February 7, 2013 11:01:35 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- When Mississippi State University named Vann Stuedeman as its softball coach, her tasks included changing the belief system and helping return the Bulldogs to the postseason.
With those missions accomplished, Stuedeman has turned her focus to her first love: coaching the art of pitching.
MSU is expected to have a versatile and deep pitching staff when it kicks off the 2013 season at 6 p.m. Thursday against the University of South Alabama at the MSU Softball Field. The game is the first of 14 games set for the weekend in the 2013 MSU Bulldog Kickoff Classic.
"I feel like I have improved greatly, and I know all of the other pitchers have improved as well because of Vann," MSU senior left-handed pitcher Stephanie Becker said. "She's an awesome coach. She's helped us all improve on our game. She's done a really great job with us specializing our pitches and working on our spin. She is really awesome."
Last season, the Bulldogs went 33-23 and 12-16 in the Southeastern Conference. With a berth in the Eugene (Ore.) Regional, MSU returned to the postseason for the first time since 2009. The team's ERA dropped from 4.90 to 2.88.
"It was a big change when the current staff arrived and they set really high expectations for us, which is great," Becker said. "We worked all last year trying to get on the same page, and I feel like this year was a much easier transition. All of us knew what to expect, and now we're ready for this season. We all worked really hard in the fall, and I feel like this spring is going to be a really good season.
"It was a lot different last year because everyone is a new player. This year, we have all the other players helping coach the new players, so the coaches don't have to coach each one of us. I think that's probably been easier for the coaches, too, having us help them."
While a head coach is in charge of every aspect of a program, most quickly find their niche and have an area they enjoy teaching most. After 11 successful seasons as pitching coach at the University of Alabama, it is clear to see where Stuedeman finds her comfort zone.
"There is so much that goes into pitching," Stuedeman said. "What I found here was a group of players that were excited and hungry. They were willing to work and ready to sacrifice. Last season, we were still trying to learn the mental component of competing. This season, we have more depth. We have as many as six pitchers we feel like we can trust in any situation."
Perhaps Stuedeman's biggest addition happened last season when junior right-hander Alison Owen transferred from the University of Georgia. Owen pitched in four games of Georgia's 2010 appearance at the College World Series. As a sophomore, Owen went 15-5 record with a 1.93 ERA in 38 appearances. Owen had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
"I think you are going to see a special pitcher," Stuedeman said. "You are going to see a competitor who has pitched in this league. She knows what it takes to succeed on this level. Since this is her second year with us, she knows the expectations."
Becker said the pitching staff boasts talent and depth. The Aurora, Ill., native said Stuedeman has helped each pitcher learn a new pitch. She said the biggest adjustment has come in not only does each pitcher have more options, they have confidence to throw each of these pitches.
"It is a belief and mind-set in the circle," Becker said. "The coaches have complete confidence in each pitcher. You know your teammates are behind you. You also know the coaches are behind you. They place you in a position where you can do your best in each and every situation. That is a big relief when you are competing. Even though it is a one-on-one battle, it is a great relief when you know others are behind you."
Becker had a team-best 43 appearances last season and a team-best 18 victories. Senior left-hander Kylie Vry returns, as does junior right-hander Shana Sherrod. This trio accounted for 306 1/3 of the 374 innings pitched last season.
"In the bullpen, I wanted them to have an attitude that they can fail and it be OK because I wanted them to try out lots of thing that work for them instead of being in a cookie cutter type of pitching," Stuedeman said. "They've experimented with a lot of ideas and we've tried to pick what works for each different one to make them better. I think it was them just buying into the staff philosophy and their willingness to experiment and learn and grow. It's been incredible to work with them."
Stuedeman breaks from tradition in some aspects of her philosophy. In years past, many of the nation's elite rode one dominant pitcher to success. In softball, it wasn't uncommon for one pitcher to have two complete games in a three-game weekend series. Instead, MSU will continue to pitch based on matchups and apply more of a baseball philosophy, including middle relief pitchers and closers.
MSU used the philosophy with success. This season, depth should make it work even better.
"I wanted them to know how incredible they were and how good they were," Stuedeman said. "I wanted to teach them that we were going to utilize a staff mentality. When I played, you could go around the country and name one dominant pitcher on each team and the scores were 1-0. We all came up with about seven around the country that are dominant pitchers and the starter plays the whole game. Seven, that's all?
"We're going to a baseball mentality with a starter, a closer, and a middle reliever. We did that last year. We talked about the staff mentality and how each person sets the other one up for success. I wanted to create a culture of confidence and a culture of a staff."
Picked fifth in the rugged Southeastern Conference's Western Division by the league coaches, MSU will play nine of its first 10 games at home.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter