CLEARWATER — Before the awards and the scholarship. Before the College World Series and the dramatic home run. Before ESPN captured the embrace of her proud parents in the bleachers.
Before any of that, there was this:
A little girl on a softball field in Clearwater. Wearing her catcher’s gear and sneaking a peek at her shadow in the dirt because it made her look like a tiny cartoon Transformer.
Florida State star Elizabeth Mason is back this weekend at the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater where it all began. You might assume this was her field of dreams, but it’s really something better.
This is her field of memories.
The days of sitting in foldout chairs, exhausted, in between tournament games. Raiding the coolers for fruit and hummus and Cuban sandwiches. Late at night, after the games, waiting in the car for her father who could not walk more than a few feet without falling into conversation with another parent.
That little girl had no time for dreams of nationally televised games and YouTube replays. The life in front of her was too good to imagine what might be waiting for her down the road.
“This isn’t going to sound right, but I never played softball to win a national championship. Even now I play because of the little girl I was, and how much I loved the game then and how I still love it," Mason said. “I wanted to run the bases, I wanted to hit, I wanted to throw people out. I never thought about the next day. I never thought about the World Series. I just wanted to be with my teammates.
“And then one day, you wake up and you’re there."
* * *
It’s been eight months since Mason woke up in Oklahoma City at the College World Series. Eight months since she came up with FSU trailing 1-0 in the sixth inning and hit a two-out, three-run homer against UCLA in an elimination game.
A few days later, in an 8-3 win against Washington in the championship game, FSU took the lead in the second inning on a Mason single. When she came up again in the fourth, ESPN’s cameras caught the frenzied reaction of her father Karl and mother Sara when she lined another homer to center.
“When things slowed down, we would pick out some night and watch the World Series all over again. I still laugh when I see it because those moments are so special," Karl Mason said. “I tell parents all the time that every one of them can put themselves in that same moment with us. We’ve all been there with our kids, we’ve all shared those moments of watching them do something wonderful."
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FSU begins its title defense this week at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, a 16-team tournament owned and operated by ESPN with more than two dozen games scheduled to be nationally telecast.
For Mason, 20, it’ll be familiar territory. More than 10 years ago, she joined the Clearwater Bombers travel team as a skinny 9-year-old and her father eventually became the coach. Most days, she would make an hour-long commute from north Tampa for practice. Mornings she would get up at 6 a.m. for extra batting practice before school. Every day in the summer she would do 800 sit-ups.
Weekends were spent travelling the state for tournaments, and school nights were a crazed rush of finishing her homework.
She says today it was her choice to push herself to the limit, but she also made sure her father understood she still needed to be a kid. At some point she sat him down at the kitchen table and explained that distinction.
“The dynamics of being a coach and a dad were tough because she had so much passion," Karl said. “She’s the one who taught me that I needed to take my coach’s hat off for her. She didn’t need me telling her every time she shouldn’t have done this or shouldn’t have done that. Sometimes she just needed to hear, 'Good job.’ Sometimes she just needed her mom and dad."
Mason, who caught the eye of FSU coaches at summer camps in Tallahassee, eventually committed to Florida State before she ever played a game at Gaither High.
She wasn’t particularly happy when she was redshirted as a freshman, but her father said it was the best thing she could have done. She was able to slow down, acclimate and prepare without the pressure of performing. And Karl and Sara would drive up to FSU for most games even though she couldn’t play.
That, Elizabeth said, is what she remembers. She’ll always have the video of her home runs in the World Series, but it is the smaller moments that have always made softball so important to her.
“What I remember most is being in the dugout after the (UCLA) home run and looking up and seeing my parents so happy for me," she said. “I flashed back to all of the moments along the way, all of the things I sacrificed and all of the sacrifices they made for me. It was a surreal moment.
“I never hear the crowd when I play, but I can remember hearing my dad scream when I hit that ball. I remember thinking, 'Wow, he must have been really loud.’ Those are my favorite kind of memories."
St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational
Where: Eddie C. Moore Complex, 2780 Drew Street, Clearwater
Thursday’s schedule: Oklahoma State vs. LSU, 1 (ESPNU); California vs. Texas, 1 (ESPNU); Oklahoma vs. Kentucky, 4 (ESPNU); Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma, 7 (ESPN3)
Tickets: Advanced daily tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for children ($25 and $20, respectively, day of the event). Tournament passes are $75 for adults, $50 for children.
More info: Visit stpeteclearwatereliteinvite.com