"The Culture Change Has Happened"

The game meant nothing on the real record. But the outcome meant everything to Coach Vann Stuedeman as a sign of changing times with Bulldog softball. Changing attitudes, too.

“It was a fall ‘friendly’ at LSU,” Stuedeman said. “We won, and on the way to the bus a former student-athlete said to me I didn’t expect that. I said, that’s exactly what we’re trying to change.”

To be clear, the coach was just as impressed with Mississippi State’s unofficial fall victory over and at perennial league power Louisiana State. The pending 2015 season was recognized as a rebuilding year after all. State had lost seven seniors and “arguably the best pitcher in MSU history,” Stuedeman reminded.

Now 2015 is in the books, and the Bulldog rebuild went far faster than coach or club expected. Mississippi State finished 36-21 and earned an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Though there are a handful of graduation losses, the combination of returning stars, stockpiled experience, and a big-time recruiting class is setting stages for bigger things in 2016.

And beyond. “I believe now we’ve turned that corner,” Stuedeman said.

Maybe a couple of them in fact. On the field the Bulldogs are muscling their way into the list of annual NCAA contenders. All four of Stuedeman’s teams have earned bids, which ties the program record NCAA participation streak. By next May the record will be re-set.

Within the league, State was 10-14 and qualified again for the SEC Tournament. This might actually be tougher than earning a NCAA bid most seasons. Just check the softball World Series beginning this week, with no less than five of the eight slots showing a SEC team. Half of the super regional round field came from the SEC.

As Stuedeman notes, State played 22 teams which were or still are ranked and won eight of those matchups. All this in a season where forecasts were modest at most. Stuedeman walked a fine verbal line about how Bulldogs are supposed to think they will succeed every year.

“But overall, I do feel we like we overachieved. However winners win and that’s the expectation of our program.”

Expect all-time big expectations for 2016. Already the coach is setting the Bulldog bar higher than SEC and NCAA tournament play, which up to now have been legitimate goals. No longer. “It’s part of our regular-season schedule,” Stuedeman proclaimed.

“Now it’s time to take that next step. To be at super regionals and the College World Series and be in that consistent top-25.”

Starting-point for greater goals is the rising-junior class. These five Bulldogs already are the club’s core in performance led by third baseman Caroline Seitz, catcher Katie Anne Bailey, and of course pitcher Alexis Silkwood.

“It was incredible what those five day-to-day starters did for us,” said Stuedeman, adding “three of those had extenuating circumstances in regard to injuries and what-not.” What State kept quiet about up to now is both Seitz and Mackenzie Toler played with herniated discs. All they did was hit 22 combined home runs and drive in 92 runs.

Bailey wasn’t injured, just sore after starting 57-straight games behind the dish. Only Seitz and SS Kayla Winkfield also started every game at their positions. Bailey still hit .331 with five homers and 34 RBI and did invaluable work with the mitt in an offensive SEC.

Silkwood was the workhorse pitcher, though that label might demean some racehorse-like outings. She went 26-16 with a 2.85 ERA, and finished with 216 strikeouts. The wear did show by season’s end as Silkwood threw 235.2 out of 376.1 innings.

Getting Silkwood help, or more accurately finding State another ace, was among Stuedman’s recruiting priorities. “We have a great pitcher,” the coach said of Reagan Green, who comes from Laurel High in Maryland. Though as Stuedeman explained, Green lives on the Delaware border and pitched in that state last year. “She was Delaware Player of the Year. She also won the Little League World Series.”

A righthander, Green may be slightly-built compared to Silkwood but throws it hard with 66-67 mph clockings. Stuedeman plans on improving the velocity and strength with MSU’s conditioning program. There could be more than a one-two pitching punch, too. Gulfport, Miss., native Sabrina Turner is listed as a utility player but has pitched well at St. Patrick High too and will have a chance to show here stuff in the circle.

The SEC and for that matter other major conference softball has taken a strong turn to offense though. State has the makings of a good lineup returning. It is the two key additions who could push the program to greatness at the plate.

In Sarai Niu, “We have a power-hitter who can probably sit in the building and hit,” Stuedeman said. Niu’s position is t.b.a. She’s a corner-infielder primarily but Seitz has third base taken care of. Another idea is putting her in the outfield until the last at-bat and coming with a defensive replacement. Either way, “She’s really just an athlete who can hit it.”

Niu is supposed to bring power. So is Taylor Kelly from Calhoun, Ga., who can reach high school fences just fine. “She was playing in her state tournament and hit three home runs in consecutive at-bats in the championship game. Each with her team behind,” Stuedeman said. “I look for her to step right in and be a huge addition to our lineup.

To help spell Bailey behind the plate State signed Madison Cousineau of North Carolina. Stuedeman said Cousineau also has power in the bat. Emily Heinberger of South Carolina adds infield depth and more so boost squad speed on the basepaths, something State has to replace with Julia Echols’ graduation. “She’s also a second baseman contender.”

“So it’s a really good class, mainly a hitting class with a good pitcher in it.”

New and veteran Dogs both will enjoy an entirely new stadium for 2016. The mid-1990s facility was torn-down after the last home game and State practiced for both tournaments with work crews watching. Stuedeman will still have to operate around fall construction, and as a result State will play any fall games on the road. Which considering how that LSU trip went is no bad thing necessarily.

A spanking-new stadium, is necessary. Mississippi State is scheduled to host the 2016 SEC Tournament. The stadium is to be completed in time for a true 2016 Opening Day.

“The facility is going to be incredible. It’s going to be really, really pretty, the brickwork is going to be very nice. The chairbacks are going to be inviting to fans. And it only increases the (team) pride playing softball here and showcases what softball and women’s athletics means to our administration. It’s going to help build the mentality of winners win.”

Winning is something Bulldog softball already does. But with a core of seasoned and successful players back and a game-changing recruiting class coming in, winning will be bigger and the rewards better.

Because, as Stuedeman said, “The culture change has happened.”

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