April 23, 2014 11:24:12 AM
In the preseason, Mississippi State senior softball players Alison Owen and Logan Foulks talked about their team's chances to make a Super Regional for the first time in program history.
There was a stunning level of confidence for a program that had earned one postseason victory in the past five seasons.
MSU always has had to make do with less in softball. However, the Bulldogs always have held their own in the middle of the pack in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
Playing in this league can mask a lot of deficiencies. Average play can lead to an NCAA regional invitation. After all, the Bulldogs have made 10 of those. However, to reach that next level, a special group of athletes was going to be needed.
Coach Vann Stuedeman was hired three seasons ago to bring in those top-notch athletes. With plans for a new stadium on the drawing board, a new emphasis was placed on a sport that is gaining popularity in the state.
If the past 10 days are any indication, MSU appears well on its way.
In the past two weekends, MSU has taken SEC series from then-No. 3 Alabama and then-No. 4 Tennessee. The Bulldogs had three wins against top-five programs before Stuedeman. The number has been tripled to nine, with six under Stuedeman, and four in the past two weekends.
When asked about the squad's success, each player repeats the same line. It is all about "the process." It is about "playing the game and not the opponent." It is all about battling every at-bat and at the end seeing what the scoreboard says. Stuedeman preaches you can't look ahead in a 56-game schedule. Playing in the SEC is "a marathon, not a sprint."
While the Bulldogs (35-15) aren't pausing to take stock of their success, those of us who follow the team can.
With six games remaining in the regular season, MSU is 7-11 in the SEC. Only twice in program history has MSU won 40 or more games -- 44 wins in 2000 and 41 wins in 2008.
Despite playing arguably the nation's best softball the past two weekends, the Bulldogs are still 10th in the conference standings.
MSU was dealt a difficult hand when the computer spit out the conference schedule. Through six conference series, the Bulldogs have played Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 in the SEC standings. The Bulldogs are the only SEC school to have played all 18 conference games against ranked opponents. Replace Georgia with Ole Miss or Kentucky with South Carolina and MSU would be nationally ranked and in contention to play host to a regional for the first time.
While no coach has backpedaled and used the schedule as a cop out, it is a safe bet Stuedeman needed a private moment when she first saw her 2014 conference schedule. The Bulldogs also have played a quality non-conference slate, including two wins at Florida Atlantic and hard-fought losses to Baylor at a neutral site and South Alabama in Mobile, Ala.
To adequately achieve a true conference champion, the league needs to play more league games and more league opponents -- instead of the present eight team format. However, most coaches won't want to get away from the flexibility provided by playing 32 non-conference games. Ole Miss and MSU don't each other this season. Alabama and Auburn don't play a conference series, but they agreed to play two non-conference games,
The top 10 teams make the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs enter the final two weeks of conference play tied for 10th with Auburn. The Tigers own the tiebreaker. However, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and LSU are within a game of MSU and are catchable. MSU doesn't play Texas A&M or South Carolina.
MSU has achieved its success playing a ton of new faces. Freshman Caroline Seitz leads the team with a .342 average. Alexis Silkwood was named SEC Pitcher of the Week for a 2-0 shutout win at Tennessee on Friday night. Silkwood also drew the start in an 11-7 victory against the Lady Vols on Sunday. Silkwood has twice been named the league's Freshman of the Week. She also has league victories against Auburn and Alabama.
The pieces are in place for a sustained run. Stuedeman is known for her pitching pedigree and one big-time pitcher can completely turn the fortunes of a softball program.
A school-record crowd of 1,577 watched MSU's 4-2 victory against Alabama during Super Bulldog Weekend. At the time, it seemed like a shooting star in the night sky. Instead, it was the first flash of light in what has turned into an explosive fireworks show. Another victory against Alabama followed, as did two against Tennessee.
With a Ratings Percentage Index of 31, MSU knows it should be in the NCAA tournament field for a third-straight regional appearance. The difficulty of the early season schedule coupled with plenty of new faces curtailed the squad's chances of being ranked or attempting to play to host a regional. Despite a 15-0 start, Stuedeman knew some down times were coming.
They did come -- a three-game sweep at Georgia. However, the squad bounced back nicely and put to use the "look through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror" motto of their feisty coach.
Thanks to victories against Tennessee and Missouri this season, Stuedeman has beaten each of the 12 other softball-playing schools in the league, despite daunting odds.
Stuedeman was brought in to bring breathe life into a dead program. Her task was to recruit high-caliber softball players, despite some of the SEC's worst facilities. Her task was to push the program to newer heights. She had tasted the Women's College World Series experience as an assistant coach at Alabama.
No coach displays the master plan or will tell you how quickly a program can reach its initial goals. However, it is a safe bet the past 10 days have has put MSU way ahead of the curve.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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