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Nusz Park impresses in SEC tourney debut

 

Scott Walters

 

 

In 2011, Ole Miss brought prestige to the state when it played host to the Southeastern Conference softball tournament for the first time. 

 

Ole Miss spent more than $1 million in renovations to prepare its stadium for the eight-team tournament after it had passed on earlier invitations to serve as tournament host. The enthusiasm was dampened, however, when the home team won three conference games and failed to qualify for the event. 

 

This season, the roles were reversed. Mississippi State made the field as the last of the 12 seeds. 

 

MSU completed construction on its $6 million Nusz Park days before the regular season began. The ballpark was built to assist Vann Stuedeman's program in recruiting and to allow MSU to play host to conference tournaments and NCAA regional events. 

 

MSU also passed on the tournament in 2014 but agreed to host in 2016 when its new park would be ready. Stuedeman was essentially promised the renovations when she took over the MSU program prior to the 2012 season. 

 

While the school's administration and support staff pulled together to hold a top-notch event, MSU committed five errors in a 7-5 loss to Alabama in the first round of the tournament on Wednesday night. The loss ended MSU's season at 26-31 -- Stuedeman's first losing season in five years as coach. 

 

On the other hand, Ole Miss beat Georgia 4-2 before losing to No. 1 Florida 1-0. It had one of the tournament's largest travel contingents, as hundreds of people made the 90-mile drive to the see the program's first win in the event. 

 

The reversals of fortunes continued Sunday night when Ole Miss received its first bid to the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss (39-20) earned the No. 3 seed and will play No. 2 seed Tulsa (35-19), the American Athletic Conference tournament champion, Friday in the Norman (Okla.) Regional. Oklahoma (47-4), the No. 3 national seed, is the region's top seed. It will enters the postseason on a 22-game winning streak, and will play No. 4 seed Wichita State (35-19), the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament champion. 

 

The SEC backed having the nation's best Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) by landing 11 schools in the 64-team postseason field for a fourth-straight season. The league received two of the four national seeds (No. 1 Florida and No. 4 Auburn) and eight national seeds (Florida, Auburn, No. 6 Alabama, No. 9 Kentucky, No. 10 LSU, No. 13 Tennessee, No. 15 Missouri, and No. 16 Georgia). 

 

The league also showed its clout by receiving close destinations for the other three regional participants. While Ole Miss is at Oklahoma, South Carolina is at Florida State and Texas A&M is at Louisiana-Lafayette. 

 

In Mike Smith's second season, Ole Miss has turned the corner. The Rebels will finish with back-to-back winning records for the first time in program history. Ole Miss has been above .500 four times. 

 

The 39 wins is a new school record, clearing the old mark by nine victories. The 11 conference wins match the most in a season. A majority of the offense will return next season, while the pitching staff will have to be re-worked. 

 

While the long-range outlook is good in Oxford, Mississippi State must find a way to get back to that spot. The program is in good hands and has the right attitude, so this should be a one-year setback at the most. 

 

In the league, schools play eight of the 12 conference opponents in the regular season. MSU played the league's top seven teams and Ole Miss (ninth). If you replace Florida or Alabama with Arkansas or South Carolina, then MSU (with an RPI of 34) is back in the postseason for a fifth-straight season. 

 

However, that revision can't be made. Instead, a program that won 36 wins in 2015 fell to 26 this season. The Bulldogs also slipped from 10 conference wins in 2015 to three in 2016. MSU's batting average also dropped 65 points. On Wednesday, on the biggest stage of the season -- the SEC tournament at home -- MSU made five errors. 

 

While Stuedeman will work in the offseason to fix the problems, one can't underestimate the greatness of this year's tournament. 

 

Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly said it might have been the best tournament his team has played in, including regionals, super regionals, and the Women's College World Series. 

 

Alabama coach Patrick Murphy and Texas A&M coach Jo Evans opened their postgame press conferences with extensive praise for the new stadium and the environment for the event. Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer had similar praise. 

 

A crowd of 1,517 attended the Wednesday night session, which included MSU, Ole Miss, and Alabama. The Thursday night session included Ole Miss and the Alabama-Auburn game. Weather pushed the Alabama-Auburn game to Friday, but that session (split over the two days) drew a crowd of 2,436. 

 

Auburn's 7-1 victory against LSU in the championship game drew a crowd of 1,909. Those numbers are impressive considering Nusz Park has a listed capacity of 1,100. Bleachers were brought in for the outfield. 

 

The music was great. The food was great. The crowds loved Starkville. The ballpark drew rave reviews, too. To their credit, the SEC administration stepped back and MSU do its part, and it did its jobs well. 

 

In 2017, Tennessee will play host to the tournament. Weekly admits the bar is set high after this year's tournament. 

 

On down the line, Nusz Park will again call the event home. Hopefully, that year, the home team can stay around for a while. 

 

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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