May 16, 2013 9:47:48 AM
STARKVILLE -- Last season, Stephanie Becker made her first trip to a NCAA Regional as a cheerleader in a player's uniform.
After suffering a labrum injury in the first inning of a first-round loss in the 2012 Southeastern Conference tournament, Becker was forced to watch her teammates lose the two games in the Eugene (Ore.) Regional. Following a season in which the 6-foot left hander led the team in ERA, strikeouts, and victories, Becker didn't enjoy being a spectator in the most critical part of season.
"I get to help out my team this season," Becker said. "I promise you the entire pitching staff is ready to do the best we can and whatever (MSU coach) Vann (Stuedeman) wants us to do on every pitch."
One year after the injury, Becker will get her postseason opportunity when MSU (32-22) takes on Florida State University at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the Mobile Regional hosted by the University of South Alabama.
Last season, MSU lost to Brigham Young University 4-3 in nine innings and 2-0 to Portland State University in its first NCAA Regional appearance since 2009. Junior left-hander Kylie Vry suffered both losses despite setting an individual school record for strikeouts in a NCAA tournament game (10), series (16) and career (16).
Becker did her best to be a source of encouragement in 2012, but admitted it was a frustrating experience not being able to contribute, especially after leading MSU in victories (18), games (43), and innings (182 2/3).
Becker had months to think about her lost opportunity. That memory drove her through months of painful and exhaustive rehabilitation that she chose to do instead of having surgery to correct the labrum injury. Surgery likely would've meant Becker would have missed this season. The senior left-hander from Aurora, Ill., didn't want to wait that long to get back in the circle.
Becker (10-8, 3.54 ERA) has been a mainstay on the staff this season. She is second to Alison Owen in victories and games (31), and has 157 strikeouts and 45 walks in 126 2/3 innings. She also is one of two pitchers on the staff to throw a no-hitter. She threw MSU's 13th no-hitter against eventual Women's College World Series participant University of South Florida in February 2012.
"I think she was a little bit concerned about the long term of the injury because she didn't want to redshirt after coming in with this group of girls in the senior class," Stuedeman said. "She labored all (2012) season, and she showed her commitment to herself and to Mississippi State University."
Becker is tied for sixth in MSU history with 38 victories and third all-time with 508 innings. When Stuedeman arrived in Starkville two years ago, she didn't want to re-tool Becker's approach. Stuedeman wanted to build Becker's confidence.
"I've seen so many other pitchers with the same type of injury come back as something less than they were before," Stuedeman said. "She didn't have that happen. That's a credit to all the work she did back home in the summer to make sure she was prepared."
Stuedeman also knew she had to get Becker help in the circle. Stuedeman, the former pitching coach at the University of Alabama, doesn't believe in having a one-woman pitching staff. The transfer of Owen, a junior, from the University of Georgia, has helped Stuedeman balance innings between her top two pitchers. Owen, who appeared in 38 games (13 starts) for Georgia, became the right-handed power arm to complement Becker.
"Becker did so much to get ready for the start of the season that I'm so proud of her for, and then it was on us as coaches to get a more complete pitching staff this season," Stuedeman said. "They all want the ball and are hungry to fight for the team."
Owen, who pitched in four games in the 2010 Women's College World Series with Georgia, is only player on the MSU roster with WCWS experience. Owen and Becker hope to lead MSU through the regional round for the first time in school history.
"The one thing about this program is the unique set of pitches and spins we can throw at a team in a weekend," Owen said. "Anyone can come in at any moment of the game."
Stuedeman hasn't told Owen or Becker if they will be in the circle until the team arrives at the park that day. It's a strategic move against the opponent that also is designed to prevent a pitcher from worrying about her assignment. While it took the pitchers time to get used to the idea, Owen and Becker have grown to love the approach.
"It's the fun of it for us now that we kind of find out from our trainer who is pitching depending on who needs to be stretched out," Owen said. "It's kind of like, 'OK, (MSU trainer) Kari Kebach is going to tell us who is pitching instead of Vann.' "