OKLAHOMA CITY — No. 3 Florida State knows its position is not enviable: No one wants to be down 0–1 in best-of-three championship series, period, much less against one of the best teams in collegiate softball history. No. 1 Oklahoma has looked nigh unbeatable all year and looked much the same at the Women’s College World Series on Wednesday. Yet the Seminoles believe they can dig in and come back.
“Something that we’re used to doing is responding, just being able to flush today, learn from it, make adjustments,” Florida State left fielder Kaley Mudge said. “Being able to go out there [Thursday] knowing it’s a new ballgame, just being able to play as a team.”
After a series of weather delays—one that postponed the first pitch by an hour and another that interrupted the first inning for nearly as long—Seminoles starter Mack Leonard was sharp through three innings Wednesday. She kept the Sooners scoreless on just one hit and one walk. But after she hit the leadoff batter in the fourth, she was lifted for freshman Makenna Reid, and the game proceeded to unravel for the Seminoles. They gave up three runs in the inning, plagued by an error, a passed ball and some uncharacteristically sloppy play. Their offense was unable to respond, looking hapless against Oklahoma starter Jordy Bahl, who pitched a complete game and struck out 10. Florida State ultimately lost 5–0.
If there’s one silver lining for Florida State, it is that the game got out of hand quickly enough that it did not have to use its best pitcher, Kathryn Sandercock. She will be fresh and unfamiliar to Oklahoma’s hitters for Thursday’s elimination game. And if there’s a second silver lining, it is that the team has been working all year on the mental toughness needed to come back from this kind of loss.
“We had a couple swings, had our chances, now it’s about regrouping and getting after a Game 2, which is vital,” Florida State coach Lonni Alameda said. “We’re excited for the challenge.”
This is an identity they have been trying to cultivate since the fall.
That process started as soon as last season ended. The Seminoles entered the 2022 postseason ranked No. 2, expected to make a deep run and likely contend for a title. But they didn’t make it to the WCWS. They didn’t even make it to super regionals. Instead, they fell in the opening days of the tournament, losing twice on their home field to end their season.
“Last year when we needed something to go to… We didn't have anything,” says Ellie Cooper, the team director of player performance. “Anything to allow us to be present, to compete through that adversity that we were being faced with.”
Cooper was hired to join the coaching staff last summer for that specific purpose—to help make sure the squad could find that “something” to go to. A former Florida State player herself, Cooper is responsible for the team’s mental skills work, and she has spent the year getting the players to tap into their confidence and poise.
But there’s been a special emphasis on toughness. “Everything they need is really already inside them,” Cooper says. “They’re tough individuals. They just have to choose toughness.” And she’d been symbolizing that to the players with a pair of socks.
Cooper discovered them while strolling through campus on her way to get a coffee this spring. The socks were for sale at a little market, bright yellow—golden, really—with green stitching that spelled out, Turns out, I’m tough as s—. She bought them instantly. This was the message she had been trying to impart on the team. Now, it would be a tangible, physical reminder of it. At the end of each weekend, Cooper would give the socks to the player who had best shown toughness on the field.
“The bigger part is that you don't have to be performing 10 out of 10 to get those socks,” said Florida State catcher Michaela Edenfield. “It's all about being there for your team.”
The socks went to players who had always been stars, players who came off the bench, players who showed a single moment of exceptional grit or hustle or tenacity. This was something Cooper and the rest of the coaching staff wanted to emphasize: It was not just about winning. The Seminoles had won plenty last year, after all, before realizing they did not have what they needed to make it through a postseason run. It had to be about how they won.
“It's been super cool just because we're acknowledging the little things, and at this point of the year, that's where the little things are the big things,” Edenfield said.
When the Seminoles made their way to Oklahoma City last week for the opening round of the WCWS, they left the socks at home. Cooper decided they had done their job. “The season took its course, and now we're just a really tough team,” she says. “Now it doesn't matter who gets the job done… All of the individual accolades kind of go away at this point. It’s just all about the team.” That holds in wins and losses alike.
“We've been so tough lately that the team is getting the socks—everyone is,” Sandercock said before the championship series began. “We need 22 pairs now.”
They will need to tap into that mentality now to extend their season. The socks may not be in Oklahoma City. But the kind of play that is worthy of them will have to be.