Softball Setting Bulldog Bar Higher In 2014

Their season is only about to begin. Already though Bulldog softball minds are thinking ahead. Way farther ahead, to the post-season. Which Vann Stuedeman encourages.

"We have some high expectations of this group," the third-year coach said. "We're very heavy senior-loaded ,and have a strong freshman class. So I look for us to make a lot of noise, maybe unexpectedly according to the preseason coaches' poll. But we know what we can do."

Stuedeman is correct regarding outside expectations. Mississippi State came in 12th out of 13 programs when the coach's votes were counted for SEC order-of-finish. But as Logan Foulks said, the Bulldogs know what they have to work with in 2014, and what they must work against.

"We're going to prove it one game at a time," said the senior catcher/infielder. "All it is now is the six inches between the ears."

The number more on Stuedeman's mind is three. As in how many more practice days remain before the schedule opens Friday with the Bulldog Kickoff Classic. This four-team, three-day event will give Mississippi State a fair early-season read on things. It begins Friday with the host team playing Mississippi Valley State at 3:00, then Northern Kentucky and Jacksonville State in the nightcap.

What starts Friday, Stuedeman believes ought not end until well into May or hopefully even June. Those same preseason predictors aren't counting Mississippi State as a leading NCAA Tournament contender. Maybe they should look again, considering how much of the 2013 team which did play post-season and finished 33-24 is back.

Or maybe just ask the veterans themselves about Stuedeman's high expectations. "Why would you not?" Foulks said. "The talent we have and the chemistry we have is just amazing to be a part of. It's an expectation now because of all the work we've put in."

"They're confident enough in their skill," said the head coach. "I don't know that I would have said that in my previous two years. They play and don't worry about what to do and where they should be. So the sky is the limit for this group."

It's a group with a distinct split roster-personality. Two-and-a-half years into her tenure, this is all-but-entirely Stuedeman's team of both veterans and a third recruiting class. It is that mix the coach is counting on to mesh under serious senior leadership. So far, so good.

"This group of has been here there years with me now. And we always tell them as soon as they start ‘coaching' the team and become an extension of the staff, we know we're headed in the right direction. Sam Lenahan, Heidi Shape, Alison Owen, Jessica Offutt; we're going to need strong leadership from them. And they're all being extension of the coaching staff now. Which is huge because we have a large freshman class." Made up of six true frosh and a redshirt.

College softball teams are built around the mound and three pitchers return, led by durable senior righthander Owen. A second-team All-Region pitcher last May, Owen started 26 of her 42 appearances with a 17-13 record and 1.97 ERA. She struck out 250 in 198.2 innings with just 22 walks.

That's the good news. The best news? "Alison looks better than she's ever looked," Stuedeman said. "She's spinning the ball better than ever, her placement is better and has good command of her pitches." That's a key in the senior season because the weakness Stuedeman wants to fix is location. Not that Owen's was bad; she put most pitches where planned last season. It's just that some of those were located in the wheelhouse and left yards.

"She probably gave up a few more home runs last year," Stuedeman said. "I love that she challenges the hitter, she has guts, but along with that we need to start being more strategic."

Righthander Jacey Punches (3-0, 3.55) got 21 innings last year with one start. Stuedeman is figuring on more innings this season. The same is true for senior Shanna Sherrod who had less than six total innings the last two seasons. Sherrod can be a matchup reliever. "She's a righthander, but has a timing advantage that she throws a little off-speed and is really good in a one, two hitter inning. I hope to use here like that this year."

For the south-side State brought in freshmen Alexis Silkwood and Mackenzie Toler. "So it's really nice when you can throw in a lefty mix," Stuedeman said.

Mississippi State led the SEC with 468 strikeouts last season and were second-best in walks. At the same time Stuedeman isn't asking the staff to fan everyone. She likes the infield defense. "We have a veteran second baseman (Shape), and an incredible athlete at shortstop in Kayla Winfield." That pair had only 13 combined errors in '13. Freshman Caroline Seitz looks to have earned a starting job already on the hot corner.

"She's owning third base, she's so smooth over there," Stuedeman said. Foulks started over half last season at third base and can still handle a corner, but catching may be her primary task now alongside Lenahan. Julia Echols took over first base for the last half of last season.

Offutt and Loryn Nichols return after starting regularly in the outfield, and Ashley Phillips opened there the first-half of the schedule. So there is plenty experience in all defensive areas.

Offensively, almost 70% of the base hits return and 75% of runs. The '13 team set a program record with 51 homers, led by Foulks' 13 and 10 from Lenahan. Stuedeman expects new punch from Seitz. "Every game I went to see her she hit a home run, and I was like ‘Hail State!'" Toler is already being measured to swing in an RBI slot in the order.

But team power is matched by improved speed as last year's team set the steals record with 114, and the runners who notched 93 of them are back too. Stuedeman's squad has improved steadily in drawing walks as well, something defenses can't stop.

So why are peers hesitant to vote State higher? The 8-16 SEC record. At the same time Stuedeman saw four one-run losses, two in extra innings and to ranked opponents. Though seeing a number in front of the name isn't unusual. And the '13 Dogs beat four ranked teams, which was another sort of step-forward in the long process.

Certainly RPI and SOS won't be an issue comes time for the NCAA Tournament field to be picked. State will score very well there. The key is winning enough games overall and league to attract attention again and return to post-season play. "It's the same team basically," Stuedeman said. "We do have a little different pitching staff, but we're one year smarter and wiser and I look for really big things."

Ultimately, how big? Stuedeman responds without blinking. "A national championship." That is a very tall bar to set to be sure. At the same time, once in the Tournament anything is possible. And, "It might be harder to win the SEC regular season outright than to win the World Series. Our conference prepares us for postseason which is the way we look at it."

An optimistic way, too. But with the progress posted in the first two years, State softball is free to dream big. Very, very big. "We've got to realizes that we're just as good as anybody else any given day," said Stuedeman.

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