May 12, 2014 9:57:47 AM
STARKVILE -- When Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman took over the program three seasons ago, her primary goal was to make postseason play an expected destination every year.
MSU showed Sunday it is well on the way to that goal, as it was chosen for its third-straight NCAA regional appearance. MSU (38-19) earned a No. 3 seed and will play No. 2 seed Texas (33-21) at 3:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN3) in the Lafayette Regional in Lafayette, Louisiana. No. 6 seed Louisiana-Lafayette, the Sun Belt Conference champion, will play host to Texas Southern (31-18), the Southwestern Athletic Conference champion, in the other first-round matchup Friday.
The winner of the four-team, double-elimination Lafayette Regional will face the winner of the Tucson Regional in a super regional.
"It is exciting to be going back to the NCAA tournament, especially in my senior year," MSU catcher Sam Lenahan said. "It is great we can just hop on a bus and go down there. We are excited to be playing the Longhorns. This is a big opportunity, but one I think we are ready for."
For a second-straight year, 11 teams from the Southeastern Conference earned regional berths. Six SEC teams earned the right to play host to first-round games. The Big 12 Conference and Pacific-12 Conferences were next with five selections apiece.
"It just shows the value of playing in the SEC," Stuedeman said. "We had 11 teams make a regional from our league and we played seven of them during the regular season. Each weekend in our league is like a super regional. I am really proud of what we were able to accomplish and the growth this shows in the program."
Last season, MSU won one regional game before finishing third at the South Alabama-hosted Mobile Regional. Stuedeman's first team lost both games in the BYU-hosted Provo Regional.
Freshman pitcher Alexis Silkwood watched as the program slowly turned the corner during her junior and senior years in high school. Now the Illinois native is eager to help write the school's next chapter. MSU has never advanced to a super regional.
"It is amazing what this team has done," said Silkwood, who joined third baseman Caroline Seitz on the All-SEC Freshman team this season. "It didn't start when the season started. It started from the first week of fall practice. The coaches have always talked about bringing it. They want us to bring it in the weight room, practice field, classroom, and then in games. It is that passion and intensity that allowed us to get this far.
"We are not overconfident, but we feel like we have the type of team that can keep going."
This season's squad has had a different road the postseason. MSU battled back from a 3-10 start in league to play to win seven of its final 11 league games, including series victories against No. 2 national seed Alabama and No. 10 national seed Tennessee.
MSU needs two wins to become only the third MSU team to win 40 or more games in a season. The Bulldogs qualified for the SEC tournament for the second time in three seasons.
"We are going down there with lots of confidence," Lenahan said. "We played a lot of the teams that are hosting and had success against them. We finished the season on a really strong note, and that is why we feel good about our chances."
In the final Ratings Percentage Index, MSU checked in at No. 31.The Bulldogs played 10 of the teams in the NCAA tournament field, and played the nation's most games against the RPI Top 25, going 8-16.
"We really had to overcome a lot to be able to reach this point," Stuedeman said. "That is why I am so proud of this team. On a weekly basis, we had to play some of the nation's best and we had to find a way to win some games. We are certainly battled tested."
Texas finished third in the Big 12 behind defending national champion and No. 7 national seed Oklahoma as well as No. 13 national seed Baylor.
"You want to play one of those football schools," Stuedeman said. "It helps from a motivational standpoint when you really have a big-named opponent. We like our regional pairings, and we are excited about getting stated. However, you have to play every pitch like it can decide the whole ballgame. We will work on focus this week and make sure we are ready to be at our best."
MSU has won 10 games in its 10 previous regional appearances. The challenge will be to turn expected regional appearances into postseason success.
"You don't want to undercut yourselves," Silkwood said. "But I knew when I got here that we had lots of potential and lots of talent. We also have some really great leadership from the juniors and seniors. For this program now making a regional is an expectation. We expect to be playing in a tournament like this every year. Now the next step is taking advantage of this opportunity."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter