March 10, 2014 10:37:50 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State senior first baseman Logan Foulks had preconceived notions about the newcomers on this year's softball team.
Those early thoughts were confirmed this weekend as MSU battled No. 8 Kentucky to the wire in a three-game Southeastern Conference series. Kentucky won the rubber game of the series 5-0 Sunday before a boisterous crowd at the MSU Softball Field.
"The new players have played four games against ranked opponents," Foulks said. "They saw what it takes to really compete on a high level. I think we really grew up a lot this weekend. It will only get better and better from here."
Seven SEC teams were ranked in this week's NFCA Top 25. MSU (20-4, 1-2 SEC) will play six of those teams, so it knows it will have all of the Ratings Percentage Index points needed to make a third-straight NCAA tournament regional appearance. The key is being able to win enough games to post the record needed to earn a bid.
"What I learned about this team this weekend was actually something I already knew," MSU third-year coach Vann Stuedeman said. "We are a good team. We have now played four games against ranked, top-10 opposition and were right there. This is the SEC. You have to be hungry for that type of competition. Our players know they belong. They know they can compete."
Kentucky (18-3, 2-1) won the series opener 4-0 Friday before MSU won 2-1 Saturday on a Katie Anne Bailey walkoff double.
On Sunday, Kentucky sophomore Kelsey Nunley (7-1) returned to the circle and threw her fourth shutout of the season, and second of the weekend. Nunley, who set a school record for wins in a season (27) a year ago, threw a no-hitter Friday. MSU managed three hits Sunday and squandered two scoring chances.
"I thought we made some great adjustments," Foulks said. "We may have been a little timid Friday, but we were much more aggressive the next two games. I like our approach, and I like how we didn't get down after Friday night. We kept battling. They have three very good pitchers, but we kept competing."
MSU senior Alison Owen (9-4) allowed two home runs Friday and surrendered two more Sunday. The strangest home run of the weekend happened in the fourth inning Sunday. With her team leading 1-0, pinch hitter Krystal Smith hit a three-run home run that appeared to sail foul to the left of the left field foul pole. Third base umpire Jana Tidwell called the ball a home run. Having little doubt she hadn't homered, Smith didn't attempt to run the bases. The umpires conferred and home plate umpire Marty Abezetian confirmed the call. Stuedeman protested at home plate. After the half inning was completed, she protested again. Once the game ended, she accompanied the umpires for a large stretch of their walk to the officials' locker room.
"It was a home run and that was that," Stuedeman said.
Niki Sagermann homered in the sixth to give Kentucky an insurance run.
MSU will begin a nine-game road trip this week while school is out for spring break. Conference play will resume next weekend against No. 19 Georgia in Athens, Ga.
Nine more wins will guarantee the team a winning season and open the door for postseason play. The Bulldogs hope for even more success.
"I like where we are headed, I really do," Stuedeman said. "There is a whole lot of potential in this group."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. MSU's James feeling stronger with each outing COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Littell talks about coaching journey, Budke COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Oklahoma State uses 3-pointers to beat Syracuse COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Oklahoma State ends tournament drought COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Tempo will be key for No. 1 MSU vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State COLLEGE SPORTS