April 4, 2014 11:06:35 AM
STARKVILLE -- Sophomore shortstop Kayla Winkfield is known to her Mississippi State softball coaches and teammates as "Wink."
The name "Blink" would be just as appropriate.
"When I was 7 years old, I would challenge all of the boys at school to races," Winkfield said. "I could beat some of them."
Winkfield has always had a love for sports. She learned at a very early age speed was her best God-given talent.
Riding a seven-game win streak, thanks in part to Winkfield's best offensive stretch of the season, MSU will face No. 16 Missouri this weekend in a critical three-game Southeastern Conference series. The teams will play at 6 p.m. today, at 3 p.m. Saturday, and at 1 p.m. Sunday at the MSU Softball Field.
Working closely with manager J Bailey, Winkfield went more to a "split grip" on the bat during MSU's recent homestand. While Winkfield is still hitting .230 for the season, three of her four multiple-hit games have come during the team's winning streak.
"It's all about being a little more comfortable," Winkfield said. "By not having my hands as close together on the bat, it is has given me more flexibility. It allows me to get around quicker and have better slapping opportunities."
With Winkfield's abundance of speed, slapping is of utmost importance. However, MSU coach Vann Stuedeman is most pleased with Winkfield's emergence as a rock at shortstop, where she has started all 39 games.
"She plays animal defense," Stuedeman said. "She is the essence of our defense. We tell her her job is to take away runs. We actually count the runs she takes away. She just plays with toughness, swagger, and grit. She got slid into at Auburn, they butter-flied her right there in the dugout, and she went back out there and finished the game. After the game, she has to go and get seven stitches and she still plays the next day.
"It takes that grit and toughness and fiery competitive spirit to win in this league. It takes that heart and dedication. I don't know how anyone else could sit out with an ailment, when Wink is out there balling and laying it all on the line for the Bulldogs with seven stitches in her leg."
Winkfield honed that competitive spirit in her grade school days competing against any challenger in races. As she entered junior high, basketball became another love. Her high school career included three-straight appearances in short distance events at the Texas High School Track and Field Championships for Giddings High School.
Then there was softball.
"The first love has always been softball," Winkfield said. "I always liked the game. When I found out I could start playing it year-round, like on travel teams at age 8, that is when I knew this was something I always wanted to do. Basketball and track helped me stay involved and helped me become a better all-around athlete.
"However, softball has always been and will always be the first love. The opportunity to play in the Southeastern Conference was like a dream come true because I felt like when I first entered high school I wanted to play on a softball scholarship somewhere."
Winkfield signed with the potential of playing shortstop and outfield for the Bulldogs. Her freshman campaign included 46 appearances and 14 starts. Winkfield's speed attracted the interest of plenty of college coaches. Stuedeman saw what she felt like could be a dependable team leader and someone who could emerge as one of the conference's best defensive players.
Freshman Caroline Seitz also has started all 39 games at third base, while senior Heidi Shape has done the same at second base.
"I think we will have the best left side of the infield in this conference for the next couple of years," Stuedeman said. "It is a huge asset that the three of them have played together the entire season and started every game. They know when each other breathes now.
"There is a comfort level when you know on every pitch who is going to do what. The more they play together, the better it is for the Bulldogs."
Winkfield also likes the chemistry on the team. After a season-opening 15-game winning streak, the Bulldogs will ride a seven-game winning streak into this weekend.
"It is exciting to be back home and in front of our fans again," Winkfield said. "We feel like we have some of the best fans in the conference. We are excited about this opportunity because we have played really well at home this year. We love playing ranked foes so we can see how we match up.
"We have some high goals, and the current win streak has helped give everybody another shot of confidence. It's a long season and you can't look too far ahead. The coaches preach staying in the moment, so we look forward to this opportunity we have right here."
With a Ratings Percentage Index of 39, MSU (29-10, 2-7 SEC) are in great shape to make a third-straight NCAA tournament regional with some more league wins. That will be a challenge because three of MSU's final five opponents are nationally ranked.
The league's top 10 teams advance to the SEC tournament. MSU is in a three-way tie for 11th. However, the Bulldogs will face both teams they are tied with before the season ends.
Those games are for another day. For now, Missouri will kick off a string of seven-straight games against ranked opponents. Stuedeman, whose squad is 15-3 at home this season, feels the time is right for her team to take that next step in the standings.
"You play in this league to play games like this," Stuedeman said. "Missouri has a championship-caliber program. We have a young team full of confidence playing at home in front of some great fans. It is another opportunity to make a statement, and we look forward to it."
Winkfield also looks forward to making a statement. It would be a similar statement to the one made when she took down opponent after opponent when running on the playground at school.
"It is all about hitting the ball and winning the race to first," Winkfield said. "It is still exciting every time you are able to do that."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter