New Season Starting For Softball Bulldogs

Vann Stuedeman is emotive enough any time. Yet her team had to be surprised at her reaction when Mississippi State's name came on the NCAA Tournament selection screen, not merely invited but sited in the Mobile Regional. "I actually threw my clipboard on the floor and said ‘boo-ya, we're getting on a bus!"

The Bulldog bus loads-up and pulls-out Wednesday, as Mississippi State reports to the weekend's NCAA Softball regional on the campus of South Alabama. The Bulldogs (32-22) will face #19-ranked and fellow at-large entrant Florida State (30-24) on Friday in a 3:30 game. Top-seed and Regional host South Alabama plays four-seeded Mississippi Valley State afterwards.

"We're just so excited about getting an opportunity to be in the tournament. It's a big deal for us," said junior starting pitcher Allison Owen. "We worked real hard this year and got a lot of good wins and learned from our losses, and we're excited to be able to play another game."

Not only that, but play it about as close to home as possible in this year's NCAA bracket. Stuedeman's response to bussing makes sense in 2012 context, when State was assigned to Eugene, Ore., and endured a multi-stop flight that didn't exactly endear anyone to the airlines. This team will arrive in Mobile in a few easy hours, relaxed and ready for final practices.

Not only that, but in fairly familiar settings. Not only have Bulldog teams played on the campus as recently as last season, but "I started my head coaching career at South Alabama," Stuedeman said. "The coach is a dear friend of mine. It feels good to be in a friendly atmosphere after having gone across the country last year."

The Jaguars are the #13 overall seed this season, and just the second so called ‘mid major' program to host a NCAA Regional ever.

Mississippi State and Stuedeman were optimistic about an at-large invitation, but guarded too. A rough end to the regular season with lost series to South Carolina and Texas A&M knocked the Bulldogs out of the SEC Tournament and left them on softball's version of the proverbial bubble. The RPI was solid to say the least, given the SEC's absurd overall strength in 2013.

In fact a record 11 of the conference's 14 clubs earned or received bids, making the NCAAs something of an expanded SEC tournament. In all the Bulldogs have played a full quarter of the 64-team field, and along the way they won a game from four of the 16 regional hosts. This was enough to slide State into the tournament for a second-year under Stuedeman.

As for selection-Sunday stress? The coach kept her team busy with a vigorous practice before the show. "I approached it as we were going," said Owen. "We were all kind of nervous and excited at the same time, but we had the mentality we were going. And if it was our last practice it was a great practice, and if it wasn't it was preparing us for the weekend!"

Fortunately it won't be the last practice. Or game. Stuedeman has even used the unwanted down-time during conference tournament week to the team's benefit.

"We talked about the importance of ‘sharpening the blade'. We had an intrasquad tournament and a couple of days off, and I just think they're mentally fresher. Not that we wouldn't have loved to be in the SEC Tournament, but they have prepared knowing they are getting into post-season. And this little break I think we're sharper mentally and more excited."

This is State's tenth overall trip to NCAA play, where they are 9-18. One of those losses came in 2009 to Florida State. Since then MSU teams have beaten the Seminoles in regular-season play twice, at a 2011 challenge tournament, and they hold a 7-6 lead in the occasional series.

"They're very talented, that's what you expect," Stuedeman said. "They are well-coached, well-put together. I look for every game to be to the wire."

The Bulldogs have played this Regional's other entrants much more recently; this very season in fact. They opened 2013 against South Alabama ironically enough, in Starkville, with a 3-2 loss way back on February 7. In April the Dogs were challenged by Valley State, winning 1-0 as Stephanie Becker threw a shutout on campus. Stuedeman's two seasons have produced a 23-1 record against other Mississippi programs.

Owen (16-12, 2.04era) headlines a pitching staff that should be a post-season strength. Because even if she is the usual first starter in series that is more like a first-among-equals. Senior Becker (10-8, 3.54) has 25 total starts in 31 games, Owen 24 out of 39 with Kylie Vry (3-2, 2.96) ready as well. And State doesn't operate by any sort of rotation terms as starters aren't set until practically game time.

"That's the fun of it," Owen said. "We joke we find out from our trainer who comes out and stretches us who is starting the game."

It's a special tournament for Becker, not just from being a senior but because an injury in the '12 SEC Tournament confined her to cheering in Oregon. That also took something special the squad needed, Stuedeman said. "I felt last year she was kind of the mojo, and she couldn't play."

So now, "From a pitching standpoint we're a little bit better put-together than we were last year at this point. Everybody is confident and ready and they all want the ball."

The offense is built for speed and pressure, with five Dogs already owning double-digit steals. Jessica Offutt (.313 average) has succeeded on 21-of-28 tries this season, Loryn NIchols (.259) on 22-of-24. The hustling nature is blatant in comparing total team steals, 112 by Bulldogs to just 31 from opponents. Keeping an eye on runners gives Logan Foulks (.313) and Sam Lenahan (.336) better pitches to hack at and they've knocked 13 and 10 home runs respectively with 23 doubles between them. In fact, the Bulldogs have 61 two-baggers and five triples.

The double-elimination event runs through a 3:30 championship game Sunday, and an if-necessary contest to follow. And these Dogs will do anything necessary to extend their season now that the second chance has been given. "We know we are a good team and we can make it there if we play our game," Owen said. ‘There' being the World Series.

"It's 0-0, starting a whole next season," said Stuedeman. "And we're all excited about getting out on the field."


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