This momentum is to be tested as State hosts Arkansas in the final home series of 2014. Game times are 5:00 Friday and 1:00 both Saturday and Sunday, with the finale serving as Senior Day for seven upperclassmen.
Saluting a sizable group of seniors does offer one potential distraction for a tight-knit ball club. So does success of the sort Mississippi State has just achieved, beginning with a team-defining series victory over perpetual nemesis Alabama. The Bulldogs bounced back from a 3-1 opening loss to take down the #2-ranked Crimson Tide 4-2 to even the series, then 4-3 on a tenth-inning home run to win it all. This was only the second series out of the 30 meetings with Alabama won by State.
A week later the Bulldogs went to Tennessee, which had won six of the last seven series. After splitting the first two meetings, State dominated Sunday 11-7 to top the #4-ranked Volunteers. The four wins in two weekends over ranked teams nearly matched the program's total of five scored from 1997-2013.
More in the moment, this '14 team has matched the best 50-game record ever at Mississippi State. Beating ranked opponents also has the Bulldogs earning their own attention with votes to rank 26th in the national coaches poll and 27th by ESPN.com. It's all heady stuff for a squad still in-progress. Risky, too in terms of getting caught up in it all. Stuedeman—who just earned her 100th coaching victory at State--is taking care to keep the club's attention that the season is far, far from finished.
"We try not to focus on respect. We know who we are and we're focused on what we do best. If we take care of what we need to, the rest will take care of itself. We've won two great series, those were great momentum builders. But they're in the past. So we have to continue to grind."
Stumbling against the Razorbacks (26-22, 4-14) would undo some of the good work accomplished so far. Arkansas is unranked and 13th in this week's SEC standings. They may sit in the same SEC division but the teams did not play in 2013. State did take the 2012 series in Fayetteville and holds a 31-24 series lead. Current Bulldogs have experienced success against Arkansas teams and winning this weekend would make for a fine exit.
Five of the seniors are expected to start Friday's opener, with Allison Owen (17-9, 2.55) listed as game-one pitcher. The righthander is about to make program history of her own, as her next strikeout would be #251 of the career and tie the all-time record. She's fanned 200 batters this season alone in 151 innings of work.
And, Owen will have set the State career standard in just two seasons after transferring from Georgia. "That speaks volumes for her ability," Stuedeman said. "She's going to break it and that speaks volumes about the kind of pitcher she is, she makes the ball move and misses barrel. It's amazing what she would have done if she'd had four years to pitch here."
Interestingly, Owen has not been blowing batters away of late, instead producing contact outs…and not walking runners on. Freshman lefthander Alexis Silkwood (11-5, 2.24) is the pitcher picking up the strikeout pace down the stretch and was SEC Pitcher of the Week for her work at Tennessee. Silkwood has also been league Freshman of the Week twice this season.
Those two moundsmen exemplify the nature of the entire team, which has a strong core of seniors setting the tone but a sizable rookie class that has strengthened the squad. 3B Caroline Seitz is exhibit-A, the team's batting leader at .342 with 29 extra-base hits out of 53 total safeties and 31 RBI. Seitz is a candidate for national Freshman of the Year in fact.
The bulk of the batting order are veterans though. 1B/C Logan Foulks is hitting .287 with five homers and 28 RBI. And while Sam Lenahan's .242 average is not what she expected, the senior has simply been clutch with eight game-winning RBI already and 37 total this season. It was somewhat surprising Tennessee even gave Lenahan the chance to beat them, which she did with a two-run homer, because she has been walked 31 times this year.
Stuedeman can't say enough good about this senior for both leadership and sacrifice. "She's a total team player in that she's played catcher, first, and third. She's a natural catcher but she's done whatever we've asked in the best interests of our program."
A program which is back on the NCAA Tournament track for the third time under Stuedeman's management. There was real concern about this in 2014, not because the club did not appear capable but from the schedule assigned State. Unlike baseball with ten conference series among the 14 teams, softball only plays eight league weekends. The potential for a brutal slate is obvious and Mississippi State got an outrageous one. Of the eight opponents drawn by the Bulldogs, six are ranked.
"We did the strength of schedule inside the conference before last week and ours was #2," Stuedeman said. Which is great until having to play these top-ten or –twenty teams, without as many opportunities to pick off lesser SEC squads and have a better record.
Fortunately, if unintentionally, this top-heavy schedule is now playing to State's benefit. The team has an official RPI of 31st this week and a 7-13 record against the top 25 in that NCAA listing. While not a 100% sure thing this ought have the Bulldogs seeing their name when the national tournament field is revealed, barring late-season disaster.
Arkansas is unranked; nor is next week's opponent LSU (27-20, 8-10) though their RPI is not so low as to hurt State's status either. Stuedeman also notes that for all the frustrations playing this slate has brought the end results are a better Bulldog ball club. "It really has been a stretch, a grind. But it's preparing us and we do control our own destiny.
"That's what you want at this point in a season, you want to be in control and not hoping somebody loses. That's where we are right now and the tough schedule has helped us with that."
It also should have helped toughen-up the Bulldogs to handle an emotional home-finale weekend and Senior Day ceremonies. Yes, Stuedemen said, there can be distractions. "But it is all business and we will have to check in when that game starts."