March 28, 2014 3:06:25 AM
STARKVILLE -- When Mississippi State desperately needed a lift on the softball diamond Sunday afternoon, head coach Vann Stuedeman turned to a freshman.
Alexis Silkwood delivered.
The former Marquette Catholic High School standout from East Alton, Ill., threw a complete-game three-hitter as MSU snapped a six-game conference losing streak with a 5-2 win over No. 21 Auburn.
Taking to the circle at Jane B. Moore Field when her team needed her the most was something Silkwood envisioned when she made her first official visit to the school more than a year ago.
"Coach Vann was so persistent," Silkwood said. "She kept saying 'Come for a visit, come for a visit.' I did just that and I fell in love with the campus right away. The girls were so welcoming. I could tell from my first visit, this was an outstanding family atmosphere. That is what I really wanted to be a part of."
Silkwood has made strides in her freshman campaign, already compiling a 7-2 record with 1.96 earned run average. In 78.2 innings of work, Silkwood has 85 strikeouts and 18 walks. She said her biggest challenge while learning to pitch on this level is "spinning the ball." She adds that you need some type of movement on every pitch to have success on this level.
"Not to take away from her physical skills, because in the end, you have to perform physically," Stuedeman said. "But where Alexis has really grown is mentally. The more experience she gets, the better off our team is. She pitched a complete game Sunday against Auburn. She pitched the whole thing and we had not won a game that weekend. That tells you what we think of her and she delivered."
Senior Alison Owen leads the staff with 11 wins and 101 innings pitched. However, Stuedeman has always believed in throwing as many as five pitchers on a regular basis. Looking for something to shake up her squad from its recent conference road struggles, Silkwood also got the Friday start against Auburn and threw three innings of shutout ball, before leaving with a 2-0 lead.
"Our team is really doing good," Silkwood said. "We have some great leadership. We have excellent defense behind the mound. We know the defense has our backs. The hitting is becoming to come around. If we can put it all together, we can have a good finish."
Good finishes is something Silkwood wanted to become a part of. While in high school, she played for her mother, Staci. Silkwood knew the challenge on this level would be doing less throwing of the ball and more actual pitching.
"She is a Bulldog through and through," Stuedeman said. "The thing with Alexis is if she has given up 15 hits or no hits, you still are going to get the same facial expression and demeanor. She will stay after practice and work on every little detail to make sure she is the best that she can be."
Silkwood took pride in her coach's label. She has also taken pride in being a close confident to Owen, who has been the team's undisputed leader in the circle since transferring from the University of Georgia.
"It is all about learning," Silkwood said. "Whether, it is from the players or from the coaches, I want to learn as much about the game as I can. For us freshman, it is a different experience playing 56 games like this. So we are learning what it takes to be successful over the long haul."
MSU is looking for its third straight regional appearance under Stuedeman. With a 25-10 overall record and an RPI in the late 30s, things appear to be well on their way.
However, the name of the game in May is pitching. The Bulldogs have struggled to find multiple options when the stakes rise and the opposition level picks up.
Silkwood came specifically to MSU to learn the nuansaces of pitching from Stuedeman and to help her team when in tight spots such as Sunday.
"Coach Vann knows so much about pitching," Silkwood said. "She is so engaging and you just learn something every time you talk to her. Anytime you start something new, there is always a little bit of fear. However, those feelings went away in the fall and I am excited about my opportunity to help this team win as many games as it can."
Stuedeman is also pleased that Silkwood came on board. She is part of a talented freshman class -- that through ups and downs this year -- is expected to help MSU break through and finally reach a first-ever super regional.
"Alexis is a totally different pitcher from when she got here," Stuedeman said. "She has so many different things she can do from a skill set.
"Now, she is learning the game mentally. She is learning when to do certain things in certain situations. Performances like Sunday will only help her get better, too."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter