February 20, 2014 10:04:52 AM
STARKVILLE -- Thrilled. Excited. Surprised.
Mississippi State senior first baseman Sam Lenahan was full of adjectives to describe her team's 11-0 start to the season. The Bulldogs matched the second-best start in school history Wednesday afternoon with a 6-0 victory against Central Arkansas at the MSU Softball Field.
"I could not have asked for a better start to my senior season," Lenahan said. "I don't know if we are more surprised or excited. We are just focusing on the process and the new players are all buying in. We are having a lot of fun every day we come to play."
MSU won its first 16 games to start the 2006 season. The latest win helped the team match the 2008 squad, which won its first 11 games. MSU will look to extend the streak this weekend with a three-game home series against Iowa of the Big Ten Conference.
"I think everybody knows where we are trying to go this year," MSU assistant coach Tyler Bratton said. "You can't start 12-0 until you start 11-0. We are playing some really solid softball these days. There is pitching, hitting, and defense. We just have to find a way to stay positive and to keep these good things going."
Lenahan drove in a career-high four runs on a pair of hits. The Lawrenceville, Ga., native has homered in three of the team's past five games, and has driven in a run in four of the last five games. Her massive three-run home run put the game away in the fifth inning.
"I really struggled this past weekend," Lenahan said. "However, I have come out the last two days and had two really great practices. Coach (Tyler) Bratton and (Beth) Mullins have been stressing having quality at-bats.
"They have had me working on the process and not worrying about the outcome. If you do that, barrels will lead to runs. It is all about getting good swings on good pitches."
While seniors Lenahan and Logan Foulks have provided veteran leadership and offensive production, the team's biggest story line may be in the circle.
Sophomore right-hander Jacey Punches (4-0) threw five innings of one-hit softball for the win. Shana Sherrod and Mackenzie Toler each threw an inning apiece as MSU notched its fifth shutout.
Punches retired 10 of the final 11 batters she faced, including the final six.
"All of the pitchers are working well together," Punches said. "The defense has our backs. They were making all the plays out there today. The pitching staff is strong and it is very deep. Everybody is pushing one another. The whole team has our backs from an offensive and defensive standpoint."
MSU coach Vann Stuedeman likes to use multiple pitchers. In a break from what many other softball coaches do, she doesn't place one pitcher in position to throw 70 to 80 percent of the team's innings.
Staff ace Alison Owen has only thrown 30 2/3 of the team's 74 innings. The team has allowed six earned runs for a 0.57 ERA.
"I like (the pitching rotation)," Punches said. "When high school players come here, they are used to throwing five or six games per weekend. You pretty much know you have to pitch every game. Here you don't do that. It is great when you know you arm will feel great the whole weekend and you can concentrate on the role you have for that opponent."
The Bulldogs continue to get a lift from a highly touted freshman class, including third baseman Caroline Seitz, of Birmingham, Ala. Seitz, who is batting fifth in the lineup, had the team's other multi-hit game. Defensively, she turned in two gems to help preserve the shutout.
"The coaches talk all the time about trying to fit in and tying to bring the best part of your game to help the team," Seitz said. "I think we are all doing a great job of buying in. The coaches have been very supportive, and they know what it takes to get our best."
In the preseason, Lenahan said she felt this squad may be the most talented of her MSU career. The Bulldogs are looking for a third-straight NCAA regional tournament appearance, and maybe more.
"The freshmen have already exceeded expectations with everything they do," Lenahan said. "I am excited to see how far this can go."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter