February 22, 2018 11:10:22 AM
STARKVILLE -- Through the first two weeks of the season, the Mississippi State softball team has hovered just outside the national rankings.
That could change this weekend when MSU faces three ranked opponents in the Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs, California.
MSU will open the 24-team, four-day event today by taking on No. 15 Arizona State at 3 p.m. and No. 23 Nebraska at 10 p.m.
MSU will play No. 16 Oklahoma State at 3 p.m. Friday and San Jose State (7 p.m.) and Cal State Fullerton (9:30 p.m.) Saturday.
The games will be MSU's first away from home after a season-opening 9-1 homestand.
"It will be great to take a road trip and for this team to face a major challenge on the road," MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. "With (Southeastern) conference play approaching, we need a good barometer for where we stand. It will be some great competition and also a great experience for the girls."
This is MSU's first appearance in one of the nation's premier softball events. Recently re-named to honor longtime softball coaching legend Mary Nutter and hosted by Oregon State, the event previously enjoyed a two-decade history as the Cathedral City Classic.
MSU boasts an all-time record of 2-13 against the five tournament opponents.
"This is the best way to prepare for life in the Southeastern Conference," MSU senior pitcher Holly Ward said in the preseason. "You want to be battle tested. I think you can learn from each of your experiences. We will be better prepared for the conference schedule by playing some elite competition. It also gets you ready for the regionals."
In the latest National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Top 25, MSU enough votes to be considered No. 29. Ten of the 13 SEC softball teams are ranked. South Carolina broke into the poll for the first time in 2018.
Only Missouri (6-5), which went through a sudden preseason coaching change, didn't receive a vote in the poll.
"Top to bottom, the league is going to again be very challenging," Stuedeman said. "We were fortunate that to start the season we took care of business for the most part."
The highlight of the season-opening homestand was a come-from-behind victory against South Alabama. South Alabama beat No. 9 Florida State on Wednesday night in Mobile, Alabama. The loss was a 1-0 setback to Drake.
Pitching has set the tone. MSU is second in the league with a 0.42 earned run average. The Bulldogs have six shutouts, including a perfect game. Offensively, the Bulldogs are sixth in the league with a .323 average.
Mia Davidson is ninth in the league with a team-best .484 average. The freshman from Hillsborough, North Carolina, has 15 hits (four doubles, two triples, two home runs).
"She showed us her capabilities during the fall," Stuedeman said. "We felt like Mia was one of those you could just plug in and go."
After returning from the West Coast, MSU will begin a nine-game homestand. Road trips to Samford and Memphis will follow before the conference season begins at Missouri.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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