Haylie McCleney gets her chance on softball’s biggest stage


Courtesy of UA Athletics

Few names are etched into Alabama sporting lore as deeply as Haylie McCleney’s.

That lore is part of the reason that her picture presides over Rhoads Stadium from the centerfield wall: She was just that good. 

McCleney’s career speaks for itself. She is the all-time program leader in batting average (.447), on-base percentage (.569), walks (199) and triples (16). She is a three-time First-Team All-American and is the second player in program history to receive First-Team honors as both an All-American and an Academic All-American. 

With the long list of records and honors, there is one aspect of her career that has been missing: a chance to be an Olympian. 

“I didn’t think [being an Olympian] was a possibility until after I graduated college,” McCleney said. “… I never even dreamed it because I didn’t even think it was possible.”

On Oct. 6 at 8:30 a.m. in Oklahoma City, an improbable dream was realized: McCleney was selected to the USA Olympic roster. With one email, she became the first Alabama softball alum in 10 years to be selected to the Olympic team the first since Kelly Kretschman donned the USA jersey for the Beijing games in 2008. 

“I made sure I was by myself. I was down at the hotel breakfast, found a quiet space, Facetimed my fiancee, opened the email at 8:30, saw my name at 8:31 and went to a team meeting at 8:35,” McCleney said. “It happened pretty quick, but it was great. It was something I would never forget.”

Through the five-minute whirlwind of excitement, one of McCleney’s first Facetime calls was to her parents. But there was an issue. It was 8:35 a.m., her parents were both at church, and it was prime Sunday school hour.

“I texted my mom, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to Facetime you. You probably need to answer.’ She said OK, and she stepped out of Sunday school, and I said, ‘Mom, I think they will understand,’” McCleney said. “She answered the call, and I told her, and then I asked if she could bring Dad out, too, so my Dad also had to step out, too. I told both of them, and they were just super excited.” 

McCleney reiterated that her parents have been along on this journey toward the Olympic team for the entire way. 

This dates back to her childhood in Morris, Alabama. She and her two brothers would dive for fly balls on a cushioned mat with their dad, a former baseball player for Samford University who coached them on the proper technique of the diving catch. 

“I really wouldn’t be in the position that I am without them, so to share that moment with them was probably one of the coolest things I have ever been apart of,” McCleney said. “And the fact that they were in church, that is exactly where you would expect them to be on a Sunday morning.”

It’s only fitting that the picture that commemorates McCleney’s career at Alabama along the centerfield wall depicts her diving to make a catch on a fly ball.

The instincts that were developed in the backyard were some of the things that head coach Patrick Murphy noticed about her when he recruited her.

“[McCleney] reminded me a lot of when Cal Ripken used to play shortstop,” Murphy said. “The announcer would say, ‘Oh, there is a hit in the 5-6 hole’ and oops, there’s Cal Ripken standing there throwing the ball across the field for a 6-3 putout. They would be like, ‘How in the heck did he do that?’ because everyone else in the park thought it was a single, but he had positioned himself and knew where the ball was going to go before it was even hit. And she is like that.”

From her centerfield position, McCleney made a plethora of big plays in an Alabama jersey that swung the momentum of a game.

One such play came against LSU in 2014. Off the bat, the ball looked like it would land for a hit in shallow right field; it was just far enough away from the right fielder and seemed just out of reach for McCleney, who would have to charge in from centerfield. 

But oops, there was Haylie McCleney. Just as the ball appeared to be hitting the ground, the centerfielder Superman-dove and caught the ball in her glove, robbing a hit and most likely a run.

The catch was so impressive that it landed as the No. 4 play on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10.

Assistant coach Alyson Habetz had her own story about McCleney’s play; this time it was during the future Olympian’s first practice with Alabama. 

“At the end of infield/outfield, [Murphy] will always hit fly balls to the outfield,” Habetz said. “It was day one, and he hits a ball in foul territory in right field, and Haylie was in right field, and she lays out and gets about three feet of airtime and is parallel to the ground and catches it. I’m like, ‘OK, don’t screw this kid up. If I just don’t get in the way, this kid is going to be incredible.’” 

Despite wanting to get out of the way and let McCleney develop on her own, Habetz could not get away that easily, as McCleney would work with her after practice to develop her craft.

McCleney became so good that Habetz had to come up with new drills to challenge her. Habetz would line up the outfielders in front the warning track in right field while she hit line drives at them from the third-base foul line. McCleney compared it to the distance between home plate and shortstop.

The drill tested McCleney’s already gifted first step by training her to have the reaction time of a shortstop.

“I’d never done that drill before,” Habetz said with a laugh. “Normally they are out in the outfield and I hit to them, but that was too easy for her. Every day I tried to be more creative to try to figure out how I am going to challenge her, because if not, it was going to get boring for her.”

On March 31, McCleney will return to the place where her craft was perfected. In a scrimmage against Alabama, she will take the familiar jog out to her spot in center this time from the opposing dugout wearing “USA” across her chest. 

“I’m just super grateful we picked 18 of the best people in the world to be on our roster,” McCleney said. “I’m just so lucky. The more I think about it, that’s how I feel and I am ready to get this journey going. I am just so excited.”