Veteran Lineup, Proven Pitcher Central to Stuedeman's Squad; New Stadium Debuts Feb. 11

One major construction job is nearing February conclusion. The other, now, that project begins today as Bulldog softball starts team practices for the 2016 season.

Vann Stuedeman and staff opened pre-season work Wednesday, which the fifth-year Mississippi State coach pointed out is a neat 30-day timeframe to get ready. It is equally a month for the ground-up-new Softball Stadium to get finished ahead of opening day against Georgia Southern.

“It looks like we’ll be out there February 11, at 5:30,” Stuedeman said.

The new stadium has been THE topic of Bulldog softball discussion since ground was broken—or rather, the two-decade-old original facility was broken down—last May. Crews are racing the calendar to meet deadline on this $7 million project, which includes renovation and additions to the adjoining Pitts Tennis Centre.

Stuedeman is satisfied this job will get done as scheduled. “The construction group and manager have really gone above and beyond. I really feel good about it. There’s a lot of mud right now, but standing in centerfield and looking at home plate you’re like, wow!”

Wow indeed. When the Bulldogs returned from holiday break they saw the 1,000 chairback seats already installed, replacing the old bleacher seating entirely. There will be standing room as well, and what Stuedeman called “Our version of the Left Field Lounge” in the outfield. “So we’ll put in more than 1,000 people.” On top of that, almost literally, “The first and second rows might as well be in the dugout with me,” said Stuedeman. Meaning, she added, she will have to take more care with her in-game comments and reactions.

There have been obvious issues with practices, especially during fall ball, trying not to get in the way. There will still be challenges in preseason because there is no backstop netting. That knocks out on-field batting practice “We don’t want to knock some of those construction guys out,” Stuedeman said. There is also no protective netting yet on the new scoreboard and videoboard and MSU is taking no chances damaging that high-profile, high-price addition.

So it will be closer to the season before the Bulldogs can get a real read on how the venue plays, for pitching and hitting alike. “We’ll have to learn the home field advantages,” the coach said. But, “We’re working through and the girls have had great attitudes.”

A state-of-SEC-art stadium is just one reason for the attitudes. The 2016 Bulldogs have the makings of a very, very good softball team. Maybe, all the makings?

2015 was a success story itself, as Mississippi State went 36-21 and earned a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament berth. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year after losses of seven seniors and the program’s best (to date) pitcher from the 2014 team.

But the Bulldogs over-achieved by any reasonable measure, winning ten conference games and continuing the streak of NCAA play in every season under Stuedeman. Now practically the entire regular lineup and batting order returns, as does a lead-Dog pitcher with two successful seasons on her resume. And, likely the best all-around recruiting class ever for MSU softball joins a roster dominated by juniors who know how to win regular season games and series.

“They’ve been there, done that,” Stuedeman said. “It’s time now to take the next step. They realize that, but they don’t feel that as a lot of pressure. They feel they can compete for a regional championship, and super regional championship. That would put us in the (College) World Series. That’s the message I’m getting from them.”

It can’t be overlooked that this coaching staff is as much a strength as the squad. Besides Stuedeman and third-year assistant Tyler Bratton, State has been able to keep hitting coach Samantha Ricketts for a second year. In that first year the MSU offense set single-season records for home runs, average, slugging, RBI, and on-base percentage.

Hitting coach Rickets has brought a bonus: her young sister Keilani. The MVP of the 2013 College World Series and one of the best hurlers in recent college history, Ricketts is already raising the game of both Bulldog batters who face her in practice; and the pitchers she is mentoring. And she is still so well-known in the game that even varsity Bulldogs pose for photos with their volunteer coach.

“We’re hitting off her, and if you can hit it off her you can hit it off anybody,” Stuedeman said. “Having both on the staff has been a huge asset.”

After all the records set in ’15, improving the offense further is still a priority. The lone loss to graduation was a big one in that Julia Echols was a .329 hitter in leadoff. Stuedeman can’t say right now who will come to the plate first for State on opening day.

Otherwise, the order ought to be plenty potent with Mackenzie Toler, Katie Anne Bailey, Caroline Seitz, Amanda Ivy, “I feel good we’re only replacing Echols in the lineup. Coming back if they are where they left off, and should be improved, I feel very good about the offense.” Adding to the veterans are rookies like infielder Sarai Niu, catcher Madison Cousineau, and utility player Sabrina Turner who showed good bats in fall scrimmages and exhibition games.

All four Dogs who threw a 2015 pitch return, led obviously by junior lefthander Alexis Silkwood. Her soph season produced a 26-16 record and 2.85 ERA as she started 35 of the 47 games pitched. Stuedmen is still miffed the bubbly southpaw didn’t get the post-season honors.

“But she’s beaten every single team in our league. And our league is awesome. So I just can’t understand why nobody wants to give her any credit.” If Silkwood can improve a 216 strikeout-to-118 walk rate of last spring, that credit will come.

Toler got a lot of alternate work on the mound and should continue to be a reliable matchup or change-of-pace pitcher this year. A pair of sophomores ought to be improved by experience as well. Studeman is looking for a couple of freshman to have immediate impacts though.

“But it’s a young staff and I feel the leadership by Silkwood helps.”

What doesn’t, is the schedule. For whatever reason the SEC’s scheduling software has it in for Mississippi State of late. The Bulldogs draw every conference contender in 2016 and miss the pushovers. Not, Stuedeman reminds, that there are many of those in this league. The CWS was almost a SEC Tournament in 2015 anyway with five teams in the Oklahoma City field.

State plays them all this spring again. “That’s 25 games against World Series-caliber opponents.” But wait, there’s more…

“The out-of-conference schedule is just as tough. And I did that,” Stuedeman said. In all 35 of the scheduled 56 games are against programs which earned NCAA bids in 2015. It won’t be until March that firm strength-of-schedule numbers and RPI lists come out, and when they do Mississippi State must be in the top-ten. Maybe the top-one.

It’s a brutal slate, but intentionally so to some extent per the coach.

“I’m vying for post-season bidding. I want to be able to play here.” As in host a NCAA Regional for the first time, which nicely coincides with the new stadium and surroundings. Though to be fair, the facility was targeted for 2016 already because after passing on the rotation a couple of years ago Mississippi State was due to host the SEC Tournament now.

So from May 11-14 the best of the best in this region and likely the country will be on campus, and MSU will be showing off their shiny venue. “It’s in the top-ten percent in the country,” Stuedeman said. “Mississippi State does it right.”

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