February 7, 2010 12:51:00 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- The numbers are staggering.
For three seasons, Chelsea Bramlett has laid waste to Mississippi State softball records.
As a junior last season, Bramlett established new single-season marks for batting average (.486) and stolen bases (54). In the process, she became the school''s career leader in each category (.438, 146) to add to the fact she already is MSU''s leader in stolen bases percentage (.913), stolen bases per game (0.82), and runs per game (0.92).
It''s scary to think even more marks -- including NCAA records -- could fall this year.
"Every year she has gotten better," MSU coach Jay Miller said. "She has raised her batting average, she has stolen more bases, she has thrown more people out, and raised the level of her play every year. She led the nation in stolen bases last year and she was third in the nation in hitting, so you can''t get a whole lot better, but I can see her really dominating and putting up some numbers Division I wise that haven''t been seen before."
Bramlett will begin her assault on the record books at 3 p.m. Friday against the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Bulldog Round-Robin. The three-day, four-team tournament will serve as the season-opening event for MSU, which will try to rebound from a 28-28 season and return to the NCAA tournament for the fourth year in a row.
Bramlett''s ability to be a stalwart will play a huge role in the team''s success. Last season, she paced the Lady Bulldogs in batting average, hits (88), runs (55), and stolen bases. Her play helped her get recognized as a USA Softball Player of the Year Top 25 finalist for the second consecutive year.
Bramlett''s development continued in the summer as a member of the United States National Softball Team. She helped the squad win gold medals at the Canada Cup and at the World Cup of Softball. She teamed with former MSU standout Courtney Bures and Miller, the U.S. National Team coach, to win the championship at the Japan Cup.
In January, Bramlett was one of 17 players offered a USA Softball Athlete Agreement for the 2010 season. She is in a pool of players eligible to be selected for the U.S. Women''s National Team that will compete in the International Softball Federation''s XII Women''s World Championship on June 23-July 2 in Caracas, Venezuela. That team will be announced in March.
Bramlett will have plenty of practice time before that roster is finalized. She enters her senior season feeling stronger and quicker thanks to work with Richard Akins, the MSU softball team''s new strength and conditioning coach.
If that''s the case, opponents are in for trouble.
"At this point last year I didn''t feel near as good as what I do now," Bramlett said. "That gives me confidence going into it."
Bramlett said her goal is to become the school''s first four-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association First-Team All-American. It''s something she first dreamed of accomplishing as a freshman after she earned her initial honor. She led the team in batting average (.386), hits (83), runs (56), stolen bases (46), and total bases (95) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.
Bramlett has improved each of the past two seasons and has positioned herself to become one of the all-time Division I greats. A season like 2009 would push Bramlett into a tie for 10th all-time in hits and into second all-time in stolen bases. She enters the season 19th on the NCAA''s career stolen bases list.
Her current career batting average also is tied for 15th on the NCAA''s all-time list, and is the highest of any Southeastern Conference player. If Bramlett improves her batting average like she has in each of her first three seasons, there is no telling how high she could climb.
Miller said the time Bramlett spent with the U.S. National Team has helped her several ways.
"She always has been a really quiet kid and sort of leads by example," Miller said. "Playing with the National Team and seeing that level of competition has really helped her become a better leader for our ballclub in terms of helping the young kids and being more vocal and taking more control out there. She always has done that, to a certain extent, but I think she has improved her game a little bit that way."
Bramlett said her National Team experience exposed her to some of the best -- and fastest -- pitching in the world. Former University of Massachusetts pitcher Brandice Balschmiter was clocked in the low 70s, which is a shade faster than Monica Abbott and Jennie Finch, two of the greats on the U.S. team.
Bramlett likely won''t face too many pitchers who will approach that speed this season in college, but she knows things won''t be easier just because the pitching will be different. She said she is confident she can hit anyone but that she will have to "wait and be patient," which could be tough.
"Patience is not what I am known for," Bramlett said. "It is really hard slowing the game down, or telling myself to wait. It is getting better. I am getting back to that level (where she can wait and be more patient at the plate)."
Bramlett also hopes to continue her maturation as a catcher. After playing as a utility player as a freshman, Bramlett has transitioned to catcher the past two seasons. She committed 20 errors and had a .928 fielding percentage in 2007, but she has committed only five errors the past two seasons combined, and has had a .990 fielding percentage or better each of the past two years. She threw out 14 of 36 runners trying to steal last season.
"We spent a lot of time this fall working on the weakest parts of my defense, in terms of my throwing accuracy," Bramlett said. "It is getting there. We have worked really hard on it."
MSU also has worked hard to prepare itself for this season. The Lady Bulldogs expect to have a deeper pitching staff with the return of Misty Flesher, and feel they have depth at each position to compete in the ultra-tough SEC.
Bramlett said she is eager to get the season started so she can wreak havoc on the record books and lead the Lady Bulldogs deeper into the NCAA tournament.
"That has been my goal since my freshman year when I got All-American, to do something that hasn''t been done here at State," Bramlett said. "I have three, so I might as well get four. To see my jersey on the wall (of the team''s indoor practice facility with the other greats in the program) is amazing."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.