January 11, 2017 10:30:58 AM
Saturday really can't come quick enough for Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman and her Bulldogs.
Saturday marks the opening day of practice for the 2017 season. To borrow a phrase from president-elect Donald Trump, it's a "huge" season for the Bulldogs.
A year ago, MSU paid a steep price for playing arguably the nation's toughest schedule. The Bulldogs finished 26-31 and saw a string of four-straight NCAA regional appearances snapped.
It was the first time a Stuedeman-coached squad missed the postseason. Even the Southeastern Conference tournament, which was held at MSU for the first time, generated buzz but not victories, as the Bulldogs lost their first tournament game.
The SEC record was a mind-boggling 3-21. No MSU team had ever won that few. Seven had been the lowest win total prior to last season, and that happened twice.
In the preseason, Stuedeman talked about having to replace talent at several key spots and being concerned about pitching depth. She cautioned the schedule was brutal and that the team's progress might not always be reflected in the record.
Regardless of the struggles, the Bulldogs still held a strong Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) figure throughout the year. Home losses to Central Arkansas and Alabama-Birmingham did the Bulldogs in. A second-straight series loss to Ole Miss wasn't the best thing, either.
The Bulldogs rode the momentum of opening Nusz Park to 10-straight wins to start the season. For the first time, MSU had a facility worthy of playing host to games in the nation's best conference.
With the stadium up and running, a strong coaching staff in place, and the built-in advantage of playing in the SEC, this is a crucial season.
Former MSU coach Jay Miller wasn't retained after missing the postseason in 2010 and 2011. Stuedeman is the right person for the job and any talk along those lines is really out of line.
That being said, the football team won a bowl game, the women's basketball team is ranked fourth in the nation, and the baseball team is reigning Southeastern Conference champion. Those who cheer for the Maroon and White would like to see softball follow a similar path.
The schedule is determined by the luck of the draw from the conference office. However, this year's slate is more manageable. MSU will play Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Kentucky at home. Alabama will be a national title contender. Kentucky will be nationally ranked, but it likely won't be a top-10 team. South Carolina typically is in the bottom half of the conference standings. Arkansas won one league game last year.
On paper, the home conference slate should include one series win and could include three.
The road conference series are against Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia, and Auburn. Those teams finished fourth, seventh, eighth, and 10th in the final SEC standings in 2016.
MSU and Ole Miss don't play a conference series. With schools concerned about travel costs and missing school, it's foolish that schools 90 miles apart don't play each other. There will be one non-conference midweek game played in Oxford.
The Bulldogs will play 19 non-conference home games (three more than last season). The highlights of the non-conference schedule are four games in a tournament in Mexico and three games in a tournament in Oklahoma. Other than facing Oklahoma once, there are no national championship contenders in either of the events. The other two games in Oklahoma are against Louisiana Tech and UAB -- neutral-site wins that will be critical.
There are four games against the Southwestern Athletic Conference (two more than a year ago). MSU also will play its traditional mid-week game against Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
It's not the best schedule, but a path to 28 wins is there.
On the field, the biggest challenge will be to replace Kayla Winkfield. A four-year starter on the infield, Wakefield was drafted to play pro ball after last season. A year ago, she was the only Bulldog to hit .300 or better.
The team batting averaged dropped from .312 to .247. The Bulldogs averaged 3.6 runs per game.
Cather Katie Anne Bailey and utility player Mackenzie Toler are seniors and will be counted on to lead the offense.
In the circle, senior Alexis Silkwood will look to bounce back after winning four games last season (26 the year before). The progression of junior Holly Ward also will be critical. Stuedeman is high on her incoming freshman class.
When the 2012 Bulldogs made the postseason, talk quickly turned to trying to win a regional and making a first super regional. That was the program's rallying cry until last season's stunning fall.
Now, it's back to square one. That first regional berth was celebrated with a watch party in downtown Starkville. A regional berth this season will be another reason to celebrate -- or perhaps exhale.
Saturday has been a long time coming. It will soon be time to see if the Bulldogs are back for real.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter