Lenahan and her Bulldog teammates get their chance tomorrow in Columbia, S.C., as Mississippi State opens the entire event along with Kentucky. The 10th-seeded Dogs (38-18, 10-14 SEC) face 7th-seeded Wildcats (41-13, 13-11) in a 3:00ct contest which will be televised on ESPNU. The single-elimination format sends the winner to a Thursday matchup with #2 seed Tennessee.
Coach Vann Stuedeman believes it is a confident ball club she is taking to South Carolina. With good reason, because Mississippi State won eight of their last dozen games and three of the four SEC series.
"We've got a lot of confidence rolling into the tournament. We kind of grew up a little bit and took that step of ‘OK, I think we can do it' to ‘I know we can do it.' I think they have that mindset that we can win this tournament and take it one game at a time. And I think they've proven to themselves they belong."
Bulldog softball missed the 2013 tournament, and in their most recent appearance in 2012 lost in the first round to Alabama. In fact this will be the first time since 2007 a State squad has not been paired with Alabama at a SEC Tournament. State is 28-21 all-time against Kentucky, after splitting this year's regular-season series. The visiting Wildcats won 4-0 and 5-0 in the first and third games, around a 2-1 Bulldog victory.
But that was way back in early March. "That was our first SEC series," said catcher Lenahan. "I definitely think we've grown a lot as a team since then. And we had good games that weekend but we've grown since then. We've seen their pitchers, we know what their hitters do. I know Coach (Beth) Mullins will have a good plan for us offensively and Vann will have a good pitching plan."
Kentucky struggled down their late SEC season stretch, losing a series to Tennessee—whom the Bulldogs defeated in Knoxville—and being swept at #16 Georgia. Stuedeman is not looking at those scores as much as the video being scouted right now.
"They have a great battery in Nunley (21-7) and Joyner, one of the best catchers in the conference along with ours. They work very well together. Then they are well-balanced with some speed and some power and they play textbook defense. It's going to be a great matchup and a great game."
For their part the Bulldogs have been assembling a pretty balanced ball club themselves. The offense is led by freshman Caroline Seitz (.354, 19 doubles, 36 RBI) and Julia Echols (.307, 27 runs, 16 RBI); while in the middle of the order Logan Foulks (.288, 33 RBI) and Lenahan (.246, 42 RBI) have slugged six and ten homers respectively. State is certainly aggressive on the paths as well with 83 steals and 205 attempts; while opponents have swiped just 14 bases in 30 tries.
The specific pitching plan was not announced before departure but it is safe to say both senior Alison Owen (18-11, 2.93) and freshman Alexis Silkwood (13-6, 2.32) will be utilized in some sort of script. Owen is the career strikeouts leader at State after just two seasons, but Silkwood is bound to shatter that standard before her Bulldog tenure is done.
Though State did drop its last regular-season series, splitting at #25 Louisiana State, they still take a healthy head of steam to this week's event. At mid-schedule they were on the outside of the SEC Tourney field looking in before beating top-five-ranked foes Alabama and Tennessee, then winning the home series finale with Arkansas. Though there were individual standouts in the stretch run this really was a team effort, if measured by post-season honors. No Bulldog was named first- or second-team All-SEC by the coaches, but a couple of rookies did make the freshman team; infielder Seitz and pitcher Silkwood.
"We've grown up a lot this last half of SEC play," Stuedeman said. "It was disappointing last year to be a game out. Making it back is huge and it just feels great to be there. It says what you did all year matters and I'm really proud for the seniors."
Upper- or under-classman, It has been a tricky few days. Because they left for LSU the day prior to semester finals, and had a noon Tuesday flight for Columbia, most tests had to be crammed into Monday and half of today. Stuedemann reported some players had two exams this morning after a three-tests Monday. It required lots of schedule shifting and cooperation from instructors to beat these deadlines.
"The good thing is we're finished and now we're minor league baseball players, we get on the bus and they get their meal money and we play free softball now!"
And, probably not the last softball of this season. Though no Bulldog is taking things for granted, they do expect to see their name Sunday when the NCAA Tournament field is announced. Lenahan agreed that this should ease some pressure to perform at Columbia. Or at least, "Maybe a little.""But I don't think any of us are slacking thinking oh, we're in the NCAAs and it doesn't matter what we do here."