Softball Bulldogs Raise NCAA Tourney Goals

The Bulldogs have become accustomed to post-season play with Coach Vann Stuedeman. Now after two NCAA Tournament trips, objectives are higher this time around. "It's huge for this program to go three years in a row," Alison Owen said. "And we're looking forward to coming out of that Regional and going to the World Series."

Any team getting out of this Regional would indeed take a very long and strong step towards Oklahoma City. This 2014 NCAA Tournament has sited Mississippi State (38-19) in Lafayette, La., as the third-seed where they will take on two-seed Texas (33-21). Friday's game time at Lamson Park is 3:00ct with live streaming on ESPN3, prior to host ULL (44-8-1) playing four-seed Texas Southern (31-18). The Ragin' Cajuns are the #6 national seed.

Stuedeman's squad was expecting to see their name on-screen Sunday night when the field of 64 squads were presented. Even so, "It never gets old," said senior pitcher Owen. "We're obviously very excited."

Not so much to interfere with preparations, fortunately. After the disappointment of first-round elimination at the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs have had almost a week to get over their extra-inning frustration and find the right mindsent for NCAA season. So far, said Stuedeman, so good.

"We've had some of our best practices these last two days. The girls are very motivated, pushing themselves mentally and physically. I've been impressed with our focus, I feel we're getting better every practice." There will be one more home practice Wednesday before making the trip to Cajun country.

With this at-large bid, Mississippi State has matched the three-year appearance stretch of 2007-09, and this team is making the 11th NCAA Tournament trip in program history. For the previous ten tournaments Bulldog teams have posted a 10-20 record.

While they did want to stay in the SEC meet a lot longer, Kentucky made the 4-3 result look more respectable by reaching the tourney finals. Stuedeman wasn't just borrowing a page from here baseball coaching counterparts in the league, she was accurate saying the SEC Tournament field was as good or better than the eight which will reach Oklahoma City. It was reinforced Sunday when eleven league teams were picked for the NCAAs; more than double the next-most by other conference as the Pac-12 and Big Ten got five in.

"If that doesn't solidify my statements all along I don't know what would," Stuedeman said. The benefit of a brutal slate where Mississippi State played seven ranked SEC opponents (and one other in an non-league meeting) should serve to have these Dogs ready for a Regional format where three wins will take the tourney.

"And then you go into the best-of-three series for Super Regionals. So we're prepared. Everybody is good from this point forward."

Texas is good, better than their record reflects. The Longhorns played in the 2013 College World Series, but losses to lineup meant some early-2014 struggles to find what Stuedeman called their identity. Now, she says, scouting shows a team playing its best of the season as they begin post-season.

"I think they've found it and really settled in. "They're well-coached, well prepared, and after last year I'm sure they're very confident having been there and knowing what it takes to be there and get there again."

For freshman third baseman Caroline Seitz the matchup is ironic. Her father played baseball and basketball at Texas. But, the Bulldog said, he's not a Longhorn fan any more and especially not this week. "I'm kind of excited because my Dad played there but it's really any old game."

For Mississippi State this season has had its own ID search, melding a core of veterans who have been to one or two NCAAs already and set a tone; with a talented group of freshmen who are the future. Actually, they are the present as pitcher Alexis Silkwood and Seitz were All-SEC freshmen. In fact, during Tuesday's interviews Seitz finally got her rookie ‘baptism' with a pie-plate of whipped topping smacked into her face by a teammate. None of the media were gentlemen enough to warn her what was coming so the video will be widely circulated.

Seitz paces the offense with a .350 average and 16 doubles and is second in RBI with 36, and has started every game at third base. Julia Echols bats .317 with 28 runs scored, while Heidi Shape has crossed the plate most at 32 runs. The muscle in the order comes from senior catcher Sam Lenahan (.241) with ten homers and 42 RBI; and Logan Foulks (.286) at six longballs and 33 RBI. And now a youngster in the order, Katie Anne Bailey, has turned into Ms. Clutch with some well-timed hits in big games.

Seitz expects to face one of the country's best freshmen pitchers on Friday, and welcomes the challenge. "I think we're hitting very well, the last couple of days we've had a lot of power at practice. And we got a couple of off-days when we got back, it's getting strong and refreshed."

And, in Stuedeman's case, settled on how she wants to pitch the Longhorns. "I'm still in a scouting phase right now. Texas has six lefties in their lineup, so your typical matchup would be a lefty/lefty. However they just came off a win against Baylor, who has a sixth-year lefty as well. I'd like to look some more and scout some more, but as I just told our team it's nice to have four people that we can send out there."

Senior Owen (18-11. 3.00) and Silkwood (13-7. 2.28) have been the top choice(s) this season. Righthander Owen began the year first in rotation and will take the school career strikeouts record with here upon graduation. She has fanned 214 against just 30 walks this season alone. But the rookie has risen to the forefront mid-schedule. Southpaw Silkwood has fanned 152 against 45 walks, and has while missing a few more pitches has not been taken deep often at all.

Also, besides often mixing the two ‘starters' in the same game, Stuedeman has been able to send righthander Jacey Punches and lefty Mackenzie Toler to the circle for short, matchup stints with good results. "The beautiful thing about our staff is Jacey and Sharon have been throwing really well," Owen said. "It doesn't matter who we have on the mound, we're going to be spinning the ball well. I think our staff is really good right now and our mindset is level-headed."

It's easier to keep cool in the circle with a defense that ranks 7th-best in NCAA fielding. Key is shortstop Kayla Wingfield, who might hit only .209 but that's a bonus to Stuedeman. "She takes so many runs away."

This weekend's winning team advances to a super Regional round with the winner of the #11-seed Arizona regional. Which also just happens to be sited along I-10, albeit almost another 1,300 miles from Starkville. Having coached all three of her teams to NCAA play, Stuedeman soon will start thinking about 2015 and the chance to improve State's seeding to a two-level and maybe, hopefully, even hosting one of these events.

All in good time though, because this is the best time of the season for a Bulldog bunch ready to show it belongs in the post-season party again.

"This team knows our potential," said Seitz. "If we play Mississippi State softball we can beat anybody out there. So it's exciting getting to a Regional. But we're looking forward to taking that extra step and making it out of a Regional."

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