April 11, 2014 11:30:10 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State senior catcher Sam Lenahan talks passionately about her coach stressing the importance of believing.
MSU coach Vann Stuedeman wants the Bulldogs to continue to battle and to believe as they finish the final stretch of a daunting Southeastern Conference schedule.
MSU (30-13, 3-9 SEC) welcomes No. 3 Alabama (36-5, 14-1) to town this weekend for a three-game Super Bulldog Weekend SEC series. Game times are 5 p.m. today, 6 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday at the MSU Softball Field.
While Stuedeman talks about her team believing, Lenahan took the advice to heart and used it in her game.
"Earlier this year, I went three weeks without a hit," Lenahan said. "It was the longest, toughest stretch of my softball career. But that is what this team is all about. The coaches talk all of the time about believing. Coaches stress staying in the moment and leaving the past in the past. The confidence from the coaches and teammates is what helped keep me going. That meant a lot to me."
Lenahan is hitting .259, and has at least one hit in 10 of the last 13 MSU games. The recent success comes after a stretch of 16 straight hitless games. Now that she is back in a rhythm, her confidence has returned. She leads the team with eight home runs and 34 RBIs. She is second on the team with 23 runs and a .418 on-base percentage.
"We have so many new faces on this team. It has all been about comfort level," Lenahan said. "I think we have a comfort level with one another now. We seem to be peaking at the right time. It just took a little while to put everything together."
Lenahan's rise and fall of mirrors the team's season. The Bulldogs won their first 15 games but have yet to win a SEC series. The good news for MSU is that a 27-4 record against a challenging non-conference schedule has placed the team in a position to make a third-straight NCAA tournament regional appearance.
"We control our destiny," Stuedeman said. "We are in a position to reach our goals, but we have to keep believing and we have to keep playing hard."
Lenahan has started 31 games at catcher and 11 at first base. Her defensive prowess is critical for the Bulldogs. On a team with seven seniors, Lenahan knows the importance of her leadership, as a young squad is seeing the dividends from the meshing of old and new faces.
"I have learned so much about myself these last four years," Lenahan said. "But really I have learned more this year than any other year. It is special when you know this is the last time you are going to get play in this uniform with these players. We have some talented players. It's just a matter of everybody continuing to push in the same direction."
MSU is coming off its best two conference series performances. It won the final game at Auburn and won the middle game against Missouri. While both of those series were against ranked opponents, MSU is focusing on the next step of winning a series.
"We feel like we are really close," said Lenahan, a mathematics major who has one more year left to complete her degree. "At the same time, we are playing some really great opponents. That is what playing SEC softball is all about. We know we have the capability of making that one extra play. Sometimes you play well and the scoreboard does not come out in your favor.
"However, we are going to keep working and, more importantly, we are going to keep believing. The best thing about this team is even when we lose games we still have confidence. We have a belief when we come out the next day that it is a new day and we have a chance."
At the midway point of their conference schedule, the Bulldogs are one win out of the final spot to qualify for the 10-team SEC Tournament. With a Ratings Percentage Index of 41, the Bulldogs can aid their cause with six more games against ranked opposition.
"Alabama has been playing the best softball in the league," Stuedeman said. "But we plan on competing and having three exciting games. Super Bulldog Weekend is the Super Bowl and World Series of athletics for Bulldog fans, so we know all of our people will be out here and we look forward to playing in front of packed houses all weekend.
"You just get an adrenaline rush when you are playing these types of games, especially at home. We do have a belief and we do have some confidence. We look forward to playing one of the best teams in the nation and seeing how we perform."
Typically, Super Bulldog Weekend is built around the spring football game and a baseball series. This year, the softball team has the good fortune of participating in the spring homecoming activities. A perfect weather forecast and an opponent from less than 90 miles away will add to the excitement.
"To be able to play at home in my last Super Bulldog Weekend is really special," Lenahan said. "We look forward to having a whole bunch of people in the stands pulling for us. We really appreciate all of the support and we are looking forward to a great series."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter