March 30, 2013 11:25:27 PM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- While it remains to be seen if Sam Lenahan saved the Mississippi State University softball team's season, there is no question the junior catcher saved Easter weekend.
Lenahan's two-run home run in the seventh inning kick-started a rally as MSU worked its way past Auburn 4-3 in the final game of a three-game Southeastern Conference series Saturday afternoon at the MSU Softball Field.
Down 3-1 in the seventh, the Bulldogs were looking squarely at a seventh-straight defeat and a major ink stain on the NCAA résumé with a potential sweep by the Tigers.
Then, for the first time in two weeks, something good happened.
"The hit could not have come at a bigger time for this team," Lenahan said. "I had been seeing the ball really well the whole weekend. I just went up there like it was any other at-bat. I knew I just needed to put the bat on a good pitch. We had to get some runs up on the board. Fortunately, I put the bat on the ball and it went over the fence."
MSU began the weekend series with high hopes. After dropping two of three against LSU and all three games against the University of Kentucky, MSU welcomed an unranked conference opponent to Starkville for the first time in Vann Stuedeman's two seasons as coach.
Auburn quickly turned Good Friday into a holiday-themed nightmare. Auburn won both ends of the series-opening doubleheader with 8-3 and 7-5 victories. The second game defeat was especially disheartening since two Logan Foulks home runs gave the Bulldogs a 5-0 lead.
"It says a lot about this team that they came back out here ready to battle," Stuedeman said. "We did a great job of putting Friday behind us. I could tell when the girls came here, they were ready to play. Our main theme is living in the moment. Being able to do that was key."
While five SEC teams ranked in the nation's top 10, the host NCAA regional sites by the league will be gobbled up quickly. Teams like Auburn and MSU will fight for upper-division status and will look for a postseason ticket somewhere, so finding a way to win one game was critical.
"We had to win the game," MSU junior right-hander Alison Owen said. "We approached the game today like it was a new beginning. The coaches stress playing in the moment. I always have confidence that my teammates are going to score some runs. It was my just to hold the other team.
"We don't worry about opponents. We worry about playing the game and we worry about the process. I was really glad to see Sam come through like that. She has been swinging the bat well lately."
In the seventh, Julia Echols started things with a leadoff single in what Stuedeman called "the biggest at-bat of the weekend." After a pop up, Lenahan smoked the first pitch she saw, barely clearing the right-field wall.
"(The home run) was a big relief," MSU sophomore right fielder Briana Bell said. "When we saw the ball go over the fence, it changed the weekend. It took a lot of pressure off. No doubt in my mind we were going to win the game after that."
Jessica Cooley followed with a single but was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double. Foulks then drew a walk and pinch runner Ashley Phillips scored the game-winner when Bell hit a soft floater that dropped in front of right fielder Branndi Melero and then bounced off her glove, as well.
"I just wanted to put the ball in play," Bell said. "We are a tough team mentally. Even though we have lost some games, we have grown up through the process. I thought our attitude was good. We just try to keep grinding at-bat after at-bat."
MSU improved to 21-12 and 2-7 in league play. Auburn fell to 23-14 and 4-8. When the week began, the Bulldogs were slotted 30th in the NCAA's first RPI of the season. While the victory was nice, it won't mean anything unless the Bulldogs can string more success together.
A big week begins Tuesday with Jackson State at home and the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Wednesday in Ridgeland. The next conference series comes next weekend at third-ranked University of Florida.
"There is so much potential in this team," Stuedeman said. "We have been so close in so many games. We just have to find a way to put it together more often. This was a very big step."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter