April 15, 2013 10:50:28 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- In the preseason, junior outfielder Jessica Cooley said everything would fall into place for the Mississippi State University softball team.
Cooley was proven correct Sunday afternoon.
Thanks to a no-hitter from Stephanie Becker, an errorless game in the field, and lots of timely hitting, MSU defeated the University of Mississippi 8-0 in six innings to complete a sweep of its three-game Southeastern Conference weekend series at the MSU Softball Field.
"This weekend it all really clicked," MSU junior outfielder Jessica Offutt said. "The crowds were great. The atmosphere was great. We were ready to go. We played with a lot of confidence and everything we tried work. It was an exciting weekend for this team."
Last season, MSU swept Ole Miss and the University Kentucky and beat the University of South Carolina in a doubleheader. The victory Sunday helped MSU earn its first sweep of the season.
"This series was really important for us," MSU junior second baseman Heidi Shape. "The win (last Sunday) at Florida (a 6-5 upset of the nation's third-ranked team) really set the tone. It made us very ready to come back out here and play again.
"Then to come out and have a record crowd Friday night. Well that really pumped us up. We like playing in front of our fans. They gave up their weekend to come spend it with us, so we wanted to make sure that we played well."
A school-record crowd of 1,533 watched as Alison Owen handcuffed the Rebels in a 5-1 victory Friday night. The Bulldogs turned to senior Stephanie Becker in Saturday's 6-5 victory. Despite earning the victory, Becker struggled and was removed in the fourth inning.
Still, MSU second-year coach Vann Stuedeman was ready to hand her the ball Sunday.
"Stephanie did not have her best stuff (Saturday)," Stuedeman said. "After the game, I told her to get ready because she was going to go again (Sunday). That is the type of leader she is. I had no doubts she was fixing to pitch on a totally different level."
Becker (8-6) threw 77 pitches and faced only one batter (thanks a walk) past the minimum. It was her second career no-hitter.
"I could not have done without my teammates. They made all of the plays," Becker said. "This was a very emotional weekend for us and a huge series. I wasn't at my best Saturday, but I tried to battle for my team. (Sunday) everything was working. It felt good to get the lead. After that, we played with a whole lot of confidence."
MSU scored four runs in the first and was never in any danger. A lead-off walk, catcher's interference, and a fielding error started the rally. Shape followed with an RBI single. Julia Echols ran the lead to 4-0 on a two-run single. An inning later, Shape had another RBI single to help extend the lead to 7-0.
"We had a really good weekend offensively," Shape said. "I think everybody carries with them some confidence that help us a lot for the rest of the season. We have been needing that turn-around weekend. We have been close several times. This weekend, we pushed through and finished the job."
The Bulldogs had eight hits, including multi-hit games by Shape and Offutt. MSU clicked on all cylinders even thought top hitter Logan Foulks going hitless.
"I thought we played with some confidence the entire weekend," Stuedeman said. "We try to start strong. That is what we did Friday night, and it really carried over into the entire weekend."
MSU (27-14, 6-9 SEC) made it two straight series sweeps against Ole Miss (21-26, 2-16). The Bulldogs have won eight straight games against the Rebels. The victories helped MSU keep its hopes of playing host to an NCAA tournament regional alive, while the losses hurt Ole Miss' chances of qualifying for the SEC tournament on May 8-11 at the University of Kentucky. The top 10 teams in the 14-team league will participate. Ole Miss is tied with the University of South Carolina (2-13) for last in the league with the fewest victories.
MSU will try to build on the momentum this weekend with a road trip to defending national champion University of Alabama. Stuedeman is 12-0 in her head coaching against teams from the state of Mississippi. She is 4-4 against the state of Alabama this season.
Before it takes on Alabama, MSU will play Tuesday at Samford University.
While the workload remains heavy, the mood Sunday was light in the dugout area, where players and coaches were practicing dance moves and eating ribs after the game. A sweep against a rival will make any weekend better. After the celebration, it will be back to the grind.
"There is so much more this team can accomplish," Becker said. "We are close and we know it."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter