Having to bring a newborn child on a business trip is far from an ideal situation, but for Adairsville High softball coach Amanda Nelson, it’s one of the best things to ever happen to her from a professional and personal standpoint.
Nelson knew when she brought her daughter Hallie to the January 2018 coaches clinic in Nashville that there would be a point (or several) when her baby would get fussy. During one session, the inevitable happened.
As Hallie began to get restless, Nelson received an offer from a kind-hearted colleague to take the baby outside in an attempt to soothe her, allowing Nelson to stay inside and finish the session. The simple act led to a professional relationship and friendship for the two coaches from vastly different softball backgrounds.
After a playing career at Valdosta State, Nelson has made her living at the high school level, taking over the Tigers in 2017 for her first head-coaching job. Her coaching clinic savior, Lonni Alameda, spent her final two years of college ball at Oklahoma before joining the coaching ranks. Just months after meeting Nelson, Alameda led Florida State to its first fastpitch national championship.
“We just bonded and started a friendship,” Nelson said Wednesday of the chance encounter. “She’s a great mentor that I look up to. We swapped information. I was able to pick up the phone and contact her, send her an email. She’s so invested in growing the sport of softball that she took time to invest in me and answer questions and mentor me. …
“That’s who she is. She wants to grow the sport of softball and the people who are invested in it. I’m lucky enough to get some blessings out of her, be mentored and get her out here.”
“Here” refers to the Adairsville campus, as Alameda made the trip to Bartow County to host a one-day softball camp for players at the middle school and high school levels. While Adairsville was definitely well represented and Woodland had some participants, including 2018 DTN Player of the Year Bella Carnes, there were athletes from Chattanooga to Atlanta and several places in between at the event.
Following the player portion of the day, Alameda even hosted a question-and-answer segment with area coaches inside the Adairsville High auditorium.
“The kids were great,” Alameda said following Wednesday's Q&A. “They all wanted to learn. They were excited about the game of softball. Great coaching minds in here, which was awesome.”
Alameda is no stranger to this type of local camp. She mentioned holding similar ones in places like Texas, Colorado and Florida throughout the summer. That doesn't make them any less special.
“I love when the kids learn and you can see them grow a little bit,” Alameda said. “… I love that all of the coaches want to get better. All I can try to do is just share the game with them, and hopefully, they can take a little bit and get a little bit better. That’s what we all try to do.”
Wednesday’s event seemed to be quite the success. With separate signups for fielding, hitting and pitching/catching segments, Nelson said the camp was pretty much at capacity. The hitting portion, for instance, was completely booked.
“There was a lot of excitement from the kids and parents about her being here,” Nelson said. “It ignites that fire when someone like coach Alameda comes in. The girls want to perform for her. They want to show off, but they were also out there taking instruction. We saw them making adjustments and being willing to fail to try to get better.
"The hope is that everybody heard something today they can take with them over the summer to start working on.”
That goes for the coaches, as well as the players.
“It was an incredible experience for myself, I’m out here learning, too,” Nelson said. “To have her helping our girls, our area girls, to be able to listen to what she sees in them, helping them, I get to learn, too, not just the players. She’s top-notch, so I enjoyed the entire day thoroughly.”
As far as mentors go, Nelson could do a lot worse. Not only does Alameda have a national title to her name but also she coached USSSA Pride from 2016-17, leading the team to consecutive runner-up finishes in National Pro Fastpitch.
Alameda has been at Florida State since 2009, following a five-year stint as head coach of UNLV and eight seasons as an assistant at Stanford. In that span, she has led the FSU program to the postseason every year.
Since 2013, the Seminoles have never been eliminated prior to the Super Regionals stage. Alameda guided FSU to the Women’s College World Series twice before winning it all in her third trip.
“Just like these camps, it was just so cool to see your kids put everything into it and learn from moments,” Alameda said of winning the NCAA title. “We’d been to the World Series before, and we were able to get over the hump and make that happen. As a proud coach of the program, it’s been many years and many people to be a part of that. It was just a surreal moment.”
Following the 2018 championship, which saw the Seminoles become just the third team ever to overcome an opening-round loss at the World Series, Alameda knew attempting to defend the title this past spring would be difficult. However, FSU got off to an even better start than the year prior.
In 2018, the team held a 12-6 record at one point. A year later, the Seminoles ran off 22 straight victories to open the season.
Despite hitting some bumps in ACC play, FSU picked up a sixth straight conference tournament championship. But after going undefeated in the Tallahassee Regional, the Seminoles dropped two out of three games to Oklahoma State in the supers at home, ending their repeat bid.
“I’ve talked to a lot of coaches that had won championships, and everyone had a little bit different story,” Alameda said. “They said it was hard, but if you look at our numbers in the month of February, it really wasn’t that hard. We were undefeated and doing really well. It was almost like we went right off the championship and right into playing again.
“I think we hit those tough times a little bit too late and couldn’t bounce back from it. We didn’t know why it was happening. … But all learning lessons, and I’ll be better for it and the program will. We had a great season, and I’m really proud of the team.”
There’s an excellent chance FSU will be one of the top teams in 2020 and for the foreseeable future. It’s always tough to break through to win a national championship. One needs only to look at Alameda’s longtime baseball counterpart in Tallahassee to see that.
Arguably the most successful college baseball coach in history, Mike Martin retired earlier this month after a 17th trip to the College World Series in his career. Martin won more than 2,000 games with FSU — never fewer than 40 in a season for 40 straight years — but never won a title in Omaha. Even still, the Seminoles baseball program proved to be the most consistent program in the country, because of the standard Martin set for his players.
Just the second softball coach in FSU history, Alameda has likewise set an expectation of excellence in Tallahassee. Hired into the unenviable spot of replacing a legend, Alameda has managed to continue the tradition started by predecessor JoAnne Graf, who led the Seminoles program from its 1979 inception until her 2008 retirement.
“I think you have to have some core values in your program and a standard for your program — 'This is what we live by,'” Alameda said. “… As juniors and seniors move up, seniors move on and freshmen come in, everybody knows the standard of how you play this game. You get kids that have left here three or four years ago, and they know what the line is for the program and how they play. Yes, you have amazing people in your program, but they’re just trying to leave it a little bit better for the next ones to come in.”
Nelson saw that standard during a trip to Oklahoma City to watch FSU during its 2018 run, which culminated with a two-game sweep of Washington in the finals. But she's also gotten to see the program's success up close and personal, trekking to Tallahassee twice to watch Alameda work directly with her team.
“It was very heat,” Nelson said of her visits. “It was hands-on. I got to be in the cages with them, on the field with them. The girls are just so welcoming. … The players took me in as much as she did. They’re an extension of her. I was able to just jump right in and see the culture that they have there. Watch them practice, watch them get after it, watch them have honest conversations with each other.
“Through those conversations, they’re able to grow as people and then together as a softball team. That was awesome to see and actually take away from it, and say, ‘How can I create that for our program here?’”
In a reciprocation of her trips to the Florida Panhandle, Nelson said that she was hosting Alameda and Robin Ahrberg, a former FSU player who also helped work the camp. Nelson called it an “honor” to welcome them into her home, and it’s safe to say she would have no qualms about doing so again in the future — as often and for as long as they would like.
“I sure hope so,” Nelson said of making the camp a regular event. “That would be fantastic. She said that she would like to make it an annual thing and to grow it, so that we could take more than the 80ish kids we had today. Maybe, make it a two-day camp. Hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction, and we can get her here as often as possible.”