As twilight fell over the University of Arizona’s Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium on a May evening, Alyssa Palomino, who plays first base for the ’Cats, lay down on the grass at the edge of the field.
Stretching out her long frame, all 5 feet 10 inches of it, Palomino reveled in the cool evening air. The afternoon had been brutally hot — 99 degrees — and the ’Cats had just pulled off a victory against Grand Canyon University, 1-0. But the matchup was a doubleheader, and there was another game ahead.
During the break, out on the grass, the team trainer started working Palomino’s legs, gently pulling them straight up and then sideways. A sore knee had taken her out of play for two days the previous week.
The knee trouble was worrisome. Palomino has torn her ACL twice — an excruciatingly painful injury to the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee. An ACL tear in her right knee kept her out of competition her entire freshman season, and a tear in her left knee denied her postseason play at the end of her triumphant return in 2017.
But on this evening, all was well. After the therapy session, Palomino sprang to her feet, took a couple of jokey giant steps, and laughed out loud.
As soon as the second game began, the ’Cats were killing it: The score was already 3-0 when Palomino stepped up to bat in the third inning. She crouched, eyed the ball with a laser focus, then slammed it out of the ballpark. Her teammates exploded into a dance in the dugout, and Palomino ran the bases, her ponytail flying behind her.
The next inning, she did it again, sending another ball soaring into the darkening sky. Another home run — totalling 19 this season and 35 in her career — and another ’Cat victory, 9-0. She finished the season as the Pac-12 home run leader and was named a first-team NFCA All-American, earning the 100th All-America honor in UA history.
Palomino, at 20 years old, has played the game for 16 years.
“I was 4 when I started T-ball,” she says, swigging on a water bottle in the players’ comfy lounge at Hillenbrand a couple weeks before the double-homer against Grand Canyon. Dressed in workout pants and an Arizona tank top, she sinks down into the couch and eyes a bruise on her wrist.
“I got hit last Wednesday,” she explains nonchalantly. The game was a double-header win against New Mexico State. “You just shake it off.”
Growing up in a big, sports-loving family in Garden Grove, California, southeast of Los Angeles, Palomino lived just blocks from a rec center that was home to T-ball and other kids’ sports.
A brother a year older played flag football, and her stepdad had been a hoopster. Her little brother, now just 5, is a “hurricane” who likes football, soccer and basketball.
But the female side of the family is firmly in the softball camp. Her older sister “was always playing softball,” Palomino says, “and my mom played softball in college.”
And her aunt, her mother’s sister Toni Mascarenas, was a first-team All-American softball player at the UA and a 2006 Hall of Fame inductee who led the Wildcats to the women’s NCAA College World Series championship in 2001. At the time of her induction, she was in the NCAA top-five record books for home runs in a season (25) and career RBIs (245).
Palomino’s grandmother, the progenitor of these powerhouse athletes, is her biggest fan.
“My grandma’s been to every game series,” Palomino says with a grin, adding that she goes by plane or by car, whatever it takes.
Palomino never had an interest in any sport but softball. “I tried soccer for a few months and hated it,” she remembers.
From T-ball, she quickly moved on to under-8 and under-10 local teams, and then joined a travel team for gifted players. The team took regular trips around California and even went to tournaments as far away as Colorado and New Jersey.
“You grow a passion for the game,” she says. “I love doing it.”
When Palomino moved on to Mission Viejo High School, her acclaimed Aunt Toni was one of her coaches. Playing with Taylor McQuillin, now a pitcher on the UA team, Palomino lettered all four years and helped the team rocket to fame.
In 2014, “Mission Viejo won the national championship,” Palomino exults.
Outside school, she played for USA Softball’s Junior Women’s National Team, winning a gold medal, and for a club team that won three national titles.
Palomino had multiple college offers, but she chose Arizona — and not only because it was her aunt’s alma mater.
“I stepped on campus and fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s a family atmosphere. Coach (Mike Candrea) is like a second dad.” And, she adds, “I love the heat.”
When she tore up her right knee in her first month on campus, Arizona’s family atmosphere really helped.
“My freshman year was a low point for me,” she says. “I was away from home, and I’m very family-oriented. But I learned I had a family here. A lot of people were in my corner.” As a Christian, she adds, “I relied on God and the Bible and my faith.”
The injury, her first ever, happened during an ordinary play. “I went for the ball on my left. I jumped for it. My right leg came down first and twisted. I was on the ground screaming and crying.”
After rehabbing the knee for two months, she had surgery during Thanksgiving week — a tough time made easier by a visit from her mom, dad and little brother. The family dined on take-out turkey.
Palomino lost the entire season, but she gained a year to heal. And the next season, 2017, she was dynamite on the field, racking up a slew of honors, from Pac-12 Freshman of the Week to eighth-most runs by a freshman in Arizona history.
But two days into postseason practice, she tore the ACL in her other knee.
The pain was no less searing this time, but at least she knew what it was. “I knew what to do. I knew what to expect” — more surgery, more rehab.
But the pain hasn’t stopped. “It hurts every day,” she admits. “We work to rehab it.”
Coach Candrea, who’s known her since she was a little kid, notes that “Alyssa is a gifted athlete who plays the game with great passion and competitive drive. She has been through many ups and downs in her college career, with two knee surgeries in three years.
This will challenge anyone — especially when you are born to play a game that you love and have worked so hard to compete at the college level. These obstacles have made Alyssa a better person by teaching her what truly is important in life.”
Coming back in the 2018 season, Palomino worked so hard on the field and in the classroom that she was named Sophomore Female Athlete of the Year.
Her life as a top college athlete is demanding. In 2018, the team played a daunting 54 games in the regular season, competing in three matches most weekends, often out of town, and playing occasional Wednesday games. The team finished the season competing in Arizona’s 13th NCAA Super Regional, losing to UCLA. Thrown into that mix are regular practices, weight training, conditioning and college classes.
Palomino has two demanding majors, psychology and sociology, and a minor in criminal justice. During the season “we lose one or two school days a week,” she says, though she gets a lot of work done in team study halls twice a week.
And she brings the same intense concentration to her schoolwork that she shows in the game. A mentor once advised her, “Be where your feet are.” It’s advice she tries to follow.
“If you’re in class, you’re paying attention,” she says. “And if you’re on the field, you’re playing.”
Palomino says she’s working “100 percent” toward a post-college softball career in one of the six pro teams or on the USA Softball team. For now, she’s giving her all to the ’Cats and their fans, a fervent crew of students, parents, alumni — and hordes of young girls.
“Our fans are amazing,” she says.
At the end of home games, kids are invited to run the bases. Fired up after watching Palomino and the other women running, girls come out in force and sprint around the field as fast as they can.
Palomino feels honored to be a role model.
“I look at that and think, ‘That’s the little girl I was,’” says Palomino, her eyes tearing up. “It’s great that I can be that person for them. It’s humbling.”