April 17, 2014 9:23:57 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State shook up the Southeastern Conference softball standings last weekend by taking a weekend series from league leader and then third-ranked Alabama.
The Bulldogs will now try to have another impact on the winner of the regular season race this weekend.
MSU faces its sixth straight ranked opponent in conference play as it takes on fourth-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn.
The teams play at 5 p.m. today, 1 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
"We are playing with a lot of confidence right now," MSU senior Sam Lenahan said. "We have never worried about the big picture. Instead, we focus on the process and playing one game at a time. What we are doing to get better is more important then the opponent we are playing. Right now, we have confidence and we have a comfort level with one another."
Faced with arguably the most difficult schedule in the conference and potentially nation, the Bulldogs have gone about their business, quickly building cohesion with multiple freshman and sophomores in the lineup.
Freshman Caroline Seitz leads the team with a .340 batting average and is 29th in the league overall. Freshman Alexis Silkwood garnered her first conference win earlier in the year over nationally-ranked Auburn and battled hard in the circle in a 5-1 loss to Alabama Friday night. Silkwood got the win in relief in Sunday's 4-3, 10-inning win over Alabama.
Freshman Katie Anne Bailey had the game-winning sacrifice fly Sunday. That victory allowed the Bulldogs to win only their second-ever series against the Crimson Tide. It was MSU's first series win of the year.
"There is a lot to be said for the strides made by this team," MSU head coach Vann Stuedeman said. "They have that attacking attitude. It is a look ahead mentality. They are always ready to come out, play aggressive and attack the game. Obviously, the best way to build confidence is by winning games. They are learning how to do that in the best conference in the nation."
By the end of this weekend, MSU will have faced five of the top six teams in the overall conference standings. All eight conference opponents have either been ranked or received votes this season. Still, the Bulldogs have been able to tread water and garner enough significant wins to bolster the NCAA regional resume.
At 33-14 overall, the Bulldogs have matched the best 47-game start to a season in program history. MSU put together a 28-4 non-conference record, with the losses being to nationally-ranked foes Baylor and South Alabama, as well as UAB and Kennesaw State.
"You saw this weekend what a good team does," Stuedeman said. "They know they have destiny in their own hands and they step up and take control of matters. We came awfully close (to winning the series) last year against Alabama, so it was important to push through and close the deal."
MSU moved up to two spots in the Ratings Percentage Index to No. 39 this week. That number will be safe this weekend with three more games against a Top-five team. In league play, the Bulldogs stand 5-10. Realistically, two more league wins should put MSU in a position feel good about making a third straight regional appearance.
With three weekends left in the regular season, 11th-placed MSU stands one full game behind future opponent LSU and Auburn (lost series 2-1) in the conference standings.
Tennessee (35-6, 11-4) stands 2-1/2 games behind Alabama in the conference standings, while holding a one-game lead over third-place Kentucky.
The Top 10 teams make the conference tournament in Columbia, S.C. A year ago, the SEC got 11 regional invites, with MSU being the lone team to not make the conference tournament but make a regional.
MSU hopes the late-season surge will not only send them back to a regional but it will also give them a chance to grab a potential first-ever super regional berth. MSU has won one game in two regional appearances under Stuedeman.
"This is the type of team that can go a long way in the postseason," said MSU senior pitcher Alison Owen, who earned conference Pitcher of the Week honors for 16.2 innings of work against Alabama. "The No. 1 goal has been to make a regional. I don't think we will be satisfied then. We have a lot of young players but everybody is stepping up at the right time."
After completing the Tennessee series, MSU finishes the season with unranked conference foes Arkansas (25-20, 3-12) at home and LSU (24-18, 6-9) on the road.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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