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Veterans’ influence a steady presence in FSU softball’s return to WCWS

Lonni Alameda said she was driving to the airport for Florida State’s charter flight on Tuesday afternoon when she began to reflect on the journey of the 2021 team. From start to finish, with an adjusted schedule and COVID protocols mixed in, the Seminoles’ season couldn’t have been any tougher.

“It’s just crazy because we’ve had an up and down season,” Alameda said. “We’ve had lost confidence, trying to figure out who we are, not hitting the power numbers, short game. It has been so up and down. For us to come together at the right time just really makes me proud as a coach and us as a coaching staff to think about how much we keep pouring into the culture, and then how they kept fighting to let their softball skills play.”

Alameda reflected on various moments of the year. FSU played fewer midweek games and more four-game weekend schedules. There was the early loss in the ACC Tournament. Even a road Super Regional at LSU, where Alameda felt like the Seminoles were an underdog — and not just from the wave of crowd support for the Tigers.

FSU is often powered by freshmen and sophomores, young players in key roles as the Seminoles have made a run to the Women’s College World Series. The journey continues on Thursday when the Seminoles face UCLA at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN). But the backbone of the team is a core group of veterans, from junior Sydney Sherrill to senior Elizabeth Mason and “super seniors” like Anna Shelnutt, Caylan Arnold, Dani Morgan and Cassidy Davis, who opted to come back for another year.

Sherrill was the ACC’s defensive player of the year and leads the team in hitting (.313), on-base percentage (.466), doubles (13) and runs (44). Many of her most important plays won’t appear in a box score, flashing the leather at third base. And she also went from first to third on a single in Game 1, then scored on Davis’ sac fly.

Mason is second on the team with eight home runs and also has 30 RBI and 32 runs. She had a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth of game 2 of the Super Regional, tying the game and providing a jolt of energy as the Seminoles won it an inning later.

Shelnutt’s offensive numbers don’t look impressive, hitting just .215 with 24 RBI, but she is a calming influence behind the plate as her relationship with the pitching staff keeps them relaxed. Alameda also praised Shelnutt’s patience in taking a walk, one batter before Kiersten Landers’ pinch-hit RBI single won game 2. It wasn’t a moment as big of some of the “Postseason Anna” hits from prior years, but it was a critical at-bat.

Arnold is 10-6 with a 1.66 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 118.1 innings. A transfer from Tennessee a few years ago, Arnold helps give FSU a deep pitching corps along with Kathryn Sandercock and Danielle Watson.

Morgan has played steady defense, with just one error in 52 games, and is hitting .259 with 27 RBI.

Davis leads the team with nine home runs and has added 27 RBI. She had two clutch home runs in a win over UCF in the regional as well as the sac fly in game 1 of the Super Regional.

There will be inevitable comparisons between the 2021 team and the 2018 team that won the national title. One of five players on the roster with WCWS experience, Mason said she sees some similarities, notably in how the players fight regardless of the score or situation.

“That squad was nicknamed the ‘Cardiac Kids’ (in 2018) because we knew that no matter what situation we were going to be in there was always a chance we were going to come back,” Mason said. “I don’t know if up until these last couple weeks our team has really believed that we could be the underdog that no matter what happens that we do have a chance. The ACC Tournament really sparked that for us: To never give up the fight and to be in every single pitch. We’re finally putting the pieces together and it’s been really exciting to see.”

Alameda as well as players have reflected on the challenges of a lost season in 2020, meetings on Zoom, individual workouts. The team had to bond this season in different ways too. Instead of going out and building chemistry, especially on the road, Alameda recalled a pillow fight tournament in a Boston hotel.

There were also decisions last spring by the super seniors to come back, which helped shape this 2021 team. Alameda commented in early February that this was a young team. It’s a team that has learned through the challenges but also learned to fight and to appreciate the journey.

“We are just so blessed to even be here and to be playing softball right now,” Sherrill said. “The ups and downs of the season and just figuring out what kind of team we were and to really put it together these last couple of weeks and make it to Oklahoma City has been so gratifying. We’re excited to show what we have in Oklahoma City.”