportunity and even little girls in the stands will be like, ‘Oh, now I can be a pro softball player.’

“I think it’s going in a really good direction.”

That direction appears to be up. Local attendance at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City set numerous records, including 12,533 people who attended the June 4 session and an average of 12,250 viewers per session.

The championship series averaged 1.6 million viewers on ESPN — a slight decrease from 2021’s record-breaking 1.84 million. Also, for the first time, two World Series games were shown on ABC in addition to usual ESPN coverage.

“I never thought that in a million years I would see what is happening right now. It was fabulous,” said Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso. “It’s great for our game.”

Alo’s exploits at the World Series caught the eye of tennis legend Billie Jean King and football star Tom Brady.

“Jocelyn is the epitome of the modern day athlete,” Chamberlain said. “The attention she has been given is totally deserved and to see the world react like crazy to a woman dominating her sport should be normal. This is another big step for our sport and for women as a whole.”

The WPF was created in partnership with USA Softball, the USSSA and Smash It Sports. The league began Tuesday with exhibition play between its two teams, the USSSA Pride and the Vipers. They will travel across the United States, with the season ending on August 6th.

The aim is to use the exhibition-style summer table to get more information to decide how to proceed after this year.

For years, softball as a game at the World Series grew to a crescendo only to see the sport slip from the limelight and fans clamoring for more.

Athletes Unlimited first stepped into the void. In 2020, the organization started its first softball season and Cat Osterman was the singles champion. Last year the league signed World Series star Odicci Alexander – the breakout Black star from underdog James Madison. After the season, the league signed players to their first two-year contracts.

But there was a gap between the end of the College World Series and the start of the Athletes Unlimited season.

This year there is an additional two-week Athletes Unlimited season, AUX, which begins Monday in San Diego State. There are three teams and 42 players competing for a singles title. Among the contenders are Alishia Ocasio – last year’s Athletes Unlimited Champion – and Georgina Corrick, a rookie who was a finalist for US Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in South Florida last season.

Athletes Unlimited VP Cheri Kempf said ESPN agreed the time was right to offer something more.

“This is going to be really perfect to quell the excitement that the Women’s College World Series is creating,” she said.

Following AUX, the third Athletes Unlimited championship season will run July 29 through August 28, returning to the Chicago area at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois.

Both leagues are important from a development perspective, said Craig Cress, general manager of USA Softball.

In last year’s US Olympic loss to Japan, Japanese players – who compete in long-standing competitive leagues that limit the number of American participants – were better prepared for some of the difficult moments, he said.

“That’s what we need to offer the professional leagues, which is that high-level performance opportunity to get used to when it’s tight and they’re put in those positions,” Cress said. “Then it becomes the norm, not the abnormal. And the more reps you can do, the better off you are. So I think it also gives us a chance to look at the players’ work, their composition and what they’re doing over a long period of time.”

Texas catcher Mary Iakopo, who was also drafted by both leagues this year and is with the Vipers, said the leagues have a lot for up-and-coming players to look forward to.

“I think right now I’m just grateful that we have this opportunity at all, for those that came before us and those that still do that we can learn from,” she said. “It’s just a really cool thing for our sport and I can’t wait to see how it is in 10 years.”

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