February 11, 2016 11:58:11 AM
The games count for real now.
For the past two decades, the Mississippi State softball team has been a model of consistency. On an annual basis, the team has won more games than it lost and, more often than not, has made postseason play. It has earned a few national rankings, but it hasn't reached elite status in the Southeastern Conference.
The team has appeared in 12 NCAA regional tournaments. By comparison, Ole Miss has never qualified. However, the Bulldogs are 12-24 in those tournaments. It has never advanced to a Super Regional.
Coach Jay Miller took MSU to seven regionals in eight seasons from 2002-09. Miller was let go after the program failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011. Vann Stuedeman has re-established the program, guiding it to four-consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament in her first four seasons as head coach at the school. However, taking the next step has been problematic.
MSU will try to rectify that issue starting at 5:30 pm.. today when it plays host to Georgia Southern in the season opener at its brand-new $6.4M facility, Nusz Park.
Playing host to a four-team NCAA tournament regional gives a team a huge advantage in its quest to make a two-team Super Regional. The same can be said for the Super Regional, where teams playing at home have the inside track to making the Women's College World Series.
To be able to play host to a regional, MSU needed a facility that didn't resemble a glorified intramural field. Well, now MSU has it.
On paper, it is hard to gauge how good the 2016 Bulldogs will be.
In the circle, junior Alexis Silkwood returns after leading the league in multiple pitching categories a season ago. Last season, Stuedeman spent most of the season trying to find Silkwood help. In college softball, one pitcher can carry a team a long way. However, even the best need a day off.
Stuedeman's claim to fame is being one of the nation's best pitching coaches. With Alison Owen before Silkwood, it's likely Stuedeman always will have an ace. However, Stuedeman likes to use a baseball approach to pitching, which means she doesn't hesitate to use of middle relievers and closers.
Stuedeman speaks highly of her staff and feels the Bulldogs have more than one pitcher who will be able to step in and help Silkwood. Stuedeman said the same this last season but it didn't work out.
Offensively, the biggest news from the offseason was the return of hitting instructor Samantha Ricketts. When you are good at your craft, other schools come calling. While last season's team won three fewer games (39 in 2014 and 36 wins in 2015), the team's batting average went from .257 to .312. The team's top four hitters -- Mackenzie Toler, Silkwood, Katie Anne Bailey, and Kayla Winkfield -- from 2015 return. Caroline Seitz also returns after hitting 13 home runs in 2015.
Defensively, the team should be solid. Winkfield and Seitz will anchor the left side of the infield. Stuedeman calls them "the best defensive pair in the SEC."
The schedule isn't for the faint of heart. However, when you play in the SEC, it goes with the territory. MSU will play 28 games at home and has a loaded non-conference schedule. It will play at least one game against six teams from last season's Women's College Series. The Bulldogs also will face two more opponents that qualified for a Super Regional.
The team's Strength of Schedule (SOS) means its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a statistic the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to pick its at-large teams, won't be a huge factor. When you are facing a ranked conference opponent nearly every weekend, your SOS and RPI will be strong. It is paramount the team not give games away against non-conference opponents it is supposed to beat.
The bad losses have been few and far between under Stuedeman. A year ago, MSU had 15 come-from-behind wins. A team can only gain more confidence from that kind of success.
We still won't know much about MSU after its games this weekend against Georgia Southern, Houston, Tennessee Tech, and Alabama A&M.
MSU will face much stiffer competition in the next two weekends, including a game at South Alabama and a game against Baylor in Gulfport.
If this team gets on a roll and finishes at .500 in conference play, it could land one of the 16 host spots for an NCAA regional. If the usual happens, the team will be fun to watch, it will have some gritty comebacks but not enough pitching to win big. Even under this scenario, the team should still advance to a regional.
Stuedeman knows playing at home is the key to taking the next step. Once a team learns how to win regional tournament games at home, it is much easier to take the next step and win those games on the road.
Look at Kentucky. The Wildcats hadn't made a regional before qualifying in 2009. Since then, Kentucky has played in seven-straight regionals, three Super Regionals, and a World Series. A year ago, Kentucky won five conference games but had a thick enough resume to make the NCAA tournament. It then won a regional at Notre Dame.
The good news is MSU has talent. Just as important as the talent, it has a new ballpark. It is a park that will open its arms for the first SEC tournament at MSU in May. Will the first NCAA tournament softball regional be far behind?
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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