Former Mississippi State softball players Kayla Winkfield (left) and Jessica Cooley have remained in Starkville as a student assistant coach and director of operations, respectively, for the program. Photo by: Scott Walters/Dispatch Staff Buy this photo.
April 13, 2017 11:11:26 AM
STARKVILLE -- When Jessica Cooley signed a National Letter of Intent to play softball at Mississippi State in 2009, she had no idea she was signing up for the eight-year program.
"This is home. This program means so much to me," Cooley said. "To have seen the growth and the transformation. You take pride that you have been here to watch this program take so many steps."
Cooley is in her first season as director of operations for the team. Former teammate Kayla Winkfield is working as a student assistant coach this season while she completes her undergraduate degree. Winkfield will assume graduate assistant duties next season and remain for at least two more seasons while attending graduate school.
"When either one of them leaves I am going to break down and cry," MSU sixth-year head coach Vann Stuedeman said. "The MSU softball team is one big family. I really take pride that so many of our former players want to remain involved. Their contributions are vital. There is not a big enough word for what those two do."
MSU (29-13, 4-8 Southeastern Conference) will play this weekend at No. 19 Georgia (28-13, 2-10) in a critical three-game conference series. First pitch is set for 5 p.m. Friday.
Georgia is last in the conference standings with four league series remaining. After taking two of three games from Kentucky, which is ranked No. 21 this week in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) poll, Georgia has lost its last nine SEC games to LSU (No. 11), Auburn (No. 7), and Florida (No. 3). All but the last-place team will quality for the 12-team SEC tournament. In the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), Georgia is No. 21, while MSU is No. 33.
Stuedeman's squad is trying to make an NCAA regional for the fifth time in six seasons.
"There is a winning attitude here," Winkfield said. "It's hard to compete in the Southeastern Conference. I love Vann to death. She has made such a huge impact on my life. If I have my chance to stay here a little bit longer and learn more from her, I am going to do that.
"This is my home now. I really don't want to leave. This is a special place and a special community. I feel like this is my place now."
Cooley grew up attending MSU softball games. Her older sister, Katie Cooley Lock, played for MSU from 2004-07. During her recruiting process, the Birmingham, Alabama, native had MSU as a front-runner because of the experiences of her sister.
"In high school, Mississippi State softball is all I really knew," Cooley said. "This just seemed like a natural fit from the beginning. I had a comfort level that this is where I wanted to play college softball. Fortunately, that comfort level continued when (Stuedeman) took over. It really clicked with her from the beginning."
Cooley's older sister played in three regionals under former coach Jay Miller. Cooley then played for two seasons under Miller without postseason and two seasons under Stuedeman with postseason.
A four-year all-SEC academic honoree, Cooley finished with 27 home runs, good for sixth on school's all-time list. Her junior year included third-team All-America honors from CollegeSportsMadness.
"The valuable experience they can impart means so much to the younger players," Stuedeman said. "They both have played in this league. They have had those experiences. They have been through everything. They can help the players relate to what is going to happen in this league."
Cooley isn't allowed to coach on the field. She is the program's primary liaison with adidas, coordinates all team travel, oversees student managers, and handles player relations.
Winkfield, a native of Giddings, Texas, is allowed to coach on the field. She works primarily with the middle infielders after drawing 188 career starts at shortstop from 2013-2016.
"My job is to make sure I can keep the players out of trouble," Winkfield said. "I want to show them the best way to do things without being yelled at. Seriously, I just try to relate to the players some of my past experiences. We have a certain way of doing things around here. If I can help a player and impart that way, that is what I try to do.
"There is a lot respect from them because (Cooley and I) played the game. It doesn't mean we have all the answers. It does mean I can be the buffer zone between the player and the coach. I can help give some guidance and hopefully help them figure some things out."
In the summer, Winkfield plays professionally with the Scrapyard Dawgs (Conroe, Texas) of the National Pro Fastpitch League. Winkfield was taken with the 35th pick in the 2016 draft by the Pennsylvania Rebellion and became the 12th Bulldog drafted.
"Playing professionally is a dream come true," Winkfield said. "The biggest advantage I have from being here during the season is being able to be with (Stuedeman, assistant coach Samantha Ricketts, and assistant coach Tyler Bratton). All three of them know the game inside out.
"When you are a player, you are focused solely on getting better as a player and helping your team win. Now that my playing career here is over, I can approach it with a totally different outlook. I like to watch the coaches. I like to see what I can learn. I view every situation in practice and in games like I was coaching. How will Vann react to this or that? What will she do? It's a totally different way to look at the game. It has been fun learning to think as they think. It makes me a better player."
Cooley feels the same way in her new role.
"It's a totally different mind-set," Cooley said. "You are still working with a team trying to help them achieve goals. It's still different, though. It's just fun and rewarding to be able to go to the softball field every day. There is still an enjoyment for the game."
Stuedeman has worked hard to help MSU become one of the nation's best. Moving into Nusz Park was a major shot in the arm a year ago. The school hosted its first conference tournament last season.
This season, the goal is get back to the postseason after the Bulldogs finished 26-31 last season. The Bulldogs are still trying to take that next step and make a first super regional.
"It means a lot when you have former players invested the program," Stuedeman said. "On the field, we need all the help we can get. When you have a collective group of voices saying the same thing, it is a big help. We had so many players come back for Super Bulldog Weekend (a series win over South Carolina) last weekend.
"When you see everyone committed and invested, you can do special things."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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