April 18, 2013 9:43:22 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- When Jessica Cooley signed a National Letter of Intent to play softball at Mississippi State University, she had confidence in the Bulldogs' future.
While the path the program took to reach its current level couldn't have been predicted, MSU is realizing the potential Cooley believed in.
"In my four years, I have just about seen it all," said Cooley, a Birmingham, Ala., native. "The strides we have made in the last two years have been unbelievable. It is one thing to have high expectations. It is another thing to be rewarded when you work hard to meet those expectations."
MSU will carry a five-game win streak into this weekend's Southeastern Conference series at No. 4 University of Alabama, the defending national champion. The series opens at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Rhoads Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
For the power schools in the SEC, the Bulldogs' numbers are
pedestrian. MSU is 28-14 and 6-9 in league play. For players and coaches, though, the program is on an upswing, and the players feel it every time they take the field.
"I think we really have high expectations now," Cooley said. "Every team in America faces adversity during their season. It might be a player getting sick or hurt. It may be a coach having an issue. Everyone faces adversity somewhere during the season. The championship teams handle that adversity and find a way to move on.
"I think we have learned to have high expectations. We also have learned to not let one setback take you off the road of success. We have found a way to win the third game in a series after losing the first two. That is the mental toughness this program is all about."
MSU has victories against No. Florida and No. 11 LSU. In each series, the Bulldogs almost had another victory. In the Florida series, the Bulldogs saw a 2-0 lead in the sixth inning slip away in another game. Against LSU, MSU dropped the series opener 1-0 in 14 innings.
With a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 28, the Bulldogs appear poised to play in a second straight regional if they take care of business in the final home series against the University South Carolina, which is 2-13 in the SEC. Being able to win the marquee series would give MSU a chance to play host to a regional.
"It's all about the process," MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. "We do not worry about the opponent. We worry about the process. We try to win each individual at-bat. At the end, we look up the scoreboard and we see who wins. The mental composure of this team has been outstanding.
"They do a great job of living in the moment and not worrying about the past. All you can do is control what is right there in front of you."
The "focus-on-the-moment" mentality has allowed MSU to venture into some of the league's toughest venues and compete to the final out. The same should hold true this weekend.
"It is always fun going over there," Cooley said about Alabama. "They have a great atmosphere. We are expecting a super competitive series. Beating Florida (6-5 in the series finale) really lit a fire under this team. Our goal is to start strong every day. We did a great job of that this past week."
MSU scored first in all three games of its series sweep of the University of Mississippi. The Bulldogs have now beaten the Rebels eight straight times. A school-record crowd of 1,553 attended the nationally televised opener Friday night.
"We have never had the awesome atmosphere like we do now," Cooley said. "A lot of the credit goes to (Media Relations director) Kyle (Niblett), who goes way above and beyond for his job. The marketing department does a great job with the games and promotions.
"Coming to softball games is a popular thing to do on campus. People will come up to you on campus and tell you they are coming that weekend. Fans will send us messages wishing us luck. It has been so much to see how far the program has come and how special playing softball here has become."
Cooley had one of those special nights Tuesday night. Playing back in her home town, Cooley homered twice and became the fifth Bulldogs to drive in six runs in a game in a 13-1 romp against Samford University. Cooley is hitting .275 with seven home runs, six doubles, and 25 RBIs.
The Bulldogs are finding their stride offensively as the regular season winds down. The extra punch bolsters a pitching staff that is seventh in the league in ERA and first in the league in strikeouts.
"Vann has done an amazing job with the pitching staff," Cooley said. "We have such a great pitching staff. We have confidence in each player that goes out there. When you play defense, it makes it easy when you have confidence in the pitcher. Since I came in with Kylie (Vry) and Stephanie (Becker), seeing them have success really means a lot to me.
"(University of Georgia transfer) Alison (Owen) has stepped right in and pitched like a professional. We have confidence in (freshman) Jacey (Punches) and (junior) Shana (Sherrod) as well. Each pitcher has the ability to come in and get outs."
After suffering through two losing seasons and a coaching change in her first two years in Starkville, Cooley feels like she and her squad are battle-tested. Now the adversity is past and the fruits of the hard labor are beginning to pay off.
"The thing is playing our game," Cooley said. "We have confidence in our game now. We know our game is good enough. It is all about working the process, starting fast and staying strong. When we do that, we can compete with anybody anytime."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter