April 14, 2014 11:08:12 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman believes in playing the game, not the opponent.
Stuedeman feels teams too often spend unnecessary time and energy thinking about the other team rather than focusing on what it needs to do to be successful. In the Southeastern Conference, when ranked opponents usually are in the opposing dugout, that kind of thinking can make it difficult to get results.
On Sunday, MSU showed what it can do when it focuses on Stuedeman's philosophy. In the process, it had one of the biggest weekends in program history.
Freshman Katie Anne Bailey's sacrifice fly to center field scored pinch runner Amanda Ivy to lift MSU to a 4-3 victory against No. 3 Alabama in 10 innings at the MSU Softball Field. The victory helped MSU (32-14, 5-10 SEC) win a series from Alabama for the second time in program history, and first time in nine seasons.
On this day, all of the 998 in attendance knew the significance of the win.
"We feel like we can compete with any team in the nation," MSU senior Sam Lenahan said. "We have a comfort level and we are peaking at the right time. A lot of people on the outside do not know the capabilities of this team."
MSU scored four runs in the home half of the 10th inning to record the stunner. The victory came less than 24 hours after the MSU baseball team did the same thing in a 6-5 victory against Ole Miss.
"Our goal was to give our fans a show this weekend," Stuedeman said. "I think we accomplished just that."
After the last run was scored, the team did its traditional singing of Hail State at home plate before racing past the outfield wall and jumping into Chadwick Lake.
"This is what it is all about," Bailey said. "There were so many ways we could get that (game-winning) run across. All I did was take a deep breath and say there's nowhere else I'd rather be."
A record home crowd of 1,577 watched Saturday night as MSU won 4-2 to even the three-game weekend series. The series drew a school-record 3,584. MSU had the bases loaded twice but couldn't rally Friday night in a 5-1 defeat. The Bulldogs beat a top-three team at home for the first time in program history Saturday and did it again Sunday. The win was especially sweet for Stuedeman, who served 11 seasons as pitching coach at Alabama before becoming MSU's coach three seasons ago.
"We were so close last year to winning this particular series," Stuedeman said. "You have to hit every step of the process. I think this is a step in the right direction for us."
MSU has opened league play against five-straight ranked opponents. It earned one victory against Missouri, Kentucky, and Auburn, but it didn't deliver in a series-clinching situation until Sunday.
"It's a different mind-set you have to have when you are trying to win a series," Lenahan said. "It's a process, and we try to stay true to the process. However, it is a giant step to go from one winning game in these series to winning two. That is something we have worked on all year."
MSU accomplished the feat thanks in large part to another stellar pitching performance by Allison Owen. The senior transfer from Georgia matched All-American Jaclyn Traina through nine scoreless innings. Owen typically doesn't pitch back-to-back games, but she was back in the circle less than 19 hours after throwing 99 pitches Saturday in a complete-game two-hitter Saturday. Owen threw 122 more Sunday, but Alabama (37-7, 15-3) didn't come up with answers until the 10th.
The Crimson Tide (37-7, 15-3 SEC) plated three runs on three singles and a triple. Kallie Case broke the tie with an RBI single. Haylie McCleney ended Owen's day with a two-run triple. Alexis Silkwood (9-5) recorded the final out and stranded McCleney at third base.
MSU chased Traina after she walked Loryn Nichols and hit Jessica Offutt to start the bottom of the 10th. Sydney Littlejohn (8-1) committed an error and then allowed an RBI single to Lenahan. Logan Foulks followed with an RBI single. Caroline Seitz reached on a run-producing fielder's choice after Alabama opted to go home but wasn't in time.
After that, it was up to Bailey, who hit a fly ball deep enough to send a large majority of the crowd home happy.
"Our hitters kept fighting all weekend," Owen said. "Even the freshmen, when they had a bad at-bat they came back out with a clear mind the next time. I only had one strikeout, so it was a great game by the defense. It was just an incredible win."
Checking in at No. 41 in the Ratings Percentage Index this week, MSU took a major step toward a third-straight NCAA tournament regional berth by beating the nation's top team in the RPI. The Bulldogs also inched closer to qualifying for the 10-team SEC tournament. With three weekends remaining, MSU is 11th, one game behind Auburn and future opponent LSU.
But there is no rest for the weary. Fourth-ranked Tennessee will be MSU's opponent next weekend in Knoxville, Tenn. Alabama is 1 1/2 games ahead of Tennessee in the race for the conference's regular-season championship.
Confidence will be one thing MSU take on the bus to Tennessee.
"There is a comfort level with this team," Lenahan said. "We began the year with a lot of new faces. Everyone has that comfort level with one another. We have comfort and we have some confidence, too. We have the type of confidence that tells us we can match up with anybody in the country as long as we stay true to the process."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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