December 21, 2017 11:38:14 AM
Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman believes her mission is to help grow the sport of softball in and around the state of Mississippi.
If the sport develops at the youth and high school levels, Stuedeman feels like her program will be able to compete at a higher level nationally.
Stuedeman has backed her words by playing fall scrimmages throughout the state and playing host to numerous clinics for youth players. MSU also has played regular-season games in Ridgeland and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
"This is what we did at Alabama," Stuedeman said. "When I came there (as an assistant coach), fast-pitch softball in the state was beginning to take off. When the college coaches step in and help promote the sport, it helps. Softball is something I love and I am passionate about. We want to share the game with as many people as possible.
"When more players are playing at a higher level, it helps the college programs succeed."
Now, the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) is ready to help Stuedeman expand the sport.
The association recently announced a two-year arrangement to move this season's fast-pitch state championship games to the campuses of Mississippi State and the University of Southern Mississippi. The games had been played in Ridgeland.
"We believe this is going to be a great opportunity for our schools and our students," MHSAA Executive Director Don Hinton said on the association's web site. "These young ladies will have an opportunity to play in Division I facilities with all the amenities. The universities are very enthusiastic about hosting these events as well."
Moving the softball championships continues a theme for the MHSAA. The football state championships have been held at MSU twice and Ole Miss twice. The 2018 championship weekend will be played at USM.
The basketball state championships are now split between the Mississippi Coliseum and Jackson State University. The volleyball championships were held earlier this fall at MSU's Newell-Grissom Building for the first time.
"It's great exposure for our program," Southern Miss coach Wendy Hogue said. "Anytime you can bring prospective student-athletes to your campus to play, it's a good thing. The MHSAA is really working hard to promote and grow their state championship events. We are honored to be playing a role in that."
In 2018, Classes 6A, 4A, and 2A will play at the Southern Miss Softball Complex, while Classes 5A, 3A, and 1A will play at MSU's Nusz Park. MSU's new park made its debut with the 2016 regular season and the Southeastern Conference tournament that season.
In 2019, the schedules will be reversed. This year's best-of-three state championship series for each classification will be May 10-12.
Unfortunately, the SEC and Conference USA tournaments will be held that same weekend.
"Mississippi is playing catch-up with high-level fast-pitch softball, but they are certainly making strides," Stuedeman said. "Each year, there is that select group of in-state players that can help the major programs in the state. Fortunately, that number of players continues to grow. It takes a concerted effort on everybody's part to grow the sport. We are getting there."
MSU has played in an NCAA tournament regional in five of six seasons under Stuedeman. Ole Miss advanced to a first super regional this past season. Southern Miss owns the state's only two appearances in the Women's College World Series.
William Carey University boasts one of the premier programs in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Several Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) programs rank among the top 10 every year.
These programs can now dig deeper into in the pool of players from Mississippi.
"For the smaller sports, everybody has to pull in the same direction," Hogue said. "If someone does something to grow the sport, it's great for all of the other programs around the state. You would always like to sign a large number of in-state players if that is possible. It's good to see more high schools taking the sport seriously. This is another positive step for the state."
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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