January 27, 2018 10:42:01 PM
STARKVILLE -- Typically a coach might panic when the school's all-time leader in pitching victories graduates.
Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman doesn't fit in that category.
Stuedeman has made her mark as one of the sport's top pitching coaches. At MSU, she has relied on staffs with many moving parts and numerous options.
This season, MSU figures to follow a similar plan as it continues to prepare for the season opener against Mississippi Valley State at 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, to start the Bulldog Kickoff Classic at Nusz Park. MSU will open a 56-game schedule with 11 straight at home.
"The best part about pitching (for Stuedeman) is that someone always has your back," MSU senior right-hander Cassady Knudsen said. "If it is not your day, someone else has your back. You never know when your number is called, so you always have to be ready to pitch. It's exciting."
Alexis Silkwood thrived as a starter, middle reliever and closer and won 59 games in her four-year career with the Bulldogs. A student coach with the program this season, Silkwood won 26 games as a freshman. Due to injury, she never regained that dominant form. However, she won 15 games a year ago as MSU returned to the NCAA tournament regionals after missing the postseason in 2015.
"I have always felt like it is good to give teams different looks," Stuedeman said. "It may be as a starter one day or as a reliever the next. You always have to stay in the moment. The season is a grind. You can ride a hot hand if that happens. However, that being said, I think it's best to mix it up to get through a Southeastern Conference series."
Even though Silkwood was the team's ace, she was just as likely to finish a game as she was to start one last season. Stuedeman paced her more later in her career after fatigue was blamed for a slow start to her sophomore campaign.
"As seniors, it is important to be a leader for your team," MSU senior right-hander Holly Ward. "As a pitcher, the challenge is everybody is looking at you as a pitcher but also as a senior. It's great to be in control in the circle, trying to help your team win."
MSU finished 36-22 (10-14 SEC) last season. The team advanced to a regional for the fifth time under Stuedeman but lost its first two games in the regional at Salt Lake City, Utah.
"It was good to be back in a regional, but we need to do more," Stuedeman said. "We need in to be in a position to not only make a regional but to play well when we get there. We have some pieces. The girls have been working hard in practice. The important thing is starting the season strong. It always is. In this league, your (Ratings Percentage Index) will always be high, so you want to start collecting wins as soon as you can."
Knudsen and Ward combined to throw 188 innings last season and win 16 games. Each won games against ranked conference opponents.
Regan Green, who was on the staff last season, transferred in the offseason.
Stuedeman will use the season-opening homestand to find someone to complement Knudsen and Ward. Massachusetts transfer Candace Dennis is expected to contribute, as well as freshmen Emily Williams (Carrollton, Georgia) and Carter Spexarth (The Woodlands, Texas).
"I think it's a good balance between veterans and talented newcomers who can help us right away," Stuedeman said. "There is nothing like experience. We will be a better staff when conference play begins (March 16 at Missouri)."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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