OKLAHOMA CITY -- KATHRYN Sandercock looked up into the night sky and dabbed tears from her eyes moments after leading Florida State to a decisive win over Tennessee in the semifinal of the Women's College World Series on Monday. Then she stood there, in a sort of euphoric daze, grinning, as she waited for an on-field interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe.
Lawyer Milloy, the recognizable former All-Pro NFL safety and father of Tennessee star center fielder Kiki Milloy, helped snap her out of it, shouting from the stands to congratulate her on a job well done. Greatness recognizes greatness, even when it hurts. And the senior from Virginia had truly been great, throwing three dazzling innings in which she allowed no runs and only one hit.
Sandercock was overwhelmed, she said, with gratitude for her college, for her coach, for her team. There was also a sense of relief that her career, which is in its fifth year, wasn't over. It was a dream come true to know that the next and final step would be the championship series against Oklahoma on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
When Florida State coach Lonnie Alameda finished her on-field interview, she turned to see Sandercock nearby. She decided Rowe could wait as she pulled Sandercock in for a long hug, whispering something in her ear.
Alameda was asked by a reporter later what she said, as well as what Sandercock has meant to the program. That's when her eyes started watering, too. "Yeah," she said, "tears will start flowing here."
Alameda smiled as she thought back to a conversation she had with Sandercock before the season. That's when she laid out her plan that ideally would produce the best version of Kathryn Sandercock and the best version of Florida State.
But it was borderline counterintuitive. Because to get where Alameda wanted the team to be -- to make a deep run in the WCWS and have a chance at winning the program's first title since 2018 -- she'd have to feature her All-American and the undisputed ace of the staff less.
"When I presented that to her," Alameda recalled, "it meant a lot less starts, a lot less innings, a lot less comfortable situations."
To her credit, Sandercock said she'd do it. But Alameda saw how she struggled this season, adjusting to a new role as part starter, part long reliever, part closer and full-time leader.
It took time for all of those pieces to come together, which is why what happened against Tennessee mattered so much. What Sandercock did, coming out of the bullpen to close out the game, wasn't easy, Alameda said, let alone with a spot in the championship series on the line.
"Everything we thought would be," Alameda said, "is showing up."
TO UNDERSTAND HOW Florida State got here, go back to 2021 and the last time the Seminoles were in Oklahoma City. That's when Sandercock threw all eight games of the World Series, 31⅓ innings in all.
In Game 1 of the championship series, she notched a save in a win over Oklahoma.
In Game 2, she looked gassed and was touched up for five runs in a loss.
And in Game 3, by the time she came on in the third inning, it was already too late as the Sooners had built up a 5-1 lead and cruised to the first of its back-to-back national championships.
That season, only four pitchers started games for FSU.
This season, that number is six.
Seven total pitchers have made appearances entering Game 1 of the best-of-three series, which is three more than the Sooners.
While Alameda doesn't fancy herself a stat geek, she understands how analytics work and trends for the past decade favor hitters. They have so much more information and video at their disposal now, she said. And don't forget the advances in technology. Alameda brought up the Hack Attack pitching machine which can replicate basically any pitch.
"The more you get the opportunity to see pitchers and their tendencies, the more adjustments you can make with the great hitting coaches we have in our game," she said. "We on the pitching side and the defensive side have to figure out ways to minimize the momentum of teams, and you have to really figure out the different looks ... and try to find different ways to beat certain hitters."
Alameda cited Oklahoma's Jayda Coleman and Haley Lee, who have combined for 31 home runs this season.
"So you have to figure out, how do we get these hitters out?" she said. "Do we have that arsenal in our bullpen to be able to do that? I think strategy becomes a play. You've seen it more and more in our game and not overexposing people like Kat in certain situations so then we can bring in a rise ball, drop ball and changeup."
Following the Tampa Bay Rays as an example, Alameda fostered a deep bullpen. With an array of pitchers, she's then able to hunt matchups based on what the analytics say about a hitters' weaknesses.
And, more broadly speaking, fewer innings pitched by an ace like Sandercock over the course of the season leave her feeling fresh when the games matter most.
A year ago, Sandercock pitched 194⅓ innings when the Seminoles were eliminated in regional play. Entering postseason play, she totaled just 150 innings.
During the NCAA tournament, Sandercock is 5-0 with two saves. In 35 total innings pitched, she's given up just three earned runs.
"She's such a competitive pitcher," Oklahoma shortstop Grace Lyons said. "I think we've seen a lot of competitive pitchers this year, but she has a really cool way she pitches. She does a lot of different things and keeps hitters on edge."
FLORIDA STATE CATCHER Michaela Edenfield couldn't think of the name for it.
"Pitching the roster?" she said.
No, that's not it.
"Pitching by committee," she said. "there we go."
Whatever you call it -- whether it rolls off the tongue or not -- it's working for the Seminoles.
Mack Leonard started Monday's semifinal and allowed one run in two innings. She handed off to Makenna Reid, a standout freshman who has an 0.89 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 78⅓ innings. And she gave up one hit in two scoreless frames.
Boston University transfer Ali DuBois and Arizona State transfer Allison Royalty have combined for a 2.35 ERA in 116⅓ innings pitched.
But there's no mistaking who the head of the Seminoles' roster is.
When Alameda presented her plan to Sandercock before the season, she said, "Kat wanted to be the leader of the pitching staff."
It was a far cry from the standoffish freshman Alameda remembered from five years ago. That girl kept her nose in books and could go days without talking to anyone.
But now, not only has she grown into a more diverse role as a pitcher, but she's also grown into an example that younger players can follow.
"Now, she's taking control of a team," Alameda said. "She has that sass walking off the field, super confident in who she is. You get proud of her as a person, too. She's able to lead these younger pitchers in those moments."
Like in the regionals, when Florida State turned to her in an elimination game against South Carolina. All Sandercock did was throw her first perfect game since high school in a 1-0 win -- on only 59 pitches.
There's no questioning Sandercock's value. She's appeared in 47 games, with 24 starts, a record of 28-3 and a program-record 10 saves. She was named ACC Pitcher of the Year and was recently named team MVP, Alameda said.
"You can see why," she said. "She brings everybody together."
Put more pointedly, Alameda said, "We would not be here without her."
Sandercock said there have been a lot of tough conversations and "growing moments" between her and Alameda through the years. But she's grateful for it all.
"She's transformed me into the pitcher I am today," she said.
Which is why that hug on Monday night mattered so much. It wasn't just about Alameda recognizing Sandercock's growth this season, but rather her evolution over the course of an entire career.
Alameda said her message to Sandercock at that moment was simple.
"I'm so proud of you," she said.