As far back as Haylie McCleney can remember, her life has been filled with baseball and softball.
Her father, John McCleney, was a baseball outfielder at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and coached high school while Haylie was growing up. They spent their free time at the ballpark or playing in the backyard, where she said she was taught to play the game the right way. Her family even tells the story, she said, of her very first Christmas when her mother gave 6-month-old Haylie her very first ball.
“I would sit up and roll it back and forth with my dad at that young,” she said. “A ball’s been in my hand ever since.”
Now a junior softball outfielder at Alabama and a member of Team USA, McCleney is on a quest to win not only an NCAA national title but also gold at the Pan American Games in Toronto before the summer is over. Alabama opens play in the Women’s College World Series on Thursday in Oklahoma City, seeking its second title since 2012. This is the 10th trip to the WCWS for Alabama, which was the runner-up in 2014.
“The ultimate goal for any team is to win a national championship and be competitive,” McCleney said. “We know once we get to Oklahoma City that anything can happen. What’s great about it is we always say the postseason is a new season. Nothing to that point matters. You just have to execute one pitch at a time.”
This would be the first national title for McCleney, who has known success at every level. In high school, she helped lead Mortimer Jordan to three state championships and set the school’s single-season batting record in her senior year, hitting .692. Her club team finished fourth in the 2011 ASA Gold Nationals.
As a freshman at Alabama, she was named All-SEC second team, all-defensive team and all-freshmen team and was one of the final 25 candidates for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, batting .465 while starting in 59 of 60 games. As a sophomore she was a top-10 finalist for player of the year and became just the seventh player in Alabama softball history to receive both All-America and Academic All-America honors in the same season. In 65 games, all starting in center field, she failed to reach base safely in only one game and batted .444 in the leadoff spot, scoring 70 runs.
McCleney entered her junior season holding Alabama records in batting average (.454) and on-base percentage (.548) and is currently ranked 15th in the Division I in batting average (.453) and fifth in on-base percentage (.596).
The native of Morris, Alabama, said that she never had an “a-ha moment” when she realized that her talent was on a level exceeding those around her.
“I’ve just always been taught to play to have fun and that’s always what it’s been about from day one,” she said. “I never got caught up in ‘I might be good at this or good at that.’ Every time I go out there I’m just having fun.”
After being a member of the junior women’s national team in 2013, McCleney played her first season as a national team member in 2014. She learned she made the team via an email she received while in the car with her mom on the way to see a family friend.
“It was an incredible moment realizing all your hard work paid off,” she said. “It was just a really cool moment for me and my family.”
National team coach Ken Eriksen said it was McCleney’s hustle that helped her stand out among the talented group of player hoping to represent the United States.
“There isn’t a ball that gets hit to the outfield that she thinks she can’t get to,” he said. “It’s rare that you see a kid her age dominate a game defensively. To be able to jump start your team because of a play in the outfield is special.”
Things were a little different going from being a leader with Alabama to a rookie with the national team in 2014, McCleney said, where she was just working toward earning and keeping a spot. Also different was the level of competition and the experience of playing in other countries against other national teams.
“That’s something that always stuck out for me was how fortunate I felt to have that opportunity, with people speaking different languages on the field while you’re trying to get a hit and they’re playing defense,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”
She called winning silver at the ISF Women’s World Championship in Holland last year the highlight of her young career.
“You had fans from literally all over the world packing this stadium to watch their countries play,” said McCleney, who hit .370 with a triple, two doubles, five RBIs and three runs scored in the tournament. “We made it to the championship and had a shot to beat Japan. We just missed some key opportunities.”
Eriksen said the expectation this year is for the team to get better, and the opportunity for the team to train more than it has had in the past will help. The more years your core players put in, he said, the more they gain experience.
“As far as Haylie goes, this being her second year, she now knows what to expect in her role as our center fielder,” he said. “I want her to embrace the fact that she has a chance to be one of the best outfielders to represent the USA. She is in rare company having the opportunity to work with the most decorated softball player in Laura Berg (four-time Olympian and now assistant coach of the national team).
“Berg has given Haylie the simple nuances that made her great. Haylie is a great student of the game, so I have no doubt she is just at the beginning of a long run of patrolling the pasture.”
The U.S. team opens training camp in Oklahoma City on June 7. They’ll travel to Irvine, California, for the World Cup of Softball beginning on June 29, then beginning on July 15 they’ll compete in the Pan Am Games.
“I can’t lie and say I’m not excited,” McCleney said about competing in the Pan Am Games for the first time “It’s going to be fun playing with all the girls and I hope we can win the championship.”