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Column: Softball’s rapid growth, capturing hearts with every smile

OKLAHOMA CITY — What you see when watching the Women’s College World Series on television is exactly what you feel when watching Florida State’s women in person, and then some.

It’s fun. There’s chanting, cheering, high-fiving and hugging. It’s joyous. 

Over the next couple of days, I’ll bring you my observations about this emerging sport.  

Let’s start with the venue. USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium is a 20-minute drive from the team hotel in the Bricktown area of Oklahoma City. If you’ve ever been to the men’s College World Series in Omaha, Neb., when it was played in Rosenblatt Stadium, you’ll recognize the topography on your drive to the Hall of Fame Complex. If not, imagine a flat terrain with occasional hills and lush green golf courses. Instead of the Mutual of Omaha Zoo beyond the right field wall, Hall of Fame Stadium shares space with a racetrack and a number of museums, including the softball Hall of Fame.

In addition to hosting the WCWS, this Mecca of Softball has been the training ground for Team USA, the US Olympic team, home to the World Cup of Softball, Border Battle, the USA Softball 18U GOLD National Championship and the USA Softball Slow Pitch Championship Series.

What makes both the men’s and women’s College World Series unique among sports is they are hosted in the same city year after year, which has its advantages. The people who attend these games have been coming for years and are eager to share their memories with you. 

I stood at the entry gate watching a sea of crimson Oklahoma fans pass by with nary an FSU shirt seen. One ‘Nole was so happy to see a fellow ‘Nole, he stopped to hug me.

Tuesday night was a home game for the Sooners, who outnumbered the Seminoles 50 to 1 if not 100 to 1. Norman is only 20 miles from Oklahoma City. While the OU team stayed in OKC, they were close enough to campus for the team to use their training facilities between games. 

One friendly Oklahoman stopped to welcome me, noting I was the first FSU fan she had seen today.

“I’ve been to this event for 15 straight years,” said Michele Roberts, whose family hasn’t missed an OU home softball game in years. “I’ve definitely seen (the WCWS) grow in attendance but when you have Oklahoma in the finals, it’s going to bring people.”

When I think of Oklahoma, I said to her, I think of football. 

“Kinda. Yes, we do. Definitely. But this isn’t football season. You have to have something to do in the summertime,” Roberts said with a laugh. “Oklahomans love their sports. Football, basketball, softball, baseball, but I think softball is better than baseball. Every softball game is sold out.”

Television ratings since 2019 would support her opinion as softball has been drawing more eyeballs than baseball. The clicks on FSU softball stories have often exceeded clicks on baseball stories this year.

In typical Midwest fashion, Roberts concluded our conversation by saying, “Good luck to you guys.”

While Roberts stopped to talk, others walked by with looks of pity, knowing without question their No. 1 Oklahoma team, which had lost only two regular-season games, would make easy work of the No. 10 Seminoles.

The growth of WCWS and the sport

I talked to a bunch of Sooners, including the guys catering the media meal — Dan Corder and Jim Glover — have been doing it for 15 or more years and seen it grow. The former University of Kansas roommates are equally happy to share their passion for the WCWS. They’ve been doing it for 15 or more years. 

“We’ve seen it grow from when they had 3,000 and were tickled with that,” Corder said. “Every year with the Sports Association they’ve had record years. Back in 2007 or ’08, when it started to go, I was sitting with the brass and leaned over and said, ‘You’ve really got something going here because they are in the parking lot scalping tickets.

“Oklahoma football is big but now you’ve got little league girls that are more involved than the boys are in little league baseball. I used to have preconceived notions of girls’ softball. We were out there in the outfield and I heard this ‘fiff, pow, fiff pow.’ I turned around and there’s these two girls throwing balls on a rope. It took me about three seconds to realize these girls are real athletes. This is no joke. I think when ESPN came on with their promotions, the rest of the state and the rest of the country (caught on). Competitive. I think the men realize that competitiveness and respect it. I love that T-shirt that says, “Yeah, I throw like a girl and I’ll strike your ass out.’ ”

My wife said this on Tuesday: “The day softball will decline is when they get serious in the dugout. When they stop doing their cheers and chants. And the game is quick. I don’t want them to lose that.” 

“Even though we want to keep the fun in it, in the last few years we’ve seen power,” Glover added. “You would have never seen the home runs you are seeing on all these teams. You would have seen good, solid hits and you might see a home run or two. The pitchers are still incredible but, like Major League Baseball, the strike zones are getting smaller and smaller because people want to see home runs.”

“Jennie Finch started it. She became the face of it,” Corder said, as the two ran off names of previous greats.

Softball royalty

Outside the gates at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. (photo by Jerry Kutz)

“The three ladies sitting behind you are softball royalty,” Corder said, introducing me to Sharon Cessna, Dee Abrahamson and Vicky Van Kleeck, who is the new editor of the NCAA Softball Rules Committee. 

“The student-athletes are what is driving this,” said Cessna, who ran the Women’s College World Series for 20 years before retiring in January. “Our goal is to always do what is best for the student-athlete and they pushed us to be better because they are better. There was a time when everyone was keeping up with each other and, all of a sudden, they got faster, stronger, more technical, more strategic and we had to do the same thing. As far as the Women’s College World Series, we just tried to keep up with them and do what was best for them, provide them the best opportunities, the best experience and that’s what I think has driven the whole thing.

“The coaches also push to get the student-athletes the things they deserve, which is what we want whether it be the game itself or this facility. Everything has been done with the student-athlete in mind. When that happens, nothing but good things happen.”

Cessna said human interest is what is selling the sport. 

“When the crowds weren’t huge, they were getting to know the student-athletes, television gets to know these student-athletes, Cessna said. “It’s just like Odicci Alexander (James Madison pitcher). The world gets to know these kids and fall in love with them.”

Cessna asked Abrahamson, a 2019 Hall of Fame inductee, to join the conversation.

“Softball is a fun game even in the dugouts as well as on the field,” said Abrahamson, a former Division I head coach at Northern Illinois before taking over the NCAA Rules Committee. “They cheer each other on, which is a little bit unique. What goes on in our dugouts is engagement in each other, not just in the game, or that great play she made. That kid, that player, I know. My teammate made that catch and, when she comes in the dugout, I’m going to make sure I acknowledge that and they do that for each other. Not all sports allow that to happen.”

Abrahamson said the game of softball is uniquely suited to telling human interest stories because there are so many points of stoppage in the game.

“We’re a great game on television because we can tell great stories about people,” Abrahamson said. 

As we were speaking, FSU lined a shot to left, where the OU left fielder made a diving catch — much like the Mudge catch against Alabama — and made a throw to double up the runner at second.

“Speaking of great, there’s excitement in that moment, and they can talk about it in a replay,” Abrahamson said, noting in basketball, where there’s infrequent stoppage, there’s little time to develop the fun storylines.

“In basketball, that great play happened nine minutes ago and by then I don’t care,” she said. “That’s what makes softball such a great TV game, because we do have the time. We have the time to tell the story of Odicci throwing against a brick wall when she was a kid. People loved that story. There’s probably a basketball kid who threw against a garage door but we don’t know it because they don’t have the opportunity to tell it in their game.”

Abrahamson also credits the high schools who are now able to provide girls opportunities to play sports on a competitive level.

“The high schools have played a huge part,” Abrahamson said. “When you get high school students a chance to play then they can figure out what game they want to play. They can go to Division 3, and play that style of game where you are not practicing quite as much. You don’t have as much demand on excellence of developing your skills. Or do you want to devote yourself to elite Division I, where you have to come watch film and you have to spend time not only with your team and your practices but on your own. 

“So now we have all this opportunity. You come through the high school program and figure out where do you fit? What makes you happy? Then our job is to provide that whole array so someone can find that place where they want to play the game. You have as many Division 3 players watching this game and a lot of Division I athletes watching Division 3 games because they know it’s played a little different but love the excellence and the attitudes.”

Vanessa Fuchs, who serves as Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator at Florida State, agrees with the Grand Dames and notes that ESPN has elevated the game in those high school players’ minds.

“When you see the ratings on women’s softball is exceeding baseball and women’s basketball, it is because these women are now seeing all this on ESPN,” Fuchs said, “and that is not happening all over women’s sports, which is propelling the popularity of softball among younger players.”

Stealing hearts

Behind the chants and giddy laughter are competitive athletes, who love this game and are as gritty as it comes, diving and sliding to deny base hits, stealing bases, scoring runs and hitting homeruns. What’s more is they do it with a gleaming smile that is stealing the hearts of college sports fans nationwide, including the vanquished here in Oklahoma City. 

“We certainly underestimated your team,” a 40-something-year-old man wearing an Alabama shirt said. “I thought it would be Alabama and Oklahoma playing for the National Championship, and now your team has beaten us both.”

I’m not going to lie, he was a fun listen.

“If you told me we score five runs, I say there’s no way we’re going to lose,” he said, shocked by the bats FSU’s hitters swung against their ace, Montana Fouts.

When your first and last name are the last name of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks, you can be sure you grow up throwing a ball.

“Your team is peaking at the right time,” he concluded.

Peaking is right.

You may have your personal favorite play that personifies this team. Mine came in the second elimination game of Alabama. The Tide had cut the lead from 8-0 to 8-5 late in the game when freshman FSU left fielder Kaley Mudge charged a line drive to left, making a diving headfirst catch to end the rally.

I noticed on the replay that she was smiling as she charged the liner. Grinning even before she wrapped her glove around the ball. You could see joy, not fear, on her face. Joy that she had the opportunity to make a play.

When I saw Mudge’s play, and that smile, I flashed back 35 years, to Deion Sanders and Mickey Andrews. Plays like that don’t just happen even by especially gifted athletes. I remember Mickey giving Deion and other players permission to make split-second plays of discernment where bad things could happen if you don’t time it right. 

You practice all year, every year, shagging balls to learn discernment, when to break on the ball or when to hold up and concede the base hit rather than risk extra basses. They are critical momentum plays one way or the other that ultimately decide games. 

“You can’t make the play if you won’t break on the ball,” Andrews would say, a sentiment I heard expressed by senior Sherrill and her teammates in the jubilant team hotel lobby after the game.

Coach Alameda’s culture

Alameda set up a graduation ceremony at her house because the team was on the road for FSU’s commencements. (photo by Ross Obley)

That’s visceral. It’s the stuff competitors are made of and coaches hunt for in the evaluation process of recruiting and attempt to cultivate into a culture. 

Lonni Alameda has done just that in her 13 seasons at Florida State.

“Being successful as a head coach requires you to be part head coach and part psychologist and Coach A is both,” said Fuchs, who has sport responsibility for softball.

“You feel this connection to these kids,” Fuchs said. “You know these kids. You have access to them. What’s more is they have been brought together as a team.”

Mark Zeigler, who is a professor in the College of Communications and is in Oklahoma City, offers an example of how Coach A pulls her team together.

“The team couldn’t participate in graduation because they were out of town with games, so Lonni sets it up as a surprise graduation for the girls graduating,” Zeigler said. “They came to her house thinking it was for breakfast. There are congratulations signs in the front yard for each of them. She has caps and gowns for all of them. She has Charlie Ward there to be the speaker. I come there because I read the names at graduation. She had Pomp and Circumstance playing. They march down in their caps and gowns to the pool deck and line up. Their parents were there. Teammates were there. People from the community. And we have graduation ceremony for the kids. They are just having fun. They love each other. It is so good.” 

The success, Fuchs says, is what she calls the three C’s: Coaching, Culture and the Coins — the resources — you are putting into the program.

Florida State fans have every reason to be joyous, as their contributions of time, money and passion have driven the program to the pinnacle of this fun and emerging sport.