VALDOSTA -- It's the little things in life which made a difference in Thomas Macera's life this spring.
This comes from a man who commutes from Dasher to Thomasville for his job. From a man whose softball team had winning streaks of 24 games, 14 games and 12 games this season -- going a month or more between losses.
But it's a little three-game win streak which elevated Macera and the Thomas University softball program to new heights last month.
The Lady Night Hawks (53-4) won the NAIA national softball championship last month in Decatur, Ala., backing up a No. 1 national ranking earned earlier in the season. They did it by winning three games, all in the bottom of the last inning, including beating defending national champion Simon Fraser twice.
"We put three games together at the end, do or die," said Macera, 38, a Tampa native who got undergraduate and graduate degrees from Valdosta State in the 1990s.
The final three-game run was set up when Thomas lost to Simon Fraser, 4-3, in, yes, the bottom of the last inning.
"I wasn't nervous. They were great games to watch," Macera said. "If you were sitting in the grandstand, they were awesome games.
"I was just trying to figure out how to manufacture one more run. It was going to come down to a break at the end, but I didn't know it was going to be the bottom of the seventh all three games."
It didn't happen the year before, when Thomas went 2-2 at the national tournament.
"You've got to be good, but you've got to have some luck, too," Macera said. "Last year we lost two one-run games. We didn't have the luck."
Building the Thomas softball program has been a five-year process. The Lady Night Hawks have made the regional tournament each of the five years, and earned their first national ranking in 2002.
"It took me two years to get what I wanted. My third year I was ranked in the top 20 and never looked back," Macera said.
Making the national tournament in 2003 helped Macera know what he had to elevate the program to a higher level.
"It let us know where my holes were. I went back out and filled those holes," he said.
He knew back in the fall this team could be good. "We beat Georgia Southern and FAMU in the fall, and a lot of the fully funded Florida junior college teams," Macera said. "I never had a team hit about 100 balls out in batting practice. I knew we could hit and play great defense, and I knew we had pitching.
"We had to learn to play as a team."
A lesson came in the first game of the season. This Thomas team lost a 3-2 home game to Athens State.
"I was very angry because I knew we were 10 times better than that," Macera said. "Anybody can beat you if you don't play clean ball (two fielding misplays were the game's turning point)."
Thomas won the nightcap, 9-0, starting a 14-game winning streak. Then a 5-1 record at a March round-robin tournament in Orange Beach, Ala., boosted the Lady Night Hawks' confidence. That's where the 24-game win streak started, ending with an April loss at Valdosta State, a bitter 2-1 defeat which ended on the base umpire's out call indicating a runner left second early.
To this day, Macera questions the call. "But you don't put yourself in a position to let an umpire's call beat you," he said.
The next loss, after another 12 wins, didn't come until the national tournament. Included in that streak were three wins to capture Thomas' first region title.
Macera learned how to adapt this season. When the pressure of a No. 1 national ranking was building late in the regular season, Macera backed off criticizing his team.
"We got that No. 1 ranking and I wanted to keep it. It wasn't pressure to win, it was pressure not to lose," Macera said. "I'd never been in that position before, and I didn't know how to deal with it."
After a lackluster win in April, as he reviewed the "good, bad and ugly" of the day, one of his players looked at him and said, "we won, didn't win?"
"So I counted how many games it would take to win a national title," Macera said, "and we took it one game at a time."
And when he was set on being the visitor in a game, he changed his thinking for those last three games.
"I always take visitor. Oklahoma City and I fought over who was going to be visitor, so we had to flip. He won the coin toss and took visitor," Macera said.
Thomas won that game, 1-0, on a walk-off home run.
"After we won, I said heck with it. I'm flipping for home to change the karma a little bit," Macera said. "I didn't call either coin toss, and still won." He was the home team for both Simon Fraser games.
Macera doesn't have to coach softball for a living. He's been a personal trainer for two decades, and his knowledge of physical fitness and softball gives him a different view of the game.
But he loves softball. And loves coaching softball. He helped Echols County High as a community coach last fall (that team was a win away from making the Class A final eight in Columbus) and gives private lessons to local players.
And he'll also drive across two counties to coach. The Maceras, including wife Tana and their 3-year-old daughter Taylor Madison, have made their home in Lowndes County to allow his wife to pursue her professional interests.
"The driving doesn't bother me," said Macera, reflecting on some multitasking he does during the trip which probably doesn't need to be taught in a safe-driving course. "It gives me time to reflect on the day. It's my two hours of quiet time.
"It's almost second-nature now."
He put softball and fitness together working with Ron Durante at Valdosta State. He began volunteering with the program while he was in school, teaching speed and conditioning drills, then later became an assistant coach.
"Ron always talked about networking, trying to meet as many people as you can," Macera said. "The more people you meet, it keeps opening doors. When I go to the (coaches' association) convention, I make it a point to meet one more new person."
That's given him contacts to help in recruiting, both nationally and internationally. Ten players from his 2004 team are from outside the United States, from Canada to Venezuela, Australia to Ireland.
When Durante was removed as VSU's head coach after the 1999 season, the two went west on Highway 84 to Thomas, taking over a program which had won eight games in 1999.
Durante help Macera coach during the 2000 season. By the next year, Durante died of cancer.
"I wish he was still around to see this," Macera said. "I still get teary-eyed now. He was a good friend. He won a lot of games (at Valdosta State).
"He was big on defense, and always said make sure you have a dominating pitcher. That's how we won it this year."