May 14, 2014 7:32:08 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman has played and coached the game long enough to know that a quality pair of pitchers can go a very long way towards helping a team win a national championship.
This is why Stuedeman's Bulldogs begin play in the Lafayette Regional Friday brimming with confidence.
Senior Alison Owen and freshman Alexis Silkwood have teamed up to give MSU quite a 1-2 pitching punch this season. The duo will be front-and-center when No. 3 seed MSU (38-19) takes on No. 2 seed Texas (33-21) in the tournament opener at 3 p.m. Friday at Lamson Park. The four-team regional also includes No. 1 seed and No. 7 national seed Louisiana-Lafayette (44-8-1) as well as No. 4 seed Texas Southern (31-18).
"There is no doubt that pitching is how you win a championship on this level," Stuedeman said. "When you play the elite competition, you have to scratch and claw for every run and you have to take advantage of as many scoring opportunities as you can. You need a couple of pitchers who can step in the circle, throw strikes and give you a chance to win. We feel blessed to have that kind of staff."
Silkwood has been quite the find for the MSU coaching staff. A freshman from East Alton, Ill., Silkwood earned the win in half of MSU's 10 Southeastern Conference victories this season. One of two Bulldogs on the SEC's all-Freshman team, Silkwood has compiled a 13-7 record with 2.28 ERA. In 144 innings of work, Silkwood has struck out 152 batters and walked only 45.
"It has been exciting this year to be able to step in and pitch right away in a great league like the Southeastern Conference," Silkwood said. "I really appreciate the confidence the coaches showed in me right away. It has been a fun year because this team has such great senior and junior leadership. I feel like I am learning something every day."
Owen is completing her third season (second as an active participant due to transfer rules) in the MSU program after transferring from the University of Georgia. Despite some struggles in the second half of the season, Owen is 18-11 with a 3.00 ERA this season. In a team-best 165.2 innings of work, Owen has struck out 214 batters and walked only 30.
"We have a lot of confidence in our pitchers," MSU senior second baseman Heidi Shape said. "AO is always going to give us senior leadership in the circle. She is going to compete on every pitch. Then what can you say about Silk? What she has been able to do as a true freshman against some of the best teams in the nations is really remarkable."
If nothing else, MSU enters postseason play battle-tested. The Bulldogs have won nine of 26 games against 10 other teams in the NCAA tournament field. MSU played a nation's best 24 games against the RPI Top 25 in the final figures released by the NCAA Tuesday. The 10-14 conference mark includes series wins over No. 2 national seed Alabama and No. 10 national seed Tennessee. The 38 overall wins ties for the fourth-most in program history.
Now, the Bulldogs look for postseason success. MSU has 10 wins all-time in its previous 10 regional appearances. The Bulldogs have never advanced to a super regional.
"All you can do is keep knocking at the door," Stuedeman said. "When we got here, we wanted to establish our program as a regular participant in the NCAA regionals. We are getting to the point where instead of this maybe happening, the girls know it is an expected outcome. The next step is to put together a run to win one of these. We have been close."
To take the next step, the Bulldogs will have to perform in the circle. In postseason softball, final scores of 1-0 and 2-1 are the norm instead of exception.
"We know the expectations stop in the circle," Silkwood said. "We feel like we are tested because we play in the SEC. Coach Vann always tells us every series in the conference is like a super regional. In postseason play, every pitch is that much more important. We know we will have to have strong performances in the circle to have a chance. I think that is what makes this so exciting. You sign to play at an SEC school for opportunities such as this."
A total of 11 SEC teams will begin their postseason play Friday. Alabama won the 2012 national championship, while Tennessee lost in the championship series a year ago.
"I think we have a different level of confidence this season," MSU senior catcher Sam Lenahan said. "We see all of these names of the other teams in the tournament we had success against some of them. We know we are right there. I think that is why everybody is excited. We have won some big games this season, so we really approach this regional with a lot different mind-set than we have the last couple of years. I think the confidence level is higher. We just have to focus on the process and stay within ourselves."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter