April 20, 2017 10:14:51 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman admits she might be a little harder on her pitchers.
After all, Stuedeman made a name for herself as a longtime pitching coaching at Alabama.
Now, Stuedeman is enjoying similar success stories with MSU's pitchers.
Her deepest pitching staff to date will be on display this weekend when MSU (32-14, 6-9 Southeastern Conference) takes on No. 24 Arkansas (27-16, 5-13) in a three-game SEC series at Nusz Park.
Game times are 5 p.m. Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday, and 6 p.m. Monday. All three games will be televised on the SEC Network.
"It is so much fun to pitch for this team because the pitching staff is like a group of sisters," MSU junior Holly Ward said. "We are there to push one another and support one another. Through the ups and downs, we are there for one another. I have confidence in every one of my pitchers."
Stuedeman is gathering a similar confidence.
"A lot of times in softball, everybody gets caught up in the No. 1 pitcher," Stuedeman said. "Championship teams also have that No. 2 pitcher they can run out there. Baseball coaches say you can't have enough pitching depth. The same holds true in softball."
Stuedeman always has approached building her staff in atypical fashion. She prefers a baseball-type makeup with starters, middle relievers, and closers. Players can be used in multiple positions, which is a philosophy she emphasizes with her pitchers.
"It really keeps everybody on their toes," MSU sophomore Regan Green said. "We are like the team within the team. Dependent on matchups, you never know when your name will be called, so you have to stay ready. Pitching in the Southeastern Conference is difficult. I rely heavily on Vann and try to learn as much as I can. She has been incredible."
The statistics bear out the growth of the MSU pitching staff. With nine regular-season games remaining, MSU is sixth in the conference and 15th nationally with an ERA of 1.69. That mark would be the program's lowest since a 0.81 ERA in 2006. It easily sets the standard for the Stuedeman era. The best mark there was 2.66 in 2013.
Senior Alexis Silkwood, junior Cassady Knudsen, Ward, and Green have thrown 46 or more innings. The quartet also has shared starting roles, with Green making a staff-low eight.
Even the six conference wins have been shared. Silkwood and Knudsen beat South Carolina and No. 22 Georgia. Green beat No. 4 Texas A&M and Ward beat No. 12 Alabama.
"I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of the other pitchers," Silkwood said. "I think the competition has helped make each of us better. We really push each other to do some extraordinary things. It doesn't happen by accident. It happens because of hard work and great coaching."
Silkwood earned her school-record 56th win in a victory against South Carolina earlier this month. Still, things have changed in her time in Starkville. After throwing 235 innings as a sophomore, she threw 117 1/3 innings last season and has thrown 125 2/3 innings this season.
"We finally have depth," Stuedeman said. "We have been trying to get to this point for quite some time, but there was an injury here or there. Other things have come up. Our pitchers aren't worried about who is going to get the start because they know their time will come sometime during a season.
"You watch Regan Green beat Texas A&M. You watch Holly Ward beat Alabama. I don't know if those were things that could have happened a year ago. With growth and maturity, those things happen. When you have been around the league a few times, there is familiarity."
After missing a NCAA tournament regional last season, Stuedeman and her staff spent more time building the mental component of this season's team.
"It's just a different level of confidence in the circle," Knudsen said. "This year, it was more about what you do best and having confidence in what you do best. If you don't believe you have a pitch that can get a certain batter out, it's not going to happen. I think we have done a great job of taking a different mental outlook. It has shown up on the field."
Stuedeman feels like the Bulldogs have assembled enough pitching depth to make a deep postseason run. The team also is improving offensively. MSU has had 10 or more hits in four of the last eight games. It accomplished that feat nine times in the first 38 games.
"I really like where this team is," Stuedeman said. "We just have to continue to play well."
As for this weekend, MSU and Arkansas are fighting to strengthen their NCAA tournament resumes after finishing in the final two spots in the league standings a year ago. The teams combined for four conference wins last season and neither made the postseason. In the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) figures, Arkansas is No. 24 and MSU is No. 34.
After back-to-back series victories against South Carolina and Georgia, MSU is looking to win its third-straight conference series wins for the first time since Stuedeman's 2012 squad took series from Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Kentucky on consecutive weekends.
"The exciting part is our best softball is still ahead of us," Silkwood said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter