February 28, 2014 12:22:11 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman has emphasized the need to grow the sport of softball in the state of Mississippi repeatedly in her first three seasons in Starkville.
"You need your program to be the premier program throughout the state," Stuedeman said. "You want to be the first option for promising players. If softball is better throughout your state, your program will reap some of the reward for that."
MSU has backed Stuedeman's philosophy. The team has traveled the state to play numerous exhibition games in the fall. In addition, the team has played host to camps for players.
Today, one of Stuedeman's biggest projects takes center stage, when the City of Gulfport Parks and Recreation Department teams with MSU to play host to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic. Ten senior college teams and 40 high school teams will play the next three days at the Gulfport Sportsplex.
"The tournament is a really big event," MSU senior first baseman Sam Lenahan said. "I am excited we are getting to play in the first one. Coach (Stuedeman) is very big in helping the sport grow. It is our job to be ambassadors for the sport, so we are excited about going to another part of the state and hopefully introducing some more fans to the game."
The timing couldn't be more perfect. MSU is off to the second-best start in program history with 14 straight wins. Two wins today would allow MSU to match the 2006 squad for best start in program history.
MSU will face Texas-San Antonio (7-8) at 2 p.m. and No. 12 Baylor (12-3) at 8 p.m. today. Baylor snapped the 2006 squad's 16-game win streak.
The Bulldogs received votes this week in the NFCA and USA Softball rankings.
"A lot of people may be surprised (at the start), but we really aren't," MSU senior Logan Foulks said. "The freshman class is full of some players who can really play at this level. The main thing is working the process and not looking too far ahead. We have done a really good job of taking care of what is front of us this season."
The Bulldogs have been dominant in the circle with a 0.45 ERA and seven shutouts.
"The biggest thing is nobody really has the big head on this team," Lenahan said. "The Southeastern Conference can be rough, so we know we have to keep coming to work every day. The wins have been really good because it has given some of the younger players more confidence they can play on this level."
Stuedeman is excited about seeing her team play a ranked opponent (Baylor) for the first time this season. She also is excited about giving residents on the coast a chance to see her program.
"We feel like this is our state from border to border," Stuedeman said. "As you grow the sport around the state, it is important to get out and showcase your product. (Tournament organizer) David D'Aquilla and his people have done such a tremendous job of putting everything together. For the first year, we have a really great starting point for a great event."
No. 14 South Alabama (11-1) and No. 24 Louisiana-Lafayette (9-5-1) are the other ranked teams in the field. MSU will face Memphis (7-5) and Nicholls State (5-11) on Saturday and Ohio University (12-1) and Texas State (11-5) on Sunday.
"The demand for the high school tournament has also been outstanding," Stuedeman said. "I think this is an enormous opportunity for the sport of softball to have a really big weekend. Hopefully, we can step forward on the field and give everybody a good show as well."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter