February 24, 2014 12:39:12 PM
STARKVILLE -- After wading in the shallow end of the pool, the Mississippi State softball team is ready to dive into the deep end.
MSU completed a weekend sweep of Big 10 Conference foe Iowa 9-1 in five innings Sunday at the MSU Softball Field. The victory extended the program's second-best start in a season to 14 straight wins.
MSU will travel this weekend to Gulfport for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic. The Bulldogs will play six games in three days and face ranked opposition for the first time this season.
"Each time we win there is a little more confidence," MSU senior pitcher Alison Owen said. "At the same time, it is level-headed confidence. We know there are so many games left, and some really big games left. For the freshman, it is good they have been able to come in and experience some wins. I think that is a good way to get their confidence up and a great way to get the season started."
Two of those freshmen were on display Sunday, as Caroline Seitz had two more great plays at third base and has hit safely in 11 of 14 games. Designated player Mackenzie Toler had her first multiple-hit game.
Sophomore shortstop Kayla Winkfield had her first multi-RBI game of the season.
"Everybody is really excited," Winkfield said. "The tournament this weekend is really big because we are ready to play some big games. The main thing is working the process. The coaches aren't going to let us get too excited about (the 14-0 start). They remind us it is a marathon, not a sprint. At the same time, winning builds confidence. We have come a long way in three weeks. We know the things we need to work on, though, because we have a long way to go."
The Bulldogs allowed nine hits and one unearned run in 19 innings. The 2-0 win Friday and 5-0 win Saturday give MSU seven shutouts this season.
"(Owen) really did what she is supposed to do as the team leader," MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. "She was almost hittable. You really like what she did today after (Iowa) got a chance to see her Friday. When you are able to come back and do that the second time, that is when you know you are pitching well."
Owen threw a one-hit shutout Friday. Freshman Alexis Silkwood threw a four-hit shutout Saturday. Owen threw all five innings Sunday, as MSU scored seven times in the fifth to win by the run rule.
"This is the deepest pitching staff I have been on," Owen said. "It makes for some really good competition because we push each other. At the same time, we all have each other's backs. When I leave the circle and give the ball to someone else, I know they are going to come in and get the job done. When you have such confidence in your teammates, it is a great feeling."
MSU has a 0.45 ERA this season and has allowed six earned runs in 93 innings.
"You like what we are doing in the circle," Stuedeman said, "The freshman are stepping in and learning how to play the game on this level. You are really encouraged at the way they are going about playing the game. We have high expectations, and I think people are beginning to realize we have some players who can play."
In 2006, MSU won its first 16 games. That streak ended with a loss to Baylor. The success meant little as the school-record win streak was a followed by a school-record 20-game losing streak later in the season. The 2006 Bulldogs failed to make the Southeastern Conference tournament or an NCAA regional.
MSU could match that start Friday by beating No. 15 Baylor in the second game of the tournament at Gulfport. The tournament opener is against Texas-San Antonio.
For Stuedeman, it is a chance for her young squad to make a statement and to validate the fast start.
"We really haven't done anything yet," Stuedeman said.
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter