Saturday, August 18, 2018

A ‘force of good’s’ prophesy comes true for FSU’s Jessica Warren

Jessica Warren emerged from the dogpile in the infield, her face beaming, her name forever etched in Florida State softball history.

The former Alonso High School standout had just put the finishing touches on a brilliant college career, earning most valuable player honors after leading the Seminoles to their first national title.

But even in triumph, Warren's thoughts turned to the one person missing: Sherman Johnson.

Warren struggled to hold back the flood of memories from Nov. 26. That was when Johnson, her mentor, died after a four-year battle with lung cancer.

"This season, this title, was dedicated to Sherman," Warren said.

When Johnson was admitted to the hospital during the week of Thanksgiving, Warren flew home to be with her former high school assistant and youth travel ball coach.

Days before Johnson died, he told Warren big things were going to happen this season.

Warren could not imagine just how memorable it would be.

As a senior, she led FSU in just about every offensive category, including batting average (.470), home runs (21) and RBIs (70). She finished her career as the school and ACC leader in home runs (82) and RBIs (273).

Her biggest moments came on the biggest stage. Warren hit homers in three straight games to avoid being eliminated by LSU in super regionals. She made a full-extension diving catch in the opening game of the championship series against Washington, an acrobatic play that was the top highlight on SportsCenter.

Warren became a fan favorite, not just because of the plays she made in the field. At the NCAA's urging, Warren wrote an open letter to softball, thanking the sport for all it has given her.

As Warren wrote, she could not stop thinking about the man who inspired her to play.

Growing up, Warren was devoted to baseball. Her introduction to softball started by accident. She filled in for a softball player who was injured in a Little League game.

The umpire for that game was Johnson.

He convinced Warren to play for his travel team. Warren split her time between the two sports until she was in eighth grade.

At Alonso, Warren had an impressive resume. But it was not enough to get the attention of college coaches.

Enter Johnson. He made a call to FSU's Lonni Alameda, convincing the coach to take a look at Warren.

Johnson drove Warren to one of the Seminoles' clinics. In a 20-pitch audition, Warren made enough of an impression to get a scholarship, the only one she got from a Division I-A school.

But the bond was about more than softball.

Johnson helped Warren navigate a difficult home life. At one point, Warren lived with 11 family members. He also showed her how to adjust her attitude.

"Sherman really became a tremendous force of good in her life," said Jim Wetzel, who became close friends with Johnson after the two coached together on the travel ball circuit.

Warren also became friends with Wetzel and his daughters, Amanda and Megan. To ease the financial strain on her mother, Warren often stayed with the Wetzels.

"It took a village to raise Jessica," Wetzel said. "We were kind of her safety net. Sherman was the one who had the master plan, though."

Warren still looks to Johnson for guidance.

In the College World Series, FSU trailed UCLA 1-0 in the sixth inning.

"I just started looking toward the sky and asking Sherman to show me some kind of sign that would help us pull through," Warren said.

Moments later, former Gaither High standout Elizabeth Mason hit a three-run homer that proved to be the difference in keeping the Seminoles' season alive.

In the hospital, Johnson told Warren that whenever a butterfly appeared in a room, it would be a reminder of him. In the championship series, Warren was about to head on to the field when she spotted a butterfly on a chair.

"It was hard not to cry," she said. "It has been just such a roller coaster of emotions."

After the World Series was over, after the interviews were done, Warren met the Wetzels.

They all embraced.

In that exchange was merely everything important, every truth about caring and loss and letting go.

"Jessie broke down," Wetzel said. "We all broke down. It was very touching. We all just remembered how Sherman has touched all of us."

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