February 1, 2014 11:26:42 PM
STARKVILLE -- Logan Foulks and Alison Owen have played in their fair share of big softball games.
Foulks started her career at North Carolina and played in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game and an NCAA regional championship game. Owen started her career at Georgia and pitched in the 2010 Women's College World Series.
Now the duo is teaming up as batterymates for their senior seasons at Mississippi State. After seeing the game played on its highest level, Foulks and Owen hope to see MSU play in a similar limelight.
"It's like year three so it's time to go," Owen said. "My first year here (sat out due to Southeastern Conference transfer rule in 2012), we had an awesome team. My second year, we had some great hitters and a great mentality, and, to be honest with you, should have gone further. We kept grinding but could not get that little hitch. This year, the doors are open. Everybody is ready to go. This is the first time everybody in the program is on the same page. I know we can do this. I have seen what it takes to get there. I know this team has the talent level capable of getting it done."
MSU has finished 33-24 and made an NCAA Regional in each of Vann Stuedeman's two seasons as head coach. Prior to that, Jay Miller led MSU to seven NCAA regional appearances. Miller wasn't renewed after losing seasons in 2010 and 2011.
The program has never advanced to an NCAA Super Regional or won a conference regular-season or tournament championship. This season, SEC coaches picked MSU 12th out of 13 teams in the preseason poll. Vanderbilt doesn't field a softball team.
"I think this is the team that has a chance to (advance past a regional)," Foulks said. "(The seniors) have been stressing to the freshmen what a unique and special opportunity this is. We have a very talented team. It is the most talent we have had here. That means you finally have depth. We tell the freshman to keep their heads up, to work the process, to stay selfless, and to be competitive.
"If we are going to make it back to regionals and beyond, those are the things we have to do. It is special as seniors because we want to leave our legacy on this program. We can do that by helping to mold these talented freshmen. They will be the ones that can carry the program to the next level on a consistent basis."
Stuedeman has brought a new level of excitement to the program. The team has played consistently in front of record crowds. MSU even has sprinkled in victories against ranked opposition, including a mammoth weekend series sweep of Kentucky last season during Super Bulldog Weekend.
Still, the squad has had offensive shortcomings in the postseason. The lone regional victory was a 2-1 victory against Mississippi Valley State last season in the South Alabama Regional.
"Things are different now that we have a routine established," Stuedeman said. "We have brought in some talented freshmen. They are being coached by the coaches but also by the upperclassmen. When you see your players as an extension of the coaching staff, it is a good sign things are headed in the right direction.
"I think everybody is excited about what we can do. We have a great group of girls who working hard to have a special season."
Some consider this the best freshman class MSU has assembled in softball. That group includes Katie Anne Bailey from Madison Central High School and Amanda Ivy from South Panola High. That duo joins junior Ashley Phillips as the lone Mississippians on the roster.
"We are excited because we have a lot of new talent coming in," said Foulks, who played two seasons at UNC and joined MSU in January 2013 weeks before her junior season. "We lost some talented players, but we have really good freshmen ready to replace them. We don't have a player who is that much better than another one, so we finally have depth. That is important when you play this many games."
The challenge is to get a lot of the new faces ready to play in arguably the nation's best softball conference. In the preseason National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25, five SEC teams are in the top 12 and eight are included in the rankings.
"It is a big jump from summer ball and high school ball to this level. It's just a different pace," Foulks said. "With the coaches expecting so much more, you have no choice but to adapt. Any of our girls have a chance to start. We have huge sticks with Mackenzie (Toler) and Carolina (Seitz). Madison (Arroyo) has a beautiful swing. We have a really good freshman pitcher named Alexis Silkwood. She is hard to catch, so I can't imagine trying to hit off her."
Still, seniors will be expected to carry the load. Foulks hit 13 home runs in her first season at MSU, after hitting 12 -- second best in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- in 2012. The 13 most home runs are fifth most in a season at MSU. She led the team with 53 hits and 103 total bases, and was second with 39 RBIs.
Owen was 17-13 with a 1.97 ERA. In a team-best 198.2 innings, Owen struck out 250, walked 22, and allowed 56 earned runs. Owen was sixth best in the league in ERA and second best in strikeouts.
Senior catcher Sam Lenahan is another returning starter. She hit .324 with 10 home runs and 40 RBIs last season. Foulks and Lenahan play on the infield when they don't catch.
"For any team, the success starts with your seniors," Stuedeman said. "They provide the leadership and the stability. With this being our third season, the newness is gone and we can really concentrate on the business at hand. I think there is a comfort level with what we are doing and how we are doing it.
"The freshman players have been like sponges. They come in every day ready to work hard. We can now keep the energy level up for a four-hour practice session. That was hard at first. Now we come in with the same attention to detail and enthusiasm and we still have that when our work for that day is done. I think that is a huge step forward."
Owen has sensed the same attitude and desire. She feels like this team has the mental makeup to turn the corner. Now it's a matter of playing the games. Ten of MSU's first 14 will be at home, starting Friday with two games in the Bulldog Kickoff Classic at the MSU Softball Field.
"The new players have learned the ropes," said Owen, who played two seasons at Georgia before sitting out in 2012 and playing last season at MSU. "They have learned what we are doing. They have learned the process. They really have jumped in from day one. Everybody is a leader. We have several freshmen that have already stepped into leadership roles.
"Everybody on this team has each other's back. When I am in the circle, it's a great relief when I can look out into the field and know that every player behind me has my back. Whether it's a ride to class or staying after practice, we all have each other's backs. It's a special group. We just have to stay true to the process and see how good we can be."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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