Kelly Hensley changed Florida State's season with one swing of the bat. But one swing can tell a lot of stories.
All unseeded Florida State needed Sunday was one win against No. 13 South Alabama to advance to a super regional for the first time. As night fell, the Seminoles still needed that one win after the Jaguars beat them 3-0 to force a winner-take-all finale. After they fell behind 6-0 in the third inning of the decisive game, it looked as if their season might come to an end without ever finding that win.
With two outs in the top of the seventh, Florida State trailed 6-1. Minutes later, Hensley rounded third base and waded into the massed joy gathered at home plate to celebrate her game-tying grand slam.
"That was probably the best part about it," Hensley said. "As soon as I stepped on home plate, I pretty much got tackled by all of my teammates. Even going back to the dugout, half the team is still trying to tackle me, half the team is crying. We have one girl in the corner literally having an asthma attack she got so excited."
One inning later, Seminoles freshman Victoria East's homer provided the run that felt inevitable after the seventh-inning rally. Florida State had to win.
But it took a lot just to get Hensley to the plate with the season on the line.
Florida State coach Lonni Alameda put Hensley at the top of the lineup after asking her assistants which player they would most want at the plate in a big moment late in the game. (Hensley had hit cleanup in the first four games in Mobile, Ala.) The head coach and both assistants named the same junior.
Still, to even get back to the leadoff spot in the seventh, the bottom of the order had to come through. With one runner on base, Bailey Schinella drew a two-out, full-count walk to put runners on first and second. After Alex Kossoff's single cut the deficit to four, Kaitlin Allen, a .111 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage because of her propensity for free passes, took back-to-back balls with two strikes to walk and load the bases for Hensley.
With every temptation to try to do too much, Schinella, a sophomore, and Allen, a freshman, stuck to the plan.
"A lot of it is getting the pitch we want to hit," Alameda said. "Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn't. We're still working with some young athletes, and you're dealing with pressure. There's definitely ballgames where we go down swinging at the pitcher's pitch when we knew we didn't want to be swinging at that. But we put it all together at that moment."
That's not all it took to put Hensley in position to drive a pitch over the fence.
Hensley hit just three home runs in her first two seasons with the Seminoles, but the home run to tie the game against South Alabama was her 13th this season, one shy of the team lead. Part of the increased production comes down to the technical details of hitting. She credits assistant coaches Craig Snider and Travis Wilson, both in their second season with the team, for tweaking her approach at the plate. To that point, the team as a whole hit almost twice as many home runs this season (60) as it did last season (32). But part of the production also comes down to peace of mind.
An all-conference academic selection and the winner of the team's academic award in each of her first three seasons, Hensley wants to go to medical school in the future. She wants just as much to play softball in the present -- the most memorable home run she hit prior to Sunday came in a high school game against a powerhouse opponent several innings after she broke her humerus diving back to a base. That requires a certain passion. The problem is the two worlds don't always easily coexist when there are only 24 hours in the day.
After the team had a 6 a.m. disciplinary practice last fall, Hensley stopped by Alameda's office. She had been up well past midnight the previous night studying, and the short night caused long-simmering concerns about balancing both worlds to bubble over. Alameda told her to take a couple of weeks to dial back, miss a workout here or there and see what came of the time to think.
She wanted to play. Sometimes it's only in contemplating the alternative that we find the peace of mind to pursue the possible. Like looking up at a scoreboard showing you five runs down with one out left.
"I think [preparing for defeat] definitely creeps in the back of your mind a little bit," Hensley said. "You know that you don't have the best chances in the world. But I think that's what we did such a great job of is that even though everyone was probably thinking that a little bit, we were still in every pitch and every batter was still fighting to keep us going and give us a chance to come back."
With so many more opportunities to practice this season, Hensley fine-tuned her home run trot. Not so fast that you look like a novice, not so slow as to look out of sync. That all went out the window as she sprinted from stop to stop Sunday night.
"You go from being a proud coach to almost being a proud parent," Alameda said. "You're around these kids so much you see them grow up from their freshman year all the way up to their senior year. They go through a ton here as college student-athletes. I knew Kelly. I could see it in her eyes; I knew if we could just get Kelly to the plate. Honestly, I was very proud of Kelly. I was more happy for her to get the opportunity for that moment."
One swing changed Florida State's season. More than you might think went into it.