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Walters column: SEC dominance extends to softball

 

Mississippi State fifth-year softball coach Vann Stuedeman will coach her first conference tournament game at home Wednesday against Alabama.

Mississippi State fifth-year softball coach Vann Stuedeman will coach her first conference tournament game at home Wednesday against Alabama. Photo by: Mark Wilson/Dispatch Staff

 

Scott Walters

 

 

STARKVILLE -- Southeastern Conference fans like to beat their chests year round about playing in the best football conference in the nation. 

 

While several national pundits cite SEC fatigue, one can not doubt the league's statistics. 

 

The league has won eight of the last 10 football national championships. Annually, the league draws the best numbers in the stadium and on the television. 

 

Completing its second school year, the SEC Network has totally reshaped the school's financial revenue streams. Regardless of the sport, people on a national level tune in to catch up with the SEC. 

 

While the dominance does not garner national headlines, the SEC is on a similar path in softball. 

 

In the past five years, the league has clearly become the best softball conference in the nation. 

 

Today at Nusz Park on the campus of Mississippi State, the 2016 SEC tournament begins. The 12-team, single-elimination event will be the only conference softball tournament on national television (SEC Network/ESPN) for every game of the tournament. 

 

Each year, several coaches in the field have called the SEC softball tournament a stronger field than the eventual field at the Women's College World Series. 

 

How did the league become this powerful? 

 

1. The league knows how to win big games 

 

For several years, the only thing missing in the SEC arsenal was a national championship. Many felt the league needed to win a title to validate its clam to being best in the nation. Many also felt one title would only be the beginning. Turns out, they were right. 

 

After Alabama broke through and won the 2012 national championship, Florida followed with back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015, giving the league three titles in four seasons. The league just missed four straight titles, as Oklahoma beat Tennessee in the 2013 championship. Ironically, Florida beat Alabama to win the 2014 title. 

 

For the first time, the SEC had five teams in the Women's College World Series field in 2015. The league has held 13 world series berths in the past four seasons. 

 

2. The league has built top-notch facilities 

 

The league's arms race is not only in football. 

 

MSU will play host to the tournament this week for the first time. The SEC tournament is in Mississippi for the second time (Ole Miss in 2011). To host the tournament and eventual NCAA regional events, MSU built a new $6.4M ballpark. Nusz Park has 1,100 chairback seats and ample room for the print media, radio outlets and national television networks wanting to cover the event. In the last decade, almost every SEC school has redesigned or built new softball facilities. 

 

MSU had a facility sub-standard compared to the rest of the league. While the Bulldogs are the No. 12 seed in this week's event, the stadium will have lasting power and will help coach Vann Stuedeman turn things up a notch on the recruiting trail. 

 

The league now has several ballparks with chairback seating, video boards and suites. The special amenities are not reserved for football, basketball or baseball anymore. 

 

3. The league has unprecedented exposure 

 

The SEC Network has given the league a chance to have more than 50 conference games television to a national audience. In each of the past two seasons, the league has even held an exclusive Monday night television window. 

 

Going past the actual network, almost all 13 league members broadcast a majority - if not all - of the home games on SEC Network + - an on-line platform with access through computers and cell phones. 

 

SEC coaches can go into more homes and have their programs recognized due to this national television exposure. The ability to promote their respective program on a national level has been a huge asset for the league coaches. 

 

4. The league has top-notch coaches 

 

Across the board, some of the best and brightest coaches reside in the SEC. 

 

Kentucky took a chance on Rachel Lawson. Lawson has guided Kentucky to four super regionals in five season and the school's only WCWS berth. 

 

LSU lured Beth Torina from Florida International. The Tigers advanced to the WCWS a year ago. 

 

We know Tim Walton has won two national championships in 10 seasons at Florida. Patrick Murphy started the trend of packing stadiums at Alabama. The Crimson Tide drew an average of 3,087 fans this season. 

 

Ralph and Karen Weekly have Tennessee in The 20 annually, and the same could be said for Jo Evans at Texas A&M. 

 

Clint Myers left the Pac 12 to come to Auburn. The Tigers finally broke through the WCWS door a year ago. 

 

Lu Harris Champer was brought to Georgia after leading Southern Mississippi to a pair of WCWS appearances. Missouri has been a national contender under Ehren Earleywine. 

 

Beverly Smith left a tradition-rich program at North Carolina to start winning games at South Carolina. 

 

Stuedeman has carried MSU to four straight regionals, while second-year coach Mike Smith has Ole Miss on the doorstep of its first appearance. 

 

5. The league has an identity 

 

Come see for yourself this week and weekend. 

 

The highest level of college softball will be on display. Odds are, you will see the eventual national champion at Nusz Park play this week. 

 

Players who are headed to the professional ranks will also be on display, making great defensive stops and hitting home runs. 

 

The buzz generated from this week will not carry for the next 12 months, like football buzz does. However, the buzz will be there. It will be a better buzz than anyone else in the land. 

 

Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at swalters@cdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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