Commentary

Rafter's long road points to OK City

FSU senior takes circuitous route from Canada to Tallahassee, with positive results

Updated: May 6, 2009, 1:45 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- With exams quieting campuses around the country, here's a math problem to ponder:

[+] EnlargeKaleigh Rafter
Courtsey of Florida State Sports Information Florida State senior Kaleigh Rafter leads the Seminoles with 10 HRs and 40 RBIs.
Two cars leave Guelph, Ontario, at the same time, traveling at the same speed. One car is traveling to Oklahoma City and the other to Tallahassee, Fla.

Which car gets to its destination first?

If you trust Mapquest, the correct answer is the car heading for Tallahassee. Though after more than 20 hours on the road, it would beat its compatriot by a grand total of five minutes, meaning the real solution might hinge on bladder control.

But at Florida State, it's a trick question for reasons beyond bathroom breaks. As the nation's 24th-ranked softball team looks to return to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2004, it seems increasingly obvious that Guelph could be the Seminoles' gateway from Tallahassee to Oklahoma City.

And if that circuitous path from Canada to Florida's capital to Oklahoma City -- with stops in Detroit, Las Vegas and Beijing along the way -- isn't the most direct route, it was the right one for FSU senior catcher Kaleigh Rafter, a native of Guelph, a small city outside Toronto.

"It's just funny how things work out sometimes," Rafter said after the Seminoles completed a three-game sweep of Boston College to improve their record to 41-13. "You just kind of love what you do, and then you just keep playing and someone sees you play somewhere and then you get a chance. I've just been so thankful I've had the opportunity to play for such great coaches and such a great program. It's been really amazing for my final year."

Rafter's final season of college softball is her first in Tallahassee after spending three years at the University of Detroit and one with the Canadian national team, which competed at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. At this time a year ago, she didn't know much of anything about Florida State, other than it had a strong softball pedigree and the memory that, growing up in Guelph, it had been her brother's favorite college football team south of the border.

Panhandle geography aside, her expertise was more expansive when it came to Florida State coach Lonni Alameda. The coach at UNLV from 2004 to 2008, Alameda was also an assistant with the Canadian national team as it prepared in Las Vegas for the Beijing Olympics. It was in that role, during a tryout camp in January 2007, when she and Rafter first crossed paths, when the latter was one of the youngest players competing for a spot on the national team.

Even coming off a sophomore campaign at Detroit in which she had captured Horizon League Player of the Year honors and set the program's single-season home run record, Rafter was a work in progress when taken out of the small pond and dropped in the ocean of international softball. Talking now about the player she saw back then, Alameda offered up that Rafter was a "good athlete," in the way coaches do when they want to leave unsaid how much distance separates a good athlete from a good player.

[+] EnlargeKaleigh Rafter
Courtsey of Florida State Sports Information Rafter transferred to FSU to play for coach Lonni Alameda, after working with her on the Canadian national team in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
But while some players, used to dominating with their athleticism, struggle to punch the clock and grind out the work of mastering mechanics and learning tactics, Rafter excelled.

"She would be out there for three hours doing it by herself before she went to practice," Alameda said of Rafter's reaction to the slightest of suggestions. "That's what makes her tremendous at what she does and gives her confidence in what she does, because she works really hard at it. Any coach can come around and say, 'Hey, maybe we should work on this a little bit or do this.' She's going to go do it for three hours by herself and then come back and the next day be better and then grow more and grow more."

After the tryout camp, Rafter returned to Detroit for her junior season and had little trouble duplicating her sophomore success, hitting better than .400 and breaking her own home run record as she continued to dominate mid-major pitching. But after sitting out the 2008 college season to train with the Olympic team (as did current Washington stars Danielle Lawrie and Jennifer Salling and Georgia Tech second baseman Jen Yee), Rafter was looking for a change and a chance to challenge herself.

And in this instance, the "who" was as important as the "where" in the scheme of change.

"[Alameda has] unreal amounts of knowledge for the game and just absolutely loves the game," Rafter said. "She makes you want to work hard and instills that desire in you, just to know the game and love the game. You come out and you get better every day when you're around her. And on top of that, she's probably the best person overall that I've ever met. She's just a great person, cares about everyone, so friendly, so outgoing; she's just a pleasure to be around."

The only catch was that Alameda was no longer at UNLV, having signed on at Florida State to replace legend Joanne Graf after Graf's 30 seasons in Tallahassee.

One season into the Alameda era, the Seminoles remain a modestly potent team at the plate, and any slight uptick from last season's numbers is due in large part to the arrival of Rafter, who leads the team in batting average (.350), OPS (1.018), home runs (10) and RBIs (40).

But they're a better team in the field and in the circle, getting 348 innings from two pitchers who were around last season in sophomore Sarah Hamilton and junior Terese Gober. Hamilton leads the team with a 0.89 ERA and 255 strikeouts in 165 1/3 innings, while Gober leads with 24 wins, to accompany a 1.19 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 182 2/3 innings. "I would tip my hat to Terese, Lauren [Varsalona] and Hamilton, because I challenged them in the beginning of the year that if we can't get it done in the circle, we're not going to go anywhere," Alameda said. "You can have All-Americans everywhere, and if you don't have anything in the circle to compete, then we're not going to go anywhere. And I challenged them every day to be better in their demeanor, their weight room, their approach, their academics, their everything."

[+] EnlargeKaleigh Rafter
Courtsey of Florida State Sports Information Rafter's presence behind the plate has helped FSU pitchers like Sarah Hamilton, center.
And Rafter's production with the bat notwithstanding, the transformation of two talents into two aces is where her presence is most easily felt: At 6-feet tall, she's easily seen as she crouches behind the plate. Alameda talked about the "comfort zone" the big catcher provides for the pitchers, and Rafter herself often slips in the "we" pronoun in talking about the message the coaches want to keep communicating to them.

"There's a lot to be said for the pitcher-catcher relationship and working together on the field and knowing what she wants to throw, what her strengths are, what her weaknesses are," Rafter said. "That's something we definitely really stress on the national team, and something I've definitely tried to bring here, working two people against one, against that hitter. I think that's something they've definitely bought into and we're on the same page a lot. And they're really understanding why we throw certain pitches, when we should throw pitches, when we shouldn't throw pitches, so when you kind of get that synergy going as a pitcher-catcher combination, it makes it a lot harder for the hitter."

That the advice is usually dispensed with a grin may help explain why there seems to be so little friction on a team with players who didn't choose their coaching staff and a coaching staff that didn't choose its players. If Alameda's message convinced the Olympian with the big bat and the bigger smile to trek all the way to Tallahassee, it must be more than mere words.

"She's the team jokester, out of the many we already have on the team," senior Michelle Snyder said of Rafter. "She likes to pull pranks, and she's really, really easy to get along with."

But almost in the same breath, Snyder continued, "She's got so much knowledge of things from picking pitches to looking at different movements, stuff that I've never really been taught before. I've learned a lot from her."

You never know what you'll pick up on the road less traveled.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.