February 6, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Chelsea Bramlett already is in elite company.
When you walk into the Mississippi State softball team''s indoor facility, the numbers of the program''s best players lead you up the stairs to the second floor.
Near the top step, Bramlett''s jersey overlooks the rest as one of the latest Bulldogs to earn national accolades.
Coach Jay Miller might have to find more room on his walls because Bramlett has two more seasons to decorate the walls and to fill the program''s trophy cases.
Last season, Bramlett earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors at catcher, was named first-team NFCA All-American for the second consecutive year, and the Diamond Sports/NFCA Division I Catcher of the Year.
This season, the junior catcher from Cordova, Tenn., hopes she can do even more.
"I always strive to do better than what I did," Bramlett said. "Whether it is by one point in batting average or 100, as long as I reach that goal, that is what I am looking for."
Bramlett and MSU will open the 2009 season at 3 p.m. today against Kennesaw State in the Bulldog Round-Robin at the MSU Softball Field.
MSU faces Louisiana-Monroe and Iona at 2 and 4 p.m., respectively, Saturday. The Bulldogs close the opening weekend with a 1 p.m. first pitch Sunday.
In 2008, Bramlett had 90 hits and a .450 batting average to help MSU (41-22) make its seventh NCAA tournament appearance. She also matched her single-season record for stolen bases with 46 in 50 attempts, had eight extra-base hits, 25 RBIs, and scored 52 runs, the most by a Bulldog sophomore.
Bramlett''s success last season helped her land a host of preseason awards. She received another preseason honor Thursday when she was named ESPN Preseason All-America First Team catcher.
Bramlett also has been named Preseason All-SEC and a member of the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List.
Miller remembers seeing Bramlett at a MSU softball camp when she was in the ninth or 10th grade and thinking she was a player his program needed to have.
"She is a five-tool player," Miller said. "You don''t see many kids like that. She can run, she has a great arm, she can hit for power, she can hit for average. She really can do everything you want in a softball player."
Bramlett does most of her damage playing small ball, or slapping and bunting the ball. Her indoctrination to small ball, which typically moves right-handed hitters to the left side of the plate so they can use their speed to reach base, came early in her career.
Bramlett played baseball until she was 11, but it wasn''t until she started to play softball when she was 12 or 13 that her coaches transformed her game.
"I thought my coach was absolutely crazy, because I always hit from the right side and everything was power," Bramlett said. "It took a while to get used to it, but that is what I do today. I very rarely go to the right side and hit."
Bramlett said it often was a test of wills with her coach to get her to hit from the left side. She admits to being a "hard-headed person" who finally relented and did what she was told.
Things have worked out quite well from the left side. In fact, Miller said Bramlett''s ability to place the ball, to read the defenses, and to capitalize on what she is given continues to improve.
"She has made tremendous strides from her freshman year, when she hit right-handed quite a bit," Miller said. "We worked the short game a little more to now, where she is pretty much hitting left-handed all of the time."
Bramlett doesn''t usually stay at first long after she reaches base. Her speed allows her to terrorize catchers, who often try in vain to throw her out when she attempts to steal second and/or third base.
"She is as fast, or faster, than anybody in the country," Miller said. "I haven''t seen anyone in the country who is faster than her, and I have worked with our national team and our Olympic team. She is as fast as anyone we had on our Olympic team."
Bramlett also continues to mature defensively. She started behind the plate nearly every game last season.
This season, Miller expects Bramlett, who calls the pitches, to be a steadying influence on a pitching staff that features two right-handers and two left-handers.
Whether it is on offense or on defense, Bramlett will play a key role in the Bulldogs'' quest to take the next step as a program.
"We''re going to go as Chelsea goes," Miller said. "She is our catalyst. She is the one who makes our offense run. It is hard to do better than first-team All-American your first two years, but she has that potential to come out and do that the next couple of years.
"She increased her batting average by more than 50 points from her freshman to her sophomore year. I would like to see her do that again."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.