March 7, 2013 10:40:36 AM
STARKVILLE -- While hardcore Mississippi State University sports fans know the third-ranked baseball team is on a 16-game winning streak to start the season, they might not realize coach John Cohen's squad next-door neighbor is on a streak of its own.
The MSU softball team extended its winning streak to nine Wednesday night with an 8-1 victory against the University of Memphis at the MSU Softball Field. MSU broke it open with a five-run third inning to win its final non-conference game before opening Southeastern Conference play this weekend against No. 12 LSU in Starkville.
"We are ready to play LSU. Woo hoo. Conference play is what it is all about," MSU junior outfielder Jessica Offutt said. "We are so excited because we feel like we have a team that is ready to compete."
A season ago, the Bulldogs won 12 conference games in Vann Stuedeman's first season as head coach. The Bulldogs added enough victories outside of league play to ensure the program's first NCAA tournament regional appearance since 2009.
This season, MSU plans to contend for an upper division finish in one of the nation's best conferences. Early losses to South Alabama, Northwestern State, and Belmont made some wonder if the Bulldogs were really ready to compete.
The winning streak has removed that doubt.
"LSU is one of the elite teams in the nation," Stuedeman said, "but we are ready. We are ready to play some of the best teams in the nation. That is why it is all about. Are we playing well now? Yes, we are. We are playing with some confidence. We are playing with some enthusiasm. We always stress coaching and playing in the moment. Of late, we have been putting the moments together."
One of those moments happened in the third inning, when the Bulldogs patched together three hits, two walks, a hit batsman, and an error. Erin Nesbit had a key two-run single, while Briana Bell had an RBI double to help MSU build a 7-0 lead. Two-time reigning Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week Alison Owen (9-1), a transfer from the University of Georgia who sat out last season to gain eligibility, allowed three hits in four innings to earn the victory.
"She has everything," Stuedeman said. "She is such a complete player and a great competitor. We have a deep pitching staff. We know we can count on several different players to go into the circle and make plays. We talk all the time about winning at-bats in the batter's box. Pitchers can win at-bats too in the circle."
Owen has a 0.44 ERA in 13 appearances. In addition to her second conference of the week honor, she also received a national pitcher of the week award after MSU went 5-0 last weekend at the D9 Citrus Classic in Orlando.
"Winning those five games sent our confidence through the roof," Offutt said. "We were in a tournament full of great teams. To be able to go out and execute in every game we played was very rewarding. After we came back from that trip, we knew we were ready to compete with some of the best."
Kylie Vry pitched the final three innings for her first save. The duo combined to allow four hits and four walks. They struck out nine. Memphis (7-13) dashed the shutout with an unearned run in the sixth.
"We have a contrast in styles this year with our pitchers," Stuedeman said. "You want variety. You want each player to bring something different. We finally have that. It has been so exciting to see these pitchers work so hard during the offseason. They really push each other."
Third baseman Logan Foulks wanted to be pushed when she transferred in December from the University of North Carolina to MSU. Stuedeman's coaching style won the heavy-hitting slugger over right away.
"(Stuedeman) is the most competitive person I have ever met," Foulks said. "It doesn't matter who we are playing. She goes into every game thinking we are going to whip their butts. I love that in my coach. I love how she believes. Once we started picking up some wins, our confidence just grew and grew. We know which league we are in and we know who we have to play. But you can tell every player on this team is excited about that challenge."
MSU had seven hits, with Nesbit and Offutt each collecting two RBIs.
MSU will take on LSU at 6 p.m. Friday, at 1 p.m. Saturday, and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
"It's time to get this thing started," Stuedeman said. "We have grown and matured since the beginning of the season. You could tell there was something different about the team during the trip to Florida. We had a great trip. We do a lot of fun things as a team.
"When we got on the field and stepped between the lines, it was a different ballgame. We competed at a high level. Now we are ready to play some conference teams to see if we can remain at that level."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter