March 21, 2014 11:39:04 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman knew the struggles might come for a deep and talented crop of newcomers.
However, she hoped the confidence her team gained from winning its first 15 games this season was going to be enough to keep the momentum going through the toughest of times.
At the midway mark of the season, MSU (22-8, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) will close its season-long, nine-game road run this weekend at No. 21 Auburn.
Game times are 6 p.m. today, 1 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday from Jane B. Moore Field.
After the 15-0 start, MSU has lost eight of its last 15 games.
"We knew there might be some rough stretches," said MSU freshman third baseman Caroline Seitz, who leads the team with a .359 batting average. "The main thing the coaches always talk to us is about working the process. We aren't playing an opponent, we are playing the game. As long as we work the process, we can come out on top more often than not."
MSU has dropped its first two league series to No. 8 Kentucky (lost two of three) and No. 14 Georgia (lost all three). Based on this week's polls, MSU will face six ranked foes in league play. The other two league foes each received votes this past week.
"When you sign up to play in the Southeastern Conference, you expect that type of competition," Stuedeman said. "You are hungry for it. You want to play the best. That is the only way you get better."
The road trip has had mixed results. MSU split non-conference games -- winning at Georgia State but losing to Kennesaw State before it earned a 2-1 victory Tuesday night at Memphis. The trip also includes the sweep at Georgia, where MSU was run ruled for the first two times this season.
"We are looking for a little confidence boost," Seitz said. "We have played some really good teams and we have been right there. We just have to push through and find a way to get that extra hit or make that extra defensive play."
MSU's 1-6 record against ranked opposition includes a one-run loss to No. 12 Baylor, a one-run loss to Kentucky, and a one-run loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs have been shut out in four of those six losses.
"The girls have a firm grasp how good they can be," Stuedeman said. "There are no gimmes in the league. You are not going to roll in there as a prohibitive favorite. We are stressing staying (on an) even keel for an entire series because every team is going to face adversity."
Besides instilling confidence in a young team, MSU knows its fast start has set it up for a realistic chance at a third-straight NCAA tournament regional berth. Typically, an above .500 record ensures a SEC team an at-large bid. The past two MSU teams had 33 wins.
Next week's five-game homestand that features games against Southeastern Louisiana and Samford and a three-game series against Marshall will be huge for the postseason hopes. MSU then remains home for league foes No. 18 Missouri and No. 9 Alabama on consecutive weekends. A non-conference road trip to No. 13 South Alabama also is on the horizon.
Under first-year coach Clint Myers, Auburn has won nine straight games. It has scored a minimum of six runs in each of the wins. Auburn took two of three games from LSU in its only league series to begin the winning streak.
If nothing else, MSU is used to seeing a hot team in the other dugout. The Bulldogs know the feeling and want to get back on track. While there is so much to play for, the players will stay focused.
"We aren't a big-picture team," Seitz said. "All we are worried about is winning the Friday night game. We haven't scored the last two Friday nights, so hopefully, we can get that turned around. Winning the first game gives any team confidence for the rest of the weekend."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter