From second-class status to first-time champions for Jessie Warren, Anna Shelnutt and Florida State
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Jessie Warren woke up this past Friday morning without any softball to play in the Women's College World Series. Fans would file in and games would continue that night inside Hall of Fame Stadium, only a few miles up the highway from where she sat. But Warren and her Florida State teammates weren't invited. Beaten on the opening day of the double-elimination event, they had to sit and wait.
That has so often been the case for Florida State over the years in college softball, invited to the party but limited to the fringes of the fun. An outpost in the NCAA softball wilderness when the West Coast ruled the sport, the ACC team is now an isolated city-state surrounded by the expanding SEC empire.
The sport's history said any team that lost its opening game was all but doomed. Florida State's own history, the team that had visited here most often without ever winning, suggested there wasn't a heck of a lot of hope even before that opening loss.
Five days later, after the final out of Florida State's 8-3 win over Washington that clinched the first championship in school history and the greatest comeback in World Series history, Warren threw her glove so high in the air that it is easy to imagine it was visible from that hotel room.
She didn't need it any longer. There aren't any more games for anyone to play this season.
"We had been talking all season about, 'We haven't peaked yet,' " Warren said. "I think this week we peaked."
There also wasn't anything else for this team to prove. Not for Warren, an all-time great who for four seasons too often flew under the radar. Not for Anna Shelnutt, the catcher who was told she wasn't good enough to play in games this important. Warren and Shelnutt were two of the biggest reasons Florida State took the field Tuesday so close to a title. They were also two of the reasons why the Seminoles looked like that pressure was too much.
Then they went about doing what this team did best all year: starting a comeback.
"There have been games this year where I'm like, 'Oh man, I think we're done.' -- and I'm one of the coaches," assistant Travis Wilson said. "And there is no give up in them. There is no quit, no matter the score."
So goes the story of a championship.
Florida State was at its best throughout the postseason when backed into a corner. It won six elimination games in the NCAA tournament, four in the span of 48 hours in the World Series. It is the first team to ever lose its opening game and still win the World Series when it included a best-of-three championship round.
So, yeah, it fit the script when Washington took the lead after all of four pitches in Game 2, aided by a passed ball from Shelnutt and a throwing error from Warren -- the night after she made one of the most memorable defensive plays in the history of the event.
Shelnutt said that when she walked into the pitching circle for a huddle with coach Lonni Alameda after that disastrous start, she felt a whole range of emotions. None of them good. She was anxious. She was mad at herself for the mistake. She and the rest of the players left the quick meeting laughing.
"We've never been on that stage," Alameda said, noting the barrage of social media well wishes and attention that came with Monday's win. "But you know, you eye it up and you kind of look around, walk in there with a big smile and be like, 'Hey, we're the Cardiac Kids. We need to be down by three in order to perform. This is so much fun, right? We're right where we want to be.' "
To understand the reaction you have to understand that Florida State is used to being doubted. Sometimes for good reason -- like when it made seven errors in the opening game of the 2016 World Series. Same old Florida State. Sometimes for no good reason. When she was a high school freshman in small-town Georgia, Shelnutt said a program of similar size and ambition as Florida State told her she was too small to play catcher for them.
"The thing was, I knew who I was as a catcher," Shelnutt said. "I knew I didn't have to be big to intimidate somebody else. Because that's what they said, that I didn't intimidate anybody when I stepped off the bus. Like that means anything. It's about how you play.
"My heart is so much bigger than I am. That's what gets me through catching."
Many schools list the other schools a player considered in their online bio. If nothing else, it is a way to show other recruits the kind of company they keep -- and who they beat in recruiting. In Shelnutt's case the list is Georgia Southern, Michigan State and North Carolina. With all respect to those programs, they aren't competing for places in the World Series on a regular basis. But the Florida State coaches saw plenty in Shelnutt.
"It was really a no-brainer for us," Wilson said. "A good kid from a good family who can catch and throw. We'll take one of those every time."
He admitted he was not so sure about the hitting, at least not like she hit the past two days. It was Shelnutt, who, while not overly fond of her "Postseason Anna" nickname, provided the only run in Monday's game with a home run off Washington's Gabbie Plain. And it was Shelnutt who hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning Tuesday to answer Washington's salvo and make Huskies starter Taran Alvelo look mortal after two overpowering strikeouts had further fired up the Pac-12 team.
All week long, Florida State's lineup produced from top to bottom. Every starter collected at least one extra-base hit. This time it was Shelnutt's turn again.
"My whole thought process walking up for that at-bat was somebody has got to change this momentum," Shelnutt said. "It was on their side, and if we were going to win this game, we had to get the momentum -- and Jessie was already on base. We had scouted the pitcher up and down, and I knew what I was getting. I knew I was getting outside some time in that at-bat and I just had to commit."
Naturally, it was Warren, after her own uncharacteristic error in the top of the inning, who was already on base when Shelnutt brought the Seminoles back into the game. Named the Most Outstanding Player after tying the World Series record with 13 hits (it was a tough call between her and pitcher Meghan King), Warren seemed to turn up on base or make a play whenever Florida State most needed it.
For the better part of four years, she has been the most talented player in the ACC. That hasn't always been as much of a compliment as it was a way to mark her down in the discussion for national honors or evaluation, like being the best baseball player in Triple-A. But here she was the best of the best. At least for a week.
"We wanted to show that our conference could do it, that kids that love playing the game could go to different conferences and play at high levels," Alameda said. "And they took a chance on us and the dream to be here. ... We've come through, and you can go to the ACC and play at different schools. You know, we're the guiding flag, you know. We're the flag bearer for the conference, and that means so much."
I came into this program as a kid, and I'm leaving a strong woman.Jessie Warren
So of course it was Warren's home run, the 83rd of her career, that put the final run on the board Tuesday. That completed a comeback that can be matched but not surpassed. That eliminated Washington, just as the Florida State eliminated Oregon and UCLA from what was the best conference in the country this season.
Shelnutt belonged here. Warren belonged here. All of the Seminoles belonged here.
"I came into this program as a kid, and I'm leaving a strong woman," Warren said. "I wouldn't have wanted it any other way because this coaching staff cares for you as a person, not just a player. You leave this program so much better than you came into this program, and they prepare you for life."
The Seminoles will wake up Wednesday morning with no game to play.
But Hall of Fame Stadium will sit quiet, the stands empty. The Cardiac Kids closed the place down this season.