May 27, 2014
By Steve Stone, Assistant Sports Information Director
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (seminoles.com) - Staring at a 1-1 count in the darkness of last Friday night, Florida State senior centerfielder Courtney Senas knew she had the capability to put the FSU Softball program in a different, long-awaited stratosphere with one swing of the bat. The next pitch she saw ended in a euphoric moment that had not been felt since 2004, with Florida State moving onto its first NCAA Women’s College World Series in a decade.
Senas’ walk-off two-run blast was felt not just by Florida State softball fans only, but by Seminole fans everywhere. With the wide lens of ESPN casting a focus on the NCAA postseason of FSU Softball, it was an iconic moment that reminds us all of what makes collegiate athletics so great. The image of lead runner Maddie O’Brien and Courtney Senas swirling around the bases in triumph, as well as the home plate mob by the dugout, gives FSU players, coaches, fans and boosters a sense of pride.
Another group that feels the impact of a game-winning blast like Senas’? The FSU Softball alumnae. Perhaps there is no better former player to get perspective from then arguably the greatest all-around player in program history – Jessica Boulware (formerly Jessica van der Linden). Boulware became the school’s first USA Softball Player of the Year in her senior season in 2004, leading the program to its last trip to Oklahoma City before the ‘Noles went on their season-long rampage this year.
Through her busy life that includes helping run a softball academy as a widely-known instructor and recently having a newborn, Boulware managed to find the time to keep tabs on Florida State’s big super regional series against Michigan. And despite FSU falling hard to the Wolverines, 17-3, in game one, the grit shown by the ‘Noles in those final two games had both Boulware and her family beaming.
“My folks, sister in law (former player Renee Espinoza-Boulware) and myself were jumping up and down,” Boulware said of Senas’ walk-off home run. “They were keeping it exciting till the very end. A walk-off home run to finish it… talk about intense. Hopefully they won't make it that close in Oklahoma. I'd love to see some cushion in there for the FSU pitchers.”
Boulware was an out-of-this-world pitcher and hitter for the Seminoles, one of those two-way players that garners heaps of praise for being so versatile. The native of Cerritos, Calif., was 29-8 with a microscopic 0.60 ERA in 2004, and also batted .401 with a .514 on-base percentage offensively in that season. She was a do-it-all player who was incredibly reliable in the circle, finishing her career with a 0.96 ERA in a time when the offensive trend was starting to pick up compared to the way the game was being played 10 or even 20 years earlier.
Being one of several esteemed alumnae who are proud of the recent accomplishments of the Garnet and Gold, the only thing left for Boulware to do is make a return trip to the WCWS site where she led FSU not once, but twice (also in 2002). However, the only thing holding her back from seeing her alma mater is the newfound responsibility of motherhood.
“If it weren't for my newborn, Renee and I would be there in person to cheer them on,” Boulware added. “We bleed Garnet and Gold and we are so excited to see our team back in Oklahoma. We are expecting them to do a lot of damage and come home with some hardware.”
Several Florida State student-athletes and coaches will be experiencing the magic of postseason softball at OKC for the first time. FSU’s fearless coaching leader, head coach Lonni Alameda, has been a participant in collegiate softball’s biggest stage as the pitching coach for Stanford when the Cardinal played in the 2001 WCWS. Alameda has also taken her players to OKC to help conduct camps and clinics in recent years, including current ‘Noles Maddie O’Brien, Tiffani Brown, Celeste Gomez and Lacey Waldrop.
Both Alameda and Boulware know of the excitement factor first-hand as a participant of the WCWS, something this current crop of Seminoles will experience soon enough.
“Wow, going there my first time was absolutely amazing,” Boulware said of her experience in 2002. “The atmosphere in Oklahoma was electrifying for me. My favorite moment in that WCWS was making a diving catch in centerfield against UCLA. The most unexpected moment - after we beat UCLA in the opening game, seeing the excitement of all the young ball players wanting our autographs after that game. You would have thought we were professional players.”
With the help of ESPN, the visibility of NCAA Softball has never been bigger. The fast-paced action of the game that doesn’t include holding runners on, reasonable time between pitches and the mercy rule makes it a fan-friendly sport to watch. The Worldwide Leader has put a lot of stock in their softball programming in recent years because its appealing nature has resulted in desirable TV ratings.
“The game has grown immensely, especially with it being on ESPN,” Boulware said. “It's a great sport and I only see it getting bigger in the future.”
Florida State and the other seven teams competing for a title (Oregon, Florida, Baylor, Louisiana-Lafayette, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama) will feel their popularity explode in the softball haven of OKC. But according to two-time WCWS participant Boulware, teams have the right to soak in the atmosphere but also put the blinders on and focus moving forward.
“Honestly, it’s a little intimidating at first,” Boulware said. “The crowd really gets into it. You have to stay focused and play the game the way you did to get you there. Don't get caught up in the hype.”
One of those grounded players who has led the Seminoles all season is pitcher Lacey Waldrop, who is cementing herself as the next great pitcher in a long line of them at Florida State. Waldrop leads the country with 38 wins and was as gutsy as ever last Friday night, paving the way for two victories over Michigan in what was a day-long performance for the ages.
“Being able to change speeds the way Lacey does is a huge advantage,” Boulware added. “I haven't been able to watch the Seminoles play much this year but what I saw against Michigan was a pitcher who was willing to put the team on her back and carry them when things were getting rough. She is going to have to have that same mentality in Oklahoma.”
Wherever Florida State finishes up, its memorable 2014 season has already caught the interest of Seminole fans near and far. Its goal from the start of the season was to get to the WCWS that plays into June, using the #2d4j as its moniker (“Today for June”). Now that they’re on the big stage, the ‘Noles are ready to achieve more and hoist up the school’s 14th national championship trophy that already includes a BCS title from football in January.
From here on out, Alameda and her calculated coaching staff will take things day-by-day, out-by-out and pitch-by-pitch. But to end a decade-long drought and perhaps signify a new era of FSU Softball is something that makes many players and coaches, past and present, as proud as ever, including one of the best to ever play at FSU.