May 14, 2018 9:42:48 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State senior pitcher Holly Ward never takes a postseason invitation for granted.
"This is what you work so hard for," Ward said. "There is still an excitement when you see your name called out. Everybody was relaxed because we felt like we were in good shape. That doesn't change that moment when you see your name, though, and you know you have a chance to keep playing."
On Sunday, MSU earned its 14th berth in the NCAA tournament when it was named the No. 2 seed in the Tucson Regional. Hosted by No. 14 national seed Arizona, MSU (36-21) will face North Dakota State (33-17) at 8 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) to open the four-team, double-elimination event. Arizona (40-14) will face Saint Francis (39-17) at 10:30 p.m. Friday.
"Another business trip for this team," said MSU coach Vann Stuedeman, who earned her sixth regional berth in seven seasons in Starkville. "Each week this team has battled. Very proud of the competitive nature of this team and how they have always fought when adversity hit. Each weekend in the SEC is the same as playing in a super regional. The experiences earned by this team will hopefully pay off in this regional."
For a second-straight season, the SEC placed all 13 members in the 64-team tournament field. The conference also received a tournament-record nine host spots. Auburn, Ole Miss, MSU, and Missouri will travel for postseason play.
"We talked about it before playing in the SEC tournament," Ward said. "We talked about how great the SEC is. It means a lot that everybody got in. We competed with those teams during the regular season. We know we have what it takes to win games against teams in a regional because we faced those other conference teams during the regular season."
Catcher Mia Davidson earned Freshman of the Year honors from the SEC coaches. Davidson set a MSU freshman record by hitting 18 home runs in the regular season.
Davidson is excited about her first postseason trip and a chance to play in a hitter friendly Hillenbrand Stadium.
"The team is excited," Davidson said. "We will face a big challenge because it is a hitter's park. The key will be for all the pitchers to keep the ball down. As the catcher, it is my job to make sure that happens. For the hitters, this will be a good chance to play well and show what we are capable of doing."
North Dakota State won the Summit League regular-season championship and conference tournament championship. North Dakota State upset Oklahoma to win the Norman Regional in 2009, which was its first year of being NCAA postseason eligible.
NDSU also upset top-seeded Oklahoma last season before falling to Tulsa and Oklahoma in the Norman Regional.
"They are known for pulling the big upset," Stuedeman said. "We will do our research and have a plan. However, all four teams in the regional can play. Saint Francis leads the nation in grand slams. Arizona is one of the standards. When you grow up watching softball, Arizona is one of the programs you know about."
The winner of the Tucson Regional will face the winner of the Los Angeles Regional (hosted by UCLA) in a super regional.
This season, MSU has spent a majority of the regular season ranked. The Bulldogs rode a 28-3 non-conference record to a top 20 finish in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). The non-conference losses were to Arizona State, Drake, Cal State Fullerton, which are all in the NCAA tournament.
"Credit to our players for taking care of their business in the non-conference games," Stuedeman said. "When you play in the SEC, your RPI will be excellent. You separate yourself by playing well in the non-conference games. Those are the ones you have to win. We were close to hosting.
"Realistically, if you win three more games, you are hosting. That probably means scoring three more runs. As a coach, you motivate by pointing out we have been competitive with some of the best teams in the nation. It is also shows the players how close we are to taking the next step."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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