Softball Dogs Play For Post-Season Position

She's a senior, so a degree of old Dog wisdom is expected. Jessica Cooley is happy to provide it as Mississippi State approaches the decisive stretch of this softball season. "We're right there, and it's the right part of the year," the outfielder says. "It doesn't matter how you start, its how you finish and I think we're getting hot at the right time of the season."

Mississippi State has indeed heated up in time to make a case for extending the season. Coach Vann Stuedeman's squad has won eight of their last ten games, five of them conference victories, and is so very close to securing tournament status. Not just the SEC Tournament, but the NCAAs as well.

Sealing this Bulldog deal begins by hosting South Carolina at the MSU Softball Stadium. Series times are 6:00 Friday, and 1:00 both Saturady and Sunday. This also serves as Senior Weekend for the five upperclassman Bulldogs.

Those veterans would love nothing better than to bow out on a winning weekend. Much more is at stake than sentiment though. The Bulldogs (31-16, 7-11) stand ninth overall SEC, good enough if the conference tournament was played this weekend. It isn't, so State has two series and six games ahead to clinch one of the ten berths. The good news is the opponents are both behind the Bulldogs in those standings. The bad news, they are also in striking distance.

South Carolina is farther back at 4-14 with no room for error. But Texas A&M is right behind at 6-11, and will host State to end the schedule. This also sets up some scoreboard watching in Starkville as the Aggies are at Ole Miss. The magic MSU number would be four, barring weather complications down the stretch. Stuedeman isn't concerned about such distractions on the field though.

"One thing we've done well is we control our own destiny. The next two opponents are both below in the rankings and if we continue to do what we're supposed to do we have the opportunity to control our destiny."

This team has earned that control the hard way. They've recovered from a 2-10 SEC start with an impressive run, salvaging a split at #3 Florida before sweeping—stomping really—Ole Miss at home. A trip to nemesis #4 Alabama went down to the proverbial wire after the Bulldogs took the series opener and fell 9-8 in the rubber game.

In the meantime State has won four midweek games to improve the record at no cost to a stout RPI. Cooley says the big picture has looked good, but only because Bulldogs focused on smaller steps.

"We work on taking it one pitch at a time and really working on the process. And just fighting, that's what this team is all about. I think we've done it consistently all year, it doesn't matter if we're up 9-0 or down 9-0. That's what makes this so much fun and it's a blast being able to play with these girls."

Second-year coach Stuedeman agrees that the secret to this current success has been, as she preaches, playing in the moment. "And be able to shift gears and make adjustments quickly." This also allowed a still-maturing club to handle the adversity that came with conference play, after roaring out to a 15-4 start to the schedule. Even better, the coach sees her team solidifying all its aspects here when it counts.

"That's what we've been fortunate with. Early in the year we may have great pitching and not a lot of offense. Or great defense and not great pitching. Or one piece might be great and not all three. We've been able to slowly put those pieces together and if eel everybody is confident."

This has to be an all-pieces approach, offensively at least, because the Bulldogs don't have a lot of stars in the order. No State player is among the SEC's top-15 in average, slugging, runs, RBI, any of the glamour categories. The club as a whole is 12th in SEC average, though this is more a reflection of the conference company the Bulldogs keep.

That they win games, or push top-five powers to the limit, speaks well for the planning and execution. "The coaches have done an awesome job getting us ready hitting the past couple of weeks," said Cooley, who brings an eight-game batting streak into Friday. "And I've been working hard, watching a lot of film and getting back to the basics and trying to get some quality at-bats. And having fun with it."

Sam Lenahan tops the MSU order with a .347 average and has scored most often as well, to go with nine homers. Logan Foulks is hitting .326 and pacing the slugging. The transfer has knocked 12 balls out and added a dozen doubles. Those extra base safeties complement aggressive baserunning, as State has stolen successfully 109 of 138 tries. By contrast opponents have only run 42 times in 47 games. Cooley (13-of-18), Jessica Offutt (20-of-27), Loryn NIchols (21-of-22) and Kayla Winkfield (16-of-20) keep defenses on-edge when they reach base.

The pitching is also more proficient than the sum of parts. Though, the parts are pretty good in their own right with Stephanie Becker (10-6, 3.35) and Alison Owen (15-8, 1.87) setting the pace. Or starting games off rather. Stuedeman doesn't like to call it a rotation per se, much less go with a ‘ace' mentality on the mound. The result is all arms, starter and relief alike, are still sharp over the long season.

Besides, Stuedeman said, by and large in college softball the every-game ace is increasingly rare. "You really have to be svelte and top-gun type to shoulder that. We're better when we use a one-two punch and not try to go seven innings." Owen and Becker alternate in starting and relief if needed with Kylie Vry (3-2, 2.96) usually in the mix. Full outings like Becker's no-hitter of Mississippi Valley this week are the exception. That win also gave Stuedeman a 13-0 record against other in-state programs in the two seasons.

"It's important to me to get as many people out there as possible, not only to set our team up but everybody works hard and needs the opportunity to succeed." As of this week Owen is 11th in SEC earned run rate but third in strikeouts, while Becker is 15th in ERA and 12th in strikeouts.

As for Senior Weekend ceremonies, Stuedeman has a sincere thank-you to those five departing Dogs. "Obviously they've given me everything they've had for two years. They accepted me from day-one. It will be a special day; sad to see them go but also exciting for the future."

Because the future is now for the 2013 team. Cooley certainly plans on going from graduation to tournament time if the Bulldogs take care of business in the upcoming two series. And if they qualify, consider them well-prepared for the pressures.

"Every single weekend is a super regional," Cooley said. "And it's so much fun to be in that atmosphere, getting that experience and getting ready for the post-season."

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