January 25, 2018 9:18:48 AM
Preseason rankings don't faze Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman.
When the preseason Southeastern Conference coaches poll was released last week, MSU was picked to finish last in the 13-team league.
The ranking doesn't mean all is lost for MSU. A year ago, all 13 SEC teams made an NCAA tournament regional. Georgia had the rare distinction of a last-place finish in the league standings after being ranked in the top 15 in the nation to start the season.
"It's always a challenge," said Stuedeman, who begins her seventh season at MSU on Feb. 9 in the Bulldog Kickoff Classic in Starkville. "Playing in the Southeastern Conference is the same as playing eight different super regionals. Anytime you win a conference series, it's the same thing as winning a super regional.
"You can't get caught up in the big picture. You live in the moment. If you don't live in the moment, this league will eat you alive."
MSU has qualified for a regional in five of Stuedeman's first six seasons. It is a high level of success, but it has been overshadowed by deep postseason runs from other SEC schools, including a first super regional run by Ole Miss last season.
Stuedeman's squads have finished 10-14 in league play in three of the past four seasons. Ole Miss also was 10-14 in the league last season. However, the Rebels took things to another level late, thanks in part to a victory against the Bulldogs in the SEC tournament.
That victory helped give Ole Miss the momentum it needed to win the SEC tournament. As a result, Ole Miss earned the right to play host to an NCAA regional. Ole Miss won that regional in Oxford to advance to the super regionals, where it lost at UCLA.
Stuedeman and her squad are still looking for that breakout year. If it happens this season, it will come in a transition year.
Six position starters return, as well as three regular pitchers. The Bulldogs will welcome a class ranked in the top 10 by multiple softball recruiting services.
Still, the search will be on to replace Alexis Silkwood, who was the squad's ace in each of the last three seasons. Silkwood was 15-8 with a 2.16 earned run average last season. Stuedeman used her as a starter and as a reliever.
MSU also will have to replace All-SEC third baseman Caroline Seitz, who hit .313 with nine home runs last season.
"The recruiting class is exciting," Stuedeman said. "We have some players who will step in and contribute right away. They will have to grow up fast. That is what this league is all about."
Seniors Cassady Knudsen and Holly Ward will anchor the pitching staff. The duo combined to throw 186 innings last season.
The Bulldogs also will boast another year of staff continuity. Hitting coach Samantha Ricketts is back for a fourth season, while assistant coach Tyler Bratton is back for a fifth. Graduate and student assistants include Kayla Winkfield, Amanda Ivy, Seitz, and Silkwood. Ivy played on last season's team with Seitz and Silkwood.
MSU will play a better schedule than some in the program's past. In the SEC, MSU will miss Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, and LSU. Those schools finished second, fifth, sixth, and seventh last season. While Auburn finished second in the league last season, some uncertainty lies ahead with a new coaching staff taking over.
The season opens with 11-straight home games. When MSU missed postseason play in 2015, too many home non-conference losses cost the team a chance to reach the postseason.
MSU will play at home in four of the first five weekends. A trip to the Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs, California, will be the only trip.
"With a young team, you want to give them the opportunity to play at home," Stuedeman said. "We were able to get off to a great start at home last season, and that was huge for the team. Hopefully, we will be able to have similar success. There will be some experimenting early before settling into conference play."
Stuedeman is excited to see how quickly the team will be able to come together.
Knudsen and Ward had some standout moments a year ago. More of those moments will be needed to help MSU turn the corner.
After hitting .312 as a team in 2015, the last two squads have struggled to have similar offensive success. The Bulldogs will need better offensive production to offset the loss of Silkwood in the circle.
Overall, there are a lot questions to be answered. The Bulldogs will need to find some answers quickly.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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