Clark: FSU Softball a shining example of winning culture, elite coaching
When I interviewed Lonni Alameda last week for our Warchant 1-on-1 series, there was one question I wanted to ask the Florida State softball coach above all others.
For years, her team has boasted a powerful lineup, built on doubles, homers and big innings. She won a national title in 2018 with the great Jessie Warren leading the way. The next year, without Warren, the team set a program record and finished third in the nation with 105 homers.
Both of those squads slugged well over .500 as a team.
Now here we are, in the first full season since that historic power surge, and the Seminoles are back in the Women's College World Series. Again.
They have over 40 wins. Again.
And yet they've done it a completely different way.
Florida State currently ranks 91st in the country in home runs per game. They have 42 on the season and are slugging .410 as a team.
And yet they're still going back to Oklahoma City.
You want to know what a winning program looks like? What a strong culture produces? Look no further. A team that is traditionally built on power found a brand new way to win in 2021.
"As you're going through the journey of a season and the power numbers aren't showing up, you're going, 'Uh, how are we going to make this happen in order to compete?'" Alameda said. "To get where we want to go, the power numbers are a big part of it. And I think we were so frustrated for so long that we didn't really take a step back and go, 'Wait. We're still winning ball games. We're still beating good clubs. We're still doing some really good things.'
"So, let's not get so fixated on doubles and home runs and let's keep working on the things that we're doing. There's been excitement to team at-bats. There's been a lot of team at-bats right now. Situational hitting, moving 'em over, short game, baserunning."
I'm not going to sit here and act like I'm a softball expert by any means. And I'm not going to pretend that I've been following this team with laser focus all year.
But like all of you reading this, I am a sports fan. I do know how programs are built and sustained. And I think there are some great lessons to be learned from what Alameda and her staff have done in 2021.
She made it very clear that they weren't planning on changing their approach. Losing 100 points off the team's slugging percentage wasn't something they were necessarily prepared for. And like she said, even halfway through the season, the coaches admittedly were frustrated with the lack of power.
They were all basically pulling their hair out (lucky devils!), trying to figure out what was going on.
Then, finally, they decided to change their approach with the team. To meet it where it was. Instead of worrying about doubles and homers, they decided to lean into what this lineup was doing well: Bunts, steals, good baserunning, sacrifices, advancing runners.
"Our practices changed a little bit," Alameda said. "It definitely got more situational, more baserunning-minded. ... You've got to embrace where you're at, and get after what we do. And do it well."
Pair the modified offensive approach with great pitching and defense, and guess what?
You still have a recipe for success.
As it turns out, you still have a recipe for a College World Series berth.
"The expectation here is not to be one of the 64 teams that make it [to the NCAA tournament]," Alameda said. "It's to be one of the eight teams playing in Oklahoma City. And that's the standard. And that's the standard we want, too."
Florida State won Game 1 of its Super Regional at LSU, 1-0, on a sacrifice fly after a pair of singles. That was one of those "team at-bats" Alameda was talking about.
Florida State won Game 2, 4-3, in nine innings. And while Elizabeth Mason delivered another all-time postseason moment with a game-tying homer with two outs in the eighth, the Seminoles are heading to Oklahoma City because of everything but the long ball.
Down 2-0, they scored a run in the sixth on an RBI single. They scored a tying run in the seventh on two singles, a sac bunt and a wild pitch. And they scored the game-winning run in the ninth on a single, a walk and a scorched single down the third-base line.
A single, by the way, that came from the bat of redshirt freshman Kiersten Landers, who was hitting for the first time all game.
Landers said after the game that she didn't know until a few moments before her at-bat that she would be pinch-hitting. But she also said she knew all game there was a chance she would be called upon. So, she stayed ready. And when it mattered, she delivered.
Alameda was playing a hunch by sending up the lefty freshman in that spot. She had seen that left-handed hitters in her lineup seemed to be getting better swings against LSU pitcher Ali Kilponen. And it worked out perfectly.
Isn't it funny how the best coaches always seem to have the best luck, too?
And more to the point, isn't it remarkable how the best coaches are able to modify their approach to the teams they have? How they can pivot in the middle of a season and dive head-first into what the current team's strengths are instead of hanging tightly onto what has worked in the past?
I have no idea what FSU's chances are of winning the 2021 national title. I assume they'll play some really close games. Because that's what they do. And if they get some timely hits and continue making plays in the field, they have about as good a shot as anyone.
Whether or not they bring home another trophy, though, this season has been a testament to what a great program looks like. Because a great program finds a way to keep winning. No matter what.
Contact senior writer Corey Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @Corey_Clark on Twitter.