October 1, 2012 8:06:19 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Vann Stuedeman has been learning from Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen.
The one major lesson she picked up from the fourth-year football coach is success has to be repeated for the program to mean something. This is why MSU's softball coach knows her program will take a step back if she can't back up her second year with another NCAA tournament appearance, just like it did in her surprising first season.
The last time MSU made it to consecutive appearances in NCAA play was 2007-2009.
"We know that we have to go to that next level if we want to continue to move forward here at Mississippi State," Stuedeman said. "I tell my players all the time that if they thought they worked hard last year, that step from being good to very good to great is such a big gap."
Stuedeman has familiarity on her side. MSU, which started its fall season of exhibition games Saturday with a 5-1 victory against Shelton State University at Southaven High School, already appears to have the team chemistry where Stuedeman wants it to be.
"I saw a study done the year the Boston Celtics won the championship of the National Basketball Association and it said they had the most positive physical actions among its teammates throughout the season," Stuedeman said. "You know, hand slaps, fist bumps, high fives, hugs and all of that. You know which player had the most that season? Kevin Garnett. And he was third in the MVP voting."
The objective Stuedeman, who is given most of the credit for leading MSU to its first NCAA Regional appearance since 2009 and ninth appearance in school history, is trying to obtain in her second year in Starkville is assuring her team is already buying in to the philosophy she's tried to put in place -- to not allow the past to dictate the present and future with her club.
Despite going 0-2 in NCAA play at the University of Oregon, MSU ended the year winning 14 of its last 20 games, including a 12-game winning streak from April 10-May 4. The stretch was the Bulldogs' third-longest winning streak in school history and allowed Stuedeman to become the winningest first-year head coach in MSU history.
"They did a good job buying into what we're doing here and that's a credit to the leadership on this team and the rest of my staff," Stuedeman said. "You also can't underestimate how important it is for every player on this team to get along well the way they all do right now."
The Maroon and White will play at least 24 games this spring against 11 teams that made last year's field of 64, including three-game sets against two Southeastern Conference divisional rivals (University of Alabama and Louisiana State University) that played in the 2012 Women's College World Series.
"We are taking this program to another level with this schedule," Stuedeman said. "Fans should be excited about this schedule because it's an opportunity for us to play the best, beat the best and be the best."
Another aspect of MSU softball fans could be excited about is the dominance in the pitching circle -- the area of expertise Stuedeman was brought to Starkville specifically to help transform. She'll have the talent coming back in 2013 with the senior duo of Stephanie Becker and Kylie Vry. Becker, who is fully healthy after suffering a severe shoulder injury at the end of the 2012 campaign, and Vry led the Bulldogs to 27 of the team's 33 wins last season. The duo combined for 280 of the 358 strikeouts and started all but six games.
They'll be joined by right-handed transfer from the University of Georgia as two years ago she made four appearances in the Women's College World Series earning a save against a top-ranked University of Washington program.
"We still don't have the number one starter that a lot of teams rely on throughout the season but I really like we're one of the teams that has built depth through the staff with Becker, Kylie and A.O.," Stuedeman said. "It was one of my goals to build that depth when I got here and we're on the way of doing that."
MSU will rely at the plate from the power of Jessica Cooley after the Birmingham, Ala., native led the team with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs.
The senior is one of the few returning hitters for the Bulldogs that batted over .300 last season at a .310 clip. Cooley wasted no time getting back into form in her first exhibition game this weekend when she homered against Shelton State that started four straight runs for the Bulldogs.
The challenge for MSU will be replacing the 78 runs and 39 extra-base hits from the top two departures of the lineup in Brittany Bell and Ka'ili Smith.
"We know we lose a lot of production from last year but after my first recruiting class, we're hoping we've filled those holes with high quality talent for the present and the future," Stuedeman said. "We've identified and signed some really solid talent to Mississippi State that we're excited about."
The next scheduled game for the Bulldogs is a Saturday exhibition doubleheader in Gulfport against the Marian (Ala.) Military Institute with first pitch slated for 5 p.m. At Harrison Central High School.