TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As far as Lonni Alameda is concerned, Florida State softball’s 2016 season began the moment that the 2015 campaign ended.
That was in Knoxville, Tenn., when the Seminoles outhit host Tennessee in Game 3 of the NCAA Super Regionals but fell one run short of a second straight berth to the Women’s College World Series.
It’s a memory that drove the Seminoles to great heights in 2016, and one that they’ll carry with them as they try to flip the script in this year’s Super Regional against Utah.
The best-of-three series starts Friday at 5 p.m. on JoAnne Graf Field, with Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) to follow on Saturday. The winner goes to Oklahoma City while the loser gets an unwelcome start to their summer.
“I feel like since that day happened, it’s been the driving force,” junior infielder Ellie Cooper said. “It’s always in the back of our mind. It’s never a good feeling. It hurts really bad. But experience is tough in that way. Because you can’t really learn from it until it happens to you.”
Based on their results so far, it seems the Seminoles are the better for it.
FSU is ranked seventh in the country, has 51 wins on the ledger and just a single instance of back-to-back defeats – and those came to second-ranked Michigan way back in February.
Along the way, the Seminoles earned ACC honors for player of the year (first baseman Alex Powers), pitcher of the year (Jessica Burroughs) and coach of the year (Alameda), and they claimed their third straight league championship just a few weeks ago.
Alameda won’t deny that her group is plenty talented, but she is just as quick to point her team’s character as a reason for its success. Character forged, at least in part, by the disappointment of a year ago.
“Mentality is one of the biggest things that gets you here right now,” Alameda said. “We put together the skills of a softball team, but if you don’t have the character and you don’t have the fight and drive and heart within with your returning players to remind your kids off the softball field what it’s about – I think that’s why we’ve been so successful this year within our core values of our program.”
For several weeks now, the Seminoles have seemed to be on a collision course with the WCWS.
But the last obstacle in their way likely won’t be an easy one to clear.
The Utes are ranked 25th in the nation, boast the Pacific-12 Conference player of the year (junior infielder Hannah Flippen) and are road-tested, having topped host Kentucky at last week’s NCAA Regional in Lexington, Ky.
With that in mind, Utah coach Amy Hogue said she understands that most might pick FSU to advance – she’s just not quite ready to buy it.
“We’ve heard that a lot, for sure,” Hogue said. “We don’t think of ourselves as underdogs, though.”
Still, it’s hard to blame the Seminoles if they’re feeling confident.
They’ve lost just twice in the last month and, bolstered by Powers at the plate and Burroughs in the circle, they know they can win in a variety of ways.
That includes a slugfest – like their 16-11 win at Pittsburgh earlier this season – or narrow affair, like their 2-1, regional-clinching win over South Carolina last week.
“We’ve been through it all,” Alameda said. “We kind of talked about it as a staff last weekend. It doesn’t matter how pretty or ugly it is right now. It’s about the ‘W’ and moving forward, really scratching and clawing.”
Even scarier for FSU’s opponents, Alameda believes the Seminoles have yet to play a game in which all of their strengths are on display at once.
This weekend would be a perfect time for the first.
“I think that we haven’t put everything together yet,” Alameda said. “I don’t think we’ve put a good hitting performance, good pitching performance and defense all together yet. What a great time to start to peak and do all that right now.”
If they can do that, then the Seminoles like their chances to advance, with the memory that drove them to this point banished to the past and the future as bright as ever.