May 15, 2017 10:40:12 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Last August, Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman was encouraged because her senior class wanted to leave a legacy.
The legacy was fulfilled Sunday night as MSU returned to NCAA tournament regional play with a berth in the Salt Lake City Regional. No. 3 seed MSU (36-20) will face No. 2 seed BYU (44-11) at 5 p.m. Thursday at Dumke Family Softball Stadium on the University of Utah campus.
The other matchup will feature No. 1 seed and No. 11 national seed Utah (33-14) against No. 4 seed Fordham (45-15) at 7:30 p.m. The Salt Lake City Regional winner will face the winner of the Seattle Regional.
"Our legacy is cemented now," MSU senior pitcher Alexis Silkwood said. "After the disappointment of last season, we wanted to play in a regional. It was our job as the senior class to get this program back where it belongs. That means playing in the postseason. The disappointment hurt last year. We won't ever let go of that.
"This is a much better feeling. We feel like we have done our part with a legacy."
MSU has made a regional in five of Vann Stuedeman's six seasons as the program's coach. The Bulldogs failed to advance to the postseason in 2016 following their first losing season since 2011.
"From the beginning of workouts in the fall, the seniors took over," Stuedeman said. "They pushed to get us right back here in this spot. The Southeastern Conference is tough. It can challenge you. It can sharpen you. How do you respond? We are pleased to still be playing. Everybody aims for this day from the start of the season."
MSU senior third baseman Caroline Seitz said this season's team has put in just as much effort as a year ago. She said the mental attitude of the team was much better.
"I don't think any of the workouts were different," Seitz said. "We had the right mind-set when we came in to work this year. Some of the things we let slide in the past we didn't let slide this year. There was more accountability. We prepared and trained the same way.
"We just had a different attitude. We had that attitude that the work we put in needs to better to get us the end result we wanted."
The SEC earned a record 13 berths to the postseason, meaning the whole league received invitations. The SEC will have eight national seeds, including No. 12 national seed Ole Miss.
In only its second regional appearance, Ole Miss earned the right to serve as a host by beating MSU, No. 1 national seed Florida, No. 16 national seed Alabama, and No. 13 national seed LSU to win the SEC tournament for the first time.
The Oxford Regional will open Friday when Arizona State (30-20) plays North Carolina (38-19) at 6 p.m. and Ole Miss (40-18) plays host to Southern Illinois (33-22) at 8:30 p.m.
In the opening round of the SEC tournament, Ole Miss edged MSU 2-1.
"We had five hits in the game but we couldn't put anything together," Stuedeman said. "I am not sure if you take confidence away from that game. You take confidence in the fact that you won four of the final five SEC series. There are a lot of national seeds that didn't do that.
"In the SEC, we prepare for the postseason. Everything down to the timing sheet is the way you would see one done at a regional. I think that is why all of us in our league have an advantage. By winning four of the final five series, we know we have been playing good softball."
BYU rolled through the West Coast Conference regular season with a 14-1 record. It beat St. Mary's to win the league's tournament title. Fordham won the Atlantic 10 regular-season title and also won the tournament title with a 2-1, victory against Massachusetts in nine innings Sunday.
Utah finished fifth in the Pacific-12 regular-season standings. The league doesn't play a conference tournament. This will be Utah's first time as a host of a regional.
Eight of the Pac-12's nine members received bids to the tournament.
"It is such a quick turnaround," Stuedeman said. "We play Thursday (the only regional to open that day) and obviously, the travel will be difficult. Utah had several games on television, so we can work up a scouting report rather quickly on them. We have played BYU and Fordham, but it has been several years. The main thing will be calling around to our coaching friends and putting together as much information as we can quickly."
MSU is happy to have this busy lifestyle again after a one-year absence.
"(After the last game in 2016) walking off the field was the saddest experience," Silkwood said. "We knew our season was over and there wasn't anything we could do about it. It was like being in a twilight zone. You can't take anything for granted in sports. You have four years to play. You have to make the most of each year. We made up for it this year."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter