June 21, 2014 4:30:46 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State just completed its third softball season under head coach Vann Stuedeman.
A longtime assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference, Stuedeman guided the Bulldogs to her best mark in 2014 with a 39-21 overall record. MSU finished 10-14 in Southeastern Conference play, while qualifying for the SEC tournament for the second time in three seasons.
MSU also played in a third straight NCAA regional tournament, where it finished 1-2 at the Louisiana-Lafayette Regional.
Season highlights included back-to-back series wins over Top-5 foes Alabama and Tennessee. Alabama would eventually finish second in the nation, while UA, Florida and Kentucky each represented the SEC at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
With a talented nucleus back in 2015, the Bulldogs are striving for the next level and a first-ever appearance in super regional competition.
Q: What did you learn about your team during the 2014 campaign?
A: One thing that we are doing is very well is minimizing our low-RPI losses and winning more games against high-RPI opponents. This year, we had two losses against teams below 50 in RPI. This season, we had eight wins against Top 15 teams. That will be very important about the progression of this program as we try to advance in the NCAA tournament. Winning games against quality opponents will be very important. That is something that has been put into place by the 2014 team. It will be a legacy of theirs for the rest of the kids. They will want to continue that notoriety and improve on it.
Q: When the season began it appeared, you had one of the nation's most difficult schedules. How did the girls go about embracing that challenge instead of being intimidated by it?
A: We talk all the time about comparing a three-game series in the Southeastern Conference to a super regional. Each year, we basically play eight super regionals inside our league. This year, we were able to win three of them, against Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee. In the national championship series, we had one team which finished fourth in our league (Florida) and another which finished first (Alabama). Also at the world series was Kentucky and they finished seventh in our league. Anybody can go to the world series from our league and finish anywhere in the league. I think it is tougher to win our league than it is to win the world series. The girls know coming in they are going to play those types of games. We played 21 of our 24 conference games against Top 15 teams -- which was the most in the league. That made our team better. That made our coaches better. That will make our program in the future better.
Q: Obviously, the series wins over Alabama and Tennessee were huge program changers. In the past, the challenge has been to win two games in a weekend series, instead of just one. What helped push this team over the top in those situations this season?
A: The pitching staff was deep. We also had a lot of contributions from our freshman class -- Caroline Seitz, Katie Anne Bailey, Mackenzie Toler. I believe that is a mind-set. You have to decide you are going to compete every day. You have to decide you are going to bring your A-game every day. In this league, you can't take a day off. That has to be taught at practice. That has to be taught in the weight room. Your off day is your rest day. If you are not going to work hard, you are not going to contribute here. I think it was a conscientious effort from the leaders of the team to play with that mind-set and they passed it down through the whole team. We had some good pitching and we had input from young kids. But ultimately, it is the decision to be a winner. Winning three series is a very big deal for this program.
Q: Speaking of freshmen - both Caroline Seitz (NFCA All-Region First Team and SEC all-freshman) and Alexis Silkwood (SEC all-freshman) earned some mighty big honors this season. What will allow these talented first-year players to have staying power in this league?
A: Alexis got SEC Pitcher of the Week (during the season) and if you look at the pitching depth in this league -- Kelsey Nunley at Kentucky, Jacklyn Traina at Alabama, Hannah Rogers at Florida and Ellen Renfroe at Tennessee -- and you are talking about a freshman who got Pitcher of the Week, in addition to Freshman of the Week honors. I think that tells you a lot about what she has done and what she can do. She was a 14-game winner this year and I would like to have her in the 20-win category. She shut out Tennessee and they were only shut out two times the whole season. Caroline was steady and that is what you have to be in this league. You have to bring your best game every game. She did just that. She is coachable and responds very well to being pushed. She was second in the league in doubles and led the team in batting average all season. She was never on the roller coaster. She was never too high or too low. Those are the types of players you can build something around. Katie Anne Baley is a freshman who had two game-winning hits and a huge hit in the SEC tournament. She hit the game-winner against Alabama and Kentucky and then in the SEC tournament, we are down 3-0 and she has a bases-clearing double to send us to extra innings. Mackenzie Toler was in and out of the lineup. We are developing her. Overall, very proud of the freshman class and the major contributions they gave us this season.
Q: Assistant coach Beth Mullins was named this week as the new head coach at Troy. What are your thoughts on her contributions to this program?
A: Beth took this job wanting to gain valuable coaching experience to help catapult her into a head coaching role. I could not be happier for her or more proud for her. She was instrumental in getting this freshman class here. She is well-connected throughout the southeast. I will miss her friendship, her advice and her knowledge of the game. Everybody here is sad but at the same time, we are excited for her.
Q: This past season, MSU, along with the City of Gulfport, helped play the host role in a first-ever 10-team tournament played on the gulf coast. Are there plans to continue this event?
A: Right now, the tournament on the coast is tentative. I think we have four or five teams in. We are working to get more teams. It was my idea. I want them to have the tournament. It is a huge goal of mine to help grow the sport in this state. That tournament is very important to me. I am helping to get some more teams in. Hopefully, we will be able to get if off the ground because the first one was hugely successful. We also open the season with three straight tournaments at home, so that will be a big opportunity for our fans to come out and see the team play. Our crowd support was off the charts this past season. We set all kinds of records and always played in front of large crowds. We want to see that continue.
Q: Long-range plans remain on the drawing board for stadium renovations. Is MSU still planning to move forward with those plans and accepting the host role for the 2016 conference tournament?
A: We have been told a shovel will go into the ground in May after the 2015 season is over. We are very excited about the opportunity to host the conference tournament for the first time.
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter