April 11, 2013 2:40:30 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE - Rarely has a flyout meant so much to a team.
Mississippi State University's Alison Owen recorded the final out of Sunday's dramatic 6-5 win over the third-ranked University of Florida when Jessica Damico flied out harmlessly to right field to end the game.
For MSU, it was second-year coach Vann Stuedeman's biggest signature victory to date. The Bulldogs knocked off a team ranked in the top three nationally for only the second time in softball program history, as the victory joins a 2002 upset of then-No. 1 University of Arizona.
To fully appreciate the victory - one of only four defeats for UF this season - one need only flash back to 21 hours earlier when Damico hit a grand slam home run in the bottom of the sixth inning to lift Florida to a 4-2 victory.
Owen was in the circle then, just as she was a day later, accepting the embrace of catcher Sam Lenahan, after the Bulldogs snapped a 17-game losing streak in the series.
"Alison is a Bulldog in every sense of the word," said Lenahan, MSU's junior catcher. "She does not let things affect her. If she gives up a walk or gets a hit, it's like so what? Here is the next pitch. When her back is against the wall, she kicks it into another gear. It's something I haven't seen before. She is a competitor. She is a warrior."
Stuedeman expected those qualities from Owen, when she decided to transfer from the University of Georgia to MSU, prior to the 2012 season. While sitting out the season to gain transfer eligibility, Stuedeman pointed to Owen as being the type of player who could help take the Bulldogs where they have never been before -- a Super Regional and College World Series. After all, Owen pitched for Georgia in the 2010 College World Series.
"She is a difference maker," Stuedeman said. "She embodies what we want out of out pitchers. She competes her heart out every pitch. To see the last out of that win was very rewarding. After the grand slam, Alison is the type of player who wants to go back and have another opportunity. She is at her best when she has a bone to pick at you so to speak."
Known in softball circles as a brilliant pitching mind, Stuedeman had Owen buy in to her system rather quickly. Stuedeman stresses living in the moment, focusing on only the at-bat at hand and playing the season "looking through the windshield, instead of the rear-view mirror."
"We had a practice in the fall where Sam (Lenahan) hit two home runs off me," Owen said. "It was like that is not happening again. I couldn't wait to face her again. Even though she was a friend and a teammate, I relished such a challenge. It was like there is no way I am going to let her hit another one. I was waiting through our lineup to get back to that matchup again."
The lessons learned in that fall intersquad were on display Sunday when MSU won in Gainesville for the first time since 2007.
"When we started the game Sunday, we had the highest confidence level you can have," said MSU junior third baseman Logan Foulks, a fellow transfer from the University of North Carolina. "I went to the circle a couple of times and kept reminding Alison that we could do this. I have never seen a team with such a great attitude before every game. We always feel like we can get it done. It starts in the circle. When Alison is pitching and her confidence is high, the rest of the team feeds off that. It is that way with each one of our pitchers. It is a great staff and they set the tone."
Owen and senior left-hander Stephanie Becker have carried the load of the pitching staff. That duo has drawn 34 of 38 starts and logged 220 of the team's 257-plus innings. Owen is 13-6 with a 1.68 earned run average. The strikeout-to-walk ration is mind-boggling at 183 to 11.
"Whether it is starting or closing, I am always up to the challenge," Stuedeman said. "I like the fact that Coach Vann has confidence in us in a number of diffrent situations. It makes you feel good that you are going to be put in a position to succeed."
Stuedeman believes the mental toughness of Owen helps set the standard in the circle. Her ability to compartmentalize and live in the moment has made her a force to be reckoned with anytime she steps in the circle.
"Alison thrives in situations where the odds are the longest," Stuedeman said. "When she gets down, she wants to get back up and get that next opportunity. I really wish I had a way to put her down or behind before a series every starts."
After flirtations with victories Friday and Saturday at Florida, the squad felt good about finally breaking through. With a 24-14 overall record, the prospects of a second straight regional appearance look bright.
"We are a tough team," Owen said. "The main thing about this team is that we stay within ourselves. We are fighters. We do a great job of working through adversity. If you come back from two losses to win a game, it just shows that you have heart and that you are playing with a love for the game."
MSU will look to play with that love this weekend when arch-rival University of Mississippi comes to the MSU Softball Field. The three-game SEC series begins at 7 p.m. Friday with a nationally-televised contest on ESPNU.
"We want our fans to come out this weekend," Foulks said. "Being able to sweep or even win the series would say something about our program. We are the state's university and we plan on putting that on display this weekend."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter