Defending champion Florida State sticks to its proven plan
After winning the national championship with Florida State last spring, Carsyn Gordon and Meghan King set their sights on global softball supremacy over the summer. They traveled to softball fields as distant as Colombia and Japan hoping to help Puerto Rico qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Yet with barely 24 hours to spare between trips to South America and Asia, they made time to stop in Florida and throw out the first pitch before a Miami Marlins game.
Never mind that a matinee at Marlins Park drew fewer customers than the busiest days of the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma. For someone raised in the Miami area, the honor was overwhelming enough to merit raiding parental frequent-flyer miles to make the side trip.
Which is not to say the moment got the best of Gordon. Not much shakes her confidence.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to say the least," said Gordon, a senior infielder. "It was definitely kind of intimidating walking onto the big stage, like walking out onto that field. But once you got on the mound, it was pretty normal."
The pitch, at least in her estimation, was a strike.
The summer escapades are what happens when your world changes. And the world changed with a championship. Not just for Gordon but for a program that won its first title after more trips to the World Series without one than anyone. For a program no longer an outsider consigned to be the big fish in the relatively small softball pond that is the ACC, reality changed.
And yet the change that mattered most happened long before last year. Gordon was on the mound in Miami because she changed her world. She grew through struggles into a woman confident in her own abilities. A lot of people do in Tallahassee. And if Florida State is neither the first nor the last champion to develop people more than players, it is now unequivocally part of that club. What changed with a trophy in Oklahoma City, what Gordon carried with her to the mound in Miami, was proof that they were doing it right all along.
"We really pride ourselves on being a transformational organization," Florida State coach Lonni Alameda said. "There are obviously some programs that are very transactional, it's all about [wins]. Definitely when you get to the pros, that's how people run things. And sometimes in college for football it can be that way, too. But for female athletics, this is the pros for a lot of them. But this is also the biggest time for them to grow as people.
"We didn't know if you could do it that way. You definitely can do it that way."
Florida State begins its title defense without Jessie Warren, the All-American third baseman and ESPYS nominee, and Kylee Hanson, half of a dominant pitching duo alongside King in 2018. In addition to King, who beat Washington twice in the championship series, and sophomore All-American infielder Sydney Sherrill, the Seminoles still have Gordon as a first baseman. One of only two players in the ACC to steal double-digit bases and hit double-digit home runs a season ago, along with Sherrill, Gordon enters her senior season as a proven run producer and a proven voice of the team.
"Spunky is what I would call her," Sherrill said. "She's always smiling, having a good time. She's like the person on the team who you can count on for anything. But she's also, on and off the field, she's going to hold you accountable to our team rules and standards.
"She's a really big leader and part of how we've gotten to where we are today."
How Gordon, in turn, got to where she is today is notable precisely because it isn't unique within the story of the program. It's basically the blueprint.
Gordon played soccer as a kid. She tried cheerleading. But from just about the time her older brother, TJ, started playing baseball and her dad hit her grounders on the side to keep her busy during TJ's practices, the only sport that mattered to her was softball. She even talked her dad into a deal in which she would get a Camaro when she earned a college scholarship. Their "contract" was pinned to her bedroom wall for years.
Committed to her goal and blessed with the kind of athleticism and powerful swing that attracted the likes of Florida and Florida State, she was that one-of-a-kind kid. Until she found a lot of her kind in college.
"She came in and was a hard worker, but Carsyn had to get some confidence in herself," Alameda said. "She struggled a little bit with that her first year, and it locked her up quite a bit in a lot of scenarios."
Struggles are relative. Playing on a team that reached the World Series, Gordon started all but six games as a freshman in 2016 and posted an on-base percentage better than .400 and a slugging percentage close to .500. But the struggles were real in her mind, especially in the early going. The coaches briefly took her out of the lineup. They weren't upset with her, they told her. They just needed her to relax. They needed her to realize the game is just a game.
"You were always the best in high school and travel ball," Gordon said. "And getting here, you're with a bunch of other best players. So it's hard when you're struggling and you can't get out of it. And then you struggle for a few games and you're like, 'Oh, my God, I suck.' And when you're a freshman you feel like you have to prove yourself.
"You have all these thoughts and you can't get out of it. You just have to take a step back."
What seems to happen with some regularity at Florida State is the maturation to get through difficult times.
Among those Gordon leaned on for help as a freshman was Alex Powers, then an All-American and one of the best hitters in program history. But Powers battled her own crisis of confidence through multiple knee injuries early in her career, bitter about her fate and unsure what to do with the range of emotions bubbling inside her. And there was Jessica Burroughs, the pitcher who redshirted her first year on campus as she learned to balance newfound freedom and responsibilities. She wasn't around for the title a season ago, but King was, the pitcher Burroughs took under her wing early on as a protege rather than a rival.
Nor would Florida State have won the championship in 2018 without Sherrill, the highly touted recruit who matched an NCAA single-season record for doubles last season as a freshman. But far from home, adjusting to early-morning practices and college classes, she was miserable her freshman fall.
"Their whole mindset in club ball is to get a scholarship to go to college," Alameda said. "And then you get the scholarship, and you go to college and it's a whole other level of work. Sometimes I think that they get here, and we've lost their innocence a little bit because they haven't been able to be kids."
Sherrill was a baseball player in her youth and switched to softball more out of practicality than passion. Her coach said she looked like someone who wasn't sure she loved softball.
"Practices were super mentally challenging coming in as a freshman because I didn't know what to expect," Sherrill said. "I knew there were going to be challenges, and I was going to have to work at it to succeed, but I didn't know to what extent it would happen. It was kind of overwhelming -- it got overwhelming a lot of times."
I knew there were going to be challenges, and I was going to have to work at it to succeed, but I didn't know to what extent it would happen.Sydney Sherrill
The great success of Florida State's player development may be nothing more secret than patience and the willingness to let people transitioning into adulthood grow into themselves.
Sherrill leaned on the likes of Gordon and shortstop Cali Harrod and graduate assistant and former second baseman Ellie Cooper. Able to take a step back, she returned from winter break rejuvenated. The results spoke for themselves, although pictures sometimes told a good story, too.
Instead of the usual end-of-season debriefing routine, when they would try to figure out what kept the team from a championship, Alameda said the coaching staff went to Chicago last June and spent time with the Cubs. Then they went to the Bahamas. But little changed in Tallahassee. The players will still spend time that could be otherwise directed to softball doing community service. And the voice in the back of Alameda's mind will still wonder if she can afford that luxury.
That patience may be tested this season because Alameda is unwilling to ask King to throw every inning. She will let a collection of young pitchers find their way. It's best for all involved. In the long run.
She has proof that success and the patience for players to develop as people aren't mutually exclusive.
"We're a people business, we've got to get along with people and connect," Alameda said. "And there's a lot of different ways to connect and grow trust within the unit. By sitting there in the end, being in the championship game and feeling that connection of our team and the power of being one unit, it was really cool to see.
"It was very apparent that transformational can work."
It took Gordon around the world and back home again to a pitching mound in Miami.