OKLAHOMA CITY – Lonni Alameda’s greatest triumph was borne out of her greatest disappointment.
It was May 28, 2017, when Florida State, loaded with All-Americans and seeded fourth in the NCAA tournament, was upset by LSU in Game 3 of a best-of-three Super Regional.
After the final out, Alameda stared into a roomful of teary eyes looking for her to tell them why this team, for all its talent, commitment and achievements – perhaps the best team of her time in Tallahassee – wouldn’t be going to the Women’s College World Series.
In the moment, she didn’t have an answer.
“You look at yourself as a coach, and you’re like, ‘OK, I just asked everyone in the program, every player, to do this because this is what gets you there.’
“And it didn’t happen.”
The heartbreak was devastating, and it led Alameda to do a lot of reflecting over the summer.
About whether her method was the right one, and whether her laid-back, fun-loving style, which is such a radical departure from many of her peers both in softball and in college athletics as a whole, could take the Seminoles to the highest level.
Alameda had a choice: Keep on the course she had been charting for nearly a decade, or retrofit Florida State softball to become more like the buttoned-down, straight-laced, military-style ventures so common in both college and professional sports.
But as she weighed her options, Alameda realized she didn’t really have a decision at all. She couldn’t change, even if she wanted to.
“I’m going to be who I am, and coach who I am and be the same,” she said. “And if I don’t make it, I don’t make it. And if I do, I do.”
She made it.
Led by a fun-loving, prank-playing, funny-face-making mix of veterans and newcomers, the Seminoles captured their first NCAA softball championship on Monday with an 8-3 victory over Washington in Game 2 of the Women’s College World Series Final.
It made all the events of the previous year feel like an awfully long time ago.
And, for Alameda, it was solid, inarguable proof that her way can also be the right way.
“You don’t have to treat it like a business,” said FSU assistant Travis Wilson, who has served on Alameda’s staff since 2011. “You can treat it as fun, as a game, and you can win. I think that’s probably the most prideful thing we’re going to take out of this, as a staff.”
Since arriving at Tallahassee from UNLV in 2009, Alameda has instilled five core values into her program, each of them serving to guide the Seminoles’ players and coaches in every aspect of what they do – how they recruit, how they practice, how they play and how they carry themselves both on and off the field.
They are: Family, Smart, Aggressive, Competitive and Committed.
All those things have worked in concert to create a program that’s a perfect reflection of its head coach.
Since her time growing up in El Dorado Hills, Calif., Alameda has had a way of making those around her feel like family.
“One of the most popular people in school,” her younger brother, Aaron Alameda said. “Homecoming Queen.”
Those other traits flourished, too, usually in the world of athletics. There was no doubting Alameda’s commitment, competitiveness or aggression – in high school, she starred in softball, basketball and volleyball – and, pretty soon, she realized that she had a mind for teaching, too.
After spending much of her youth learning to field, throw and hit at a local baseball and softball clinic, Alameda as a 16-year-old started volunteering as a coach.
“She was a high-school kid teaching college guys how to hit a baseball,” Aaron Alameda said. “It’s amazing.”
As it relates to the Seminoles, being a family means building relationships with their teammates, fellow student-athletes and surrounding community.
The games mean more when the players care about the people around them.
“It’s always family atmosphere and trying to be positive with the kids,” said Karl Mason, whose daughter Elizabeth is a freshman catcher and designated player at FSU. “Lonni has instilled that in every single coach and player she’s come across.”
Beyond that, being smart means having a plan for all situations and having studied both themselves and their opponents.
Being aggressive means being proactive in the pursuit of their goals, making something happen rather than waiting for opportunity that might never come.
Being competitive means always striving higher, taking time to celebrate benchmarks while steadily raising the bar.
And being committed means buying in completely. None of the other four values matter much if the coaches, players and staff aren’t committed to them.
That 2017 team, the one that fell short, had all the ingredients. And, as a result, it had confidence as it embarked on the postseason.
“We all knew it,” Alameda said. “Every kid knew it, every staff member knew it. We were winning it all last year. We were going to make history, last year.”
But that team had something else thrown into the mix, too: The weight of expectations.
Bolstered by the eventual ACC pitcher of the year (Jessica Burroughs) and player of the year (Alex Powers), as well as a pair of senior leaders (Ellie Cooper, Sydney Broderick) and a hard-hitting third baseman (Jessie Warren), the Seminoles racked up wins and records at a rapid pace.
They went on a 29-game unbeaten streak, ran through the ACC with a perfect 24-0 record and claimed wins over national powers Florida, Arizona and UCLA.
Along the way, they earned a No. 1 national ranking for the first time in school history and held onto it for eight weeks.
During the midst of that run, though, something else happened.
Success became something to be expected, rather than enjoyed. And all the fun the Seminoles had hitting home runs, stealing bases and turning double plays began to fade under those expectations.
“I think we missed celebrating all the little things,” Alameda said. “I learned last year that even if you have all the ingredients, you still have to have fun and enjoy the moments.”
Added Wilson: “Last year’s team thought sweeping an ACC weekend was something we had to do.
“But this year’s team, we celebrated it, because of how hard it is to do.”
That last point is what Florida State’s staff believes most separates the 2018 Seminoles from their predecessors.
Rather than shift directions following a disappointment, Alameda instead doubled down and poured more of herself and her light-hearted personality in to her team.
Besides, she had already tried the other way before.
As a rookie coach at UNLV, Alameda thought she needed to be a hard-nosed disciplinarian to earn her players’ respect.
In her first year, the Rebels went 25-35.
“It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t working,” she said.
A year later, with Alameda coaching how she wanted, rather than how she thought she “should,” UNLV surged to 44 victories and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in nearly a decade.
It led to a heightened profile in the softball coaching circuit and, eventually, the keys to Florida State softball following longtime coach JoAnne Graf’s retirement in 2008.
“The fact that she had faith to stick to (her principles) just goes to the person she is,” junior pitcher Meghan King said. “We fall in love with the game by playing for her.”
Drawing from those old lessons, Alameda strengthened her resolve leading up to the 2018 season. And the result was a group of Seminoles that might not have reached the heights as the one that came before – at least not during the regular season – but that enjoyed every step of the journey.
And by not taking themselves too seriously, the Seminoles were better prepared with the inevitable setbacks that came.
Most notably an opening-game loss to that same LSU program in the first game of the 2018 Super Regional.
This time, in a bit of poetic balance, the Seminoles rallied back for a pair of victories – one an 11-inning marathon, the other a tight, tense affair with just seven total hits – to reach the Women’s College World Series.
“I think if we take ourselves too seriously, that’s when the game starts to fall apart,” Kingsaid. “We love to compete, but if the game gets too serious, we just kind of lose it. And ‘Coacha’ (Alameda’s nickname within the program) has created a great culture to just let us be ourselves, have fun and have fun with each other.
“And that’s how we win games.”
By the time they made it to Oklahoma City, it was obvious that, no matter what happened, the Seminoles were going to enjoy themselves:
Wcws Shenanigans …. some of my village people 👊 pic.twitter.com/TaxRaU7LSF
— Lonni Alameda (@Coach_Alameda) May 30, 2018
Alameda, of course, knows what outside observers might think.
If a team keeps its nose to the grindstone, day in and day out, and comes up short, well, sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
But if a team, say, visits the Oklahoma City Zoo instead of taking extra practice reps on the day before its World Series opener, and then loses that opener, as FSU did to UCLA …
“You lose, and everyone’s like ‘Hey, you went to the zoo,’” Alameda said. “Right away, people are going to judge you.
“And I’m OK with that.”
Whatever the usual line of thinking suggests, there’s no one judging Alameda or her Seminoles now.
Not after watching them tear through six consecutive wins over WCWS competition. Not after watching them eliminate softball bluebloods Georgia, Oregon, UCLA and Washington.
And not after watching Alameda win a national championship the only way she knows how. Her way.
“It’s a different mentality for sure, right?” Alameda’s brother Aaron said. “Hopefully it’s the future of coaching. Because it can be done, obviously.
“She did it.”