March 22, 2016 10:45:58 AM
The Mississippi State softball team will play important games against Southeastern Louisiana (tonight) and Central Arkansas (Wednesday, SEC Network) at Nusz Park.
While the MSU-SLU and MSU-UCA games won't determine bids to the Women's College World Series, both are big for the Bulldogs.
MSU is 19-8 and 1-2 in the Southeastern Conference after winning one of three league games against No. 3 Auburn last weekend.
In the first Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) figures released by the NCAA on Monday, MSU checked in at No. 31. That number will be more than sufficient for MSU to earn a fifth-straight regional berth under fifth-year coach Vann Stuedeman.
Typically, the Bulldogs have checked in at the 31-40 range under Stuedeman. She has had teams flirt with the top 20, but that has been the exception rather than the norm. Thus, the preliminary number was good, but the challenge now is to stay in that range.
The computer in the SEC office has to be laughing when it spit out the conference portion of the MSU schedule. In last week's National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25, the SEC had nine teams ranked in the top 17 nationally -- MSU plays seven of them. The other conference series is against Ole Miss. Thus, it stands to reason the Bulldogs won't lose many -- if any -- RPI points in its seven remaining conference series. Kentucky had a similar schedule a season ago and received a regional invite and super regional berth despite a 5-19 conference record.
With the schedule lined up the way it is, the Bulldog need to get to 29-27 overall. A team must finish above .500 to qualify for a regional. MSU has 28 games (and a game that likely will be added to the schedule) remaining and needs to earn 10 more wins.
With the new park in place, MSU will serve as host for this year's SEC tournament. The top 12 teams (of 13, Vanderbilt doesn't play softball) will qualify for the tournament. With Arkansas as the only team below .500 in the league, the Bulldogs should have no problem winning enough SEC games to be able to play in the tournament in Starkville.
This brings the focus back to this week's games. Southeastern Louisiana (17-12) is RPI No. 157, while Central Arkansas (18-10) is RPI No. 88. With the margin for error is next to none in league play, the next two are must-wins.
Already in the non-conference, the losses to Baylor (RPI 14), McNeese State (35), Long Beach State (38), and Cal State Fullerton twice (42) aren't bad ones. Even losses to Northwestern State (64) and Cal Santa Barbara (103) won't kill MSU.
Games against Alabama-Birmingham (89), South Alabama (62), Louisiana Tech (105), Southern Mississippi (94), and Mississippi Valley State (279) will round out the non-conference slate. MSU also has a rainout date from its California trip that could lead to a makeup game with a new opponent, which means 52 of 55 games will be against teams in the top 100. Southeastern Louisiana is the second-lowest RPI opponent of the season, which brings us back to why we move that game in the must-win column because MSU can win two of the 10 it needs this week. The five other non-conference games could aid in the push to 29. Conference play provides a challenge, but it also provides an opportunity.
Last weekend, the MSU pitching staff held then-No. 3 Auburn to eight runs. The Tigers entered the series averaging 10.5 runs per game and leading the league in team batting average. However, MSU was one hit (in a 3-2, 14-inning loss Friday) from taking the series.
The SEC is again loaded with the RPI mirroring the national rankings. Even though MSU is No. 31 in RPI, it has the 12th-highest RPI in the league, only ahead of Arkansas (73). Even traditional lower-division teams like South Carolina (23) and Ole Miss (29) have posted strong opening-day numbers.
South Carolina has enjoyed a resurgence under Beverly Smith and is looking for a fourth-straight regional. Ole Miss never has played in a softball regional, but it is off to program-best 24-7 start (2-4 SEC) under second-year head coach Mike Smith.
The league has sent 11 teams to a regional each of the past three seasons. The number could grow to 12 this season.
While the goal remains 29 wins, MSU doesn't need to stop there. With Nusz Park, it can realistically make plans to play host to a regional. The school annually has a plan in place in case the team is in a position to realize that goal.
However, the new ballpark removes any trepidation. The Bulldogs will need to crack the top 20 in RPI. The conference schedule will give them that chance. A loss to Northwestern State can be overlooked if MSU beats reigning national champion Florida at least once in Gainesville, Florida.
If MSU can match last season's 10-14 conference record, it will have a chance to play host to a regional. After all, the league and non-league schedule is that much tougher this season. The MSU-Ole Miss series is April 2-4 in Starkville. It will be huge for both teams.
So much is in play for this season's MSU softball team. No. 31 is a nice pat on the back for the first-half of the season (tonight is officially the halfway point of the schedule).
However, the second-half of the season is here. Beating Southeastern Louisiana would be a good way to start it.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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