May 2, 2014 10:21:15 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State senior second baseman Heidi Shape admits it has taken a little bit longer than she and her teammates would have liked.
However, the Bulldogs now are entrenched in the Vann Stuedeman way of doing things and are beginning to reap the rewards.
"When (Stuedeman) first came in, she brought a different prospective and a different mind-set," Shape said. "We got it that first year, but we weren't all there. After that, we bought in a little bit more each month, each year. We have slowly gotten better every day by buying in more and more each day.
"It has been a long process, and it has taken the whole team a while to fully believe what we are capable of doing. She told us what we could be. We believed it but we had a hard time producing it. Now we are beginning to produce it."
MSU (36-17, 9-12 Southeastern Conference) will close the regular season this weekend against No. 25 LSU (32-20, 11-10) in a three-game series at Tiger Park in Baton Rouge, La. The teams will play at 6 p.m. today, at 7 p.m. Saturday, and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
MSU needs one win -- or help elsewhere around the league -- to clinch its second SEC tournament berth in Stuedeman's three seasons. The Bulldogs are a virtual lock for a third-straight NCAA tournament regional berth thanks to a Ratings Percentage Index of 29. RPI is one factor the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to compare the strength of teams when awarding at-large bids.
Still, the Bulldogs will try to buck history to grab a win. MSU is 1-24 in Baton Rouge, La. It snapped a 21-game losing streak in the series by winning a game last season in Starkville.
"The thing we got is confidence at a very high level," Shape said. "Winning a series against (then No. 3) Alabama and then winning another series on the road at (then No. 4) Tennessee, that really pushed our confidence to a totally different level.
"We have always played the game and believed in ourselves and your confidence should be high. However, when you get a key win it becomes extra high."
MSU closed the home portion of its schedule last weekend by beating Arkansas in two of three games to take its third-straight series. The Bulldogs have won three straight series twice under Stuedeman. Arkansas is the only unranked conference foe on MSU's schedule. With LSU rejoining the rankings at No. 25 this weekend, MSU will complete the season by playing seven of eight ranked opponents in league play. The Bulldogs have played a conference-best -- and potentially nationally best -- 23 games against ranked teams.
"In the past, we have had everything. We just haven't pieced it together at the right time," Shape said. "This is the first time since I have been here we really are rolling on the same cylinder. We are now showing everybody what we are capable of doing. Winning consecutive series simply puts us one step closer to the ultimate goal."
After winning its first 15 games of the season, MSU had a stretch of struggles. The Bulldogs were 3-10 in the league after losing the opening game of a home series against the Crimson Tide. MSU has since won six of eight games, thanks in part to contributions by freshman third baseman Caroline Seitz and freshman pitcher Alexis Silkwood. A former conference pitcher of the week, Silkwood has earned conference wins against four league foes this season.
"They are not playing like freshman," Shape said. "At the plate, Caroline looks as good as any upperclassman anywhere in the league. Silk's confidence is sky high for a freshman. She is not a typical freshman. Usually, freshman are worried about messing up. She is okay with messing up. She has confidence she is going to come back out and get the next thing right."
An unheralded level of confidence has the Bulldogs chasing down the third 40-win season in program history. Helping her squad become a constant in conference and regional play was a priority for Stuedeman when she took the MSU job.
This process might have taken a little longer than anyone would have liked, but the Bulldogs are barking now and ready to seize the moment.
"When coach Vann came, everything changed," Shape said. "It just instantly became a different program. From the beginning she told us what we could achieve. I feel very fortunate my senior year is when we decided to start realizing those goals."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter