February 5, 2019 10:21:51 AM
STARKVILLE -- In softball circles, most teams begin their seasons with their pitchers projected to be ahead of their of hitters.
The Mississippi State softball team will buck that trend this season.
Buoyed by the return of a talented group of offensive players, MSU figures to be able to score plenty of runs while newcomers take over in the circle.
The ability to score runs is a big reason why coach Vann Stuedeman is excited about her team's season opener against Middle Tennessee State at 3 p.m. in the Bulldog Kickoff Classic at Nusz Park. MSU will play five games in the event this weekend.
"On paper, this team has a chance to be really good offensively," Stuedeman said. "We have speed and we have good contact hitters up and down the lineup. This team should be able to score some runs. That's a relief because we will be largely unproven in the circle.
"It will be good to be the kind of team that 'if we give up a run, that's fine, we will get our own.' "
MSU finished 38-23 last season. The Bulldogs hit .292 and averaged 5.2 runs per game. In the Tucson Regional championship round, MSU dropped a one-run decision to regional champion Arizona.
Sixteen letterwinners and five position starters return from that team.
MSU begins the season ranked No. 24 in the preseason National Football Coaches Association rankings. It is the second preseason ranking in program history (2001).
"Special. That's the word for this season," MSU senior utility player Emily Heimberger said. "The seniors want to carry this program where it has not gone before. We want to leave a legacy for the younger players. Since last season ended, we have been working hard, getting ready for this moment. We just think this can be a special team and a special season."
Mia Davidson had a special season in 2018, earning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors. The North Carolina native set a school record with 19 home runs.
This season, Davidson has made several preseason watch lists and is one of 50 players on USA Softball's Player of the Year list.
"Mia is the most focused player I have ever been around," MSU senior outfielder Kat Moore said. "She just excels at everything. It's the kind of work ethic that rubs off on everyone. She isn't going to rest after last season. This year, she wants to be even better."
Davidson said the softball season is long and she can't get caught up in the individual accolades from a year ago. Instead, she feels like she should be judged by her team's success.
"This year is different because I have already been through a year of college softball," Davidson said. "This is an exciting challenge to me. Offensively, we have a lot of firepower. We have a lot of speed. Just excited to start the season so we can build off last season."
Stuedeman typically has mixed and matched a pitching staff with few defined roles. Some players may alternate between starting and relieving. Rarely, do pitchers throw complete games. That strategy should continue as Stuedeman gets a handle on her staff.
"We have five pitchers and you will see them all this weekend," Stuedeman said. "There is so much that each of them can do to help this team win. We have spent more time with the pitchers during the start of practice. As the season progresses, this staff will get better and better."
The returning experience rests with junior right-hander Candace Davis (4-3, 3.11 earned run average, 56 1/3 innings) and sophomore right-hander Emily Williams (5-1, 1.74, 52 1/3).
Junior right-hander Alyssa Lozer is also expected to make an immediate impact after transferring from Arizona State.
"She is a power pitcher. She will be able to throw 67, 68," Stuedeman said. "She has a chance to be dominant. Just proud of all of our pitchers and each will contribute. Now it's time to play games and see where we stand."
Freshman left-hander Grace Fagan and freshman right-hander Kayla Boseman round out the staff.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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