A gang that far as Coach Vann Stuedeman knows was already in Baton Rouge well before the Bulldogs left Starkville. It’s the end of the spring school semester, after all. “We’re taking a week’s worth of exams in one-and-a-half days,” the coach said.
Then boarding the bus for the (driver depending) four-plus hour drive, stopping en route to pick up meals in Jackson—“a meat-and-three” per the coach—before arriving at the hotel. Followed by any meetings and scouting reports and trainer calls necessitated after a long regular season, and the Bulldogs might just get some sleep.
The coach? Stuedeman defines energy just around fall practices. Tournament play?
“It’s my favorite time of the year.”
Tourney time is something Mississippi State softball has gotten used to, expects even, here in year-four for Stuedeman. This will be her third team to take to the league meet. Sunday evening barring strange developments elsewhere, the Bulldogs will be selected for a fourth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Either event, “From here on out we’re going to go win with confidence knowing we’re here for a reason,” said junior infielder Kayla Winkfield.
State (35-18, 10-14) is in Baton Rouge for good reason. They will be the #10 seed and playing #7 Missouri at 11:00am Wednesday. Softball is single elimination, and the winner meets #2 Auburn Wednesday morning. Also in the half-bracket are #3 seed Alabama, #6 Georgia, and #11 Ole Miss. This is the first year for a 12-team softball tournament and only Arkansas missed the cut. Vanderbilt doesn’t play softball.
Even without expansion to a dozen teams, the Bulldogs would have still made it under last year’s ten-team format. Getting in the field this year is a bigger deal in one way, Stuedeman noted. The tourney broadcast will be handled the same as the softball College World Series, completely in hi-def with sideline reporters in dugouts and around the field. There’s even an on-site studio this time.
Stuedeman, having coached with Alabama at a CWS, has an idea what the tourney buzz will be like. Her players, this is entirely new. “It’s exciting to be able to play in front of the lights and it’s good to be on that stage,” Winkfield said.
”It will have a true championship vibe that’s never been done before,” Stuedeman said. “I want the girls to experience it, I want to experience it. I want Mississippi State to experience it. And it’s going to be something cool.” Plus, with State’s turn in the SEC rotation to host the tournament coming up soon, this is a useful chance for MSU folk to study the scene with more than usual interest.
This is a rematch of the regular season series in mid-April, which Missouri won on their field. The then-21st-ranked Tigers took the opener 3-2 before State split it with an 8-4 win. The rubber game went to Missouri 10-2 in five innings.
“They’re very well-balanced offensively with speed and power,” Stuedeman said. “They have two very good pitchers, both young who heave experience ups and downs this year. So they’ve prepared themselves well.”
Not at all surprisingly it will be Alexis Silkwood (25-13, 2.68) on the mound for MSU. The sophomore lefthander has been league pitcher or co-pitcher of the week twice this season and already blew past her freshman strikeout record of 167 with 198 fannings so far. Stuedeman knew in winter Silkwood would have to carry the staff in what set up as a rebuilding season for the staff.
“I don’t know that I anticipated 211 innings. But over the last two weeks she’s been able to get some much-needed rest. And mentally if anyone can handle it, it’s her. We’re going to ride here for as long as we can and try to use Cassady, Holly and Toler in strategic situations.”
Lefty Mackenzie Toler (2-2, 3.84) has been good with lefthanded hitters, so Stuedeman said a one-batter matchup is always an option. Righthander Cassady Knudson (2-0, 4.65) would get worked more often for full innings. Freshman righty Holly Ward (6-3, 5.98) is the other starter should State stay around the tourney for a few days.
Offensively the Bulldogs are sixth in SEC overall batting. They do it with balance because no Dog ranks among the league’s top-15 hitters. This might account for why State is not represented on the Coaches All-SEC team. The order doesn’t lack for big sticks, though.
Caroline Seitz (.322 average) is fourth in SEC doubles and has 13 of the team’s 52 longballs; Katie Anne Bailey (.355) is tied for the lead in triples. And on the whole State is setting program-record paces for both average and home runs. If no Dog has been honored, the counter to Seitz is that pitchers never know who will hurt them.
“There’s been so many situations where something big has happened, and it’s someone different every time. We’re comfortable in the box and it shows in the results.” Getting Loryn Nichols on the paths shows up big too, as she’s third in SEC steals and has not been thrown-out in 31 thefts.
Hopefully the expedited test ‘n travel schedule doesn’t slow anyone down Wednesday morning. “I really want us to be able to hang around for the girls to experience how cool this really is,” Stuedeman said.” A win, or two, or more, would do cool things for State’s NCAA resume. Though the coach remains cautious her Bulldogs should have the record and the RPI for an at-large bid.
At one April point there was even talk of finishing high enough to host a Regional. That won’t happen, but in the bigger picture it’s just as well. This was a rebuilding ball team in the first place and 2016 should be its breakout. Plus, construction—actually, destruction—crews are now tearing down the two-decade-old campus stadium.
The race is to remove one facility and entirely replace it as part of a $6.9 million project in conjunction with the adjoining tennis facility. Next spring State can have the team and assuredly will have the SEC schedule that with enough league wins Regional softball could come to Starkville.
True, practicing a couple of days with bulldozers, workers, lots of racket around them is not ideal post-season preparation. But “It’s a good thing to have going on,” Winkfield said. “It might be a distraction but we’re still getting our work in. We have one focus and that’s to get ready for the tournament.”
Make that, tournaments. The Bulldogs will learn their NCAA assignment Sunday evening. “Obviously we haven’t seen the selection show,” Stuedeman said. “But our resume speaks for itself.”