STARKVILLE — Brittany Bell loves to play softball.
An injury that forced her to miss almost all of the 2011 season severely strained that love. But Bell kept believing, hoping, praying, and rehabilitating. Now, she is ready to make up for lost time.
Checking in with a team-best .550 batting average, the Brandon, Fla., native is going home this weekend. This time, she won’t accept encouragement from friends back home to keep hoping. Instead, she wants to help the Mississippi State University softball team make an impact at the annual NFCA Leadoff Classic, which begins Friday at the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater, Fla.
“I am looking forward to getting a chance to back home,” Brittany Bell said. “This is a chance for my teammates to see where I grew up at. We will be playing at parks I played at in high school. This is my chance for uncles, aunts, and grandparents who can’t come here to see me play. I am just super pumped. I want to treat all of them to a show.”
MSU is off to a 7-1 start under first-year coach Vann Stuedeman. Some of that success can be attributed to Bell, who is 11-for-20 with a Southeastern Conference-best four home runs and nine RBIs. She also leads the league with a 1.400 slugging percentage, a .700 on-base percentage, and seven two-out RBIs.
“Brittany is competitive, she has an edge about her,” Stuedeman said. “She embraces challenges. She embraces tough situations. She does not want it to be easy. She wants to be the person batting with the bases loaded and two outs. She wants that opportunity. She craves that challenge.”
After hitting .295 in 2010, Bell said a stronger team togetherness has provided motivation and has helped her and the team get off to a fast start.
“This year, it is all about my teammates,” Bell said. “I want to be out there for them. There are 25 of us. When I am in the batter’s box, I get a positive vibe. I can see runners on base and I know they are counting on me, expecting me, to knock them in. They know if they can get on base, I am going to do my job. It is a really a great feeling knowing that they count on me like that.”
Bell appeared in nine games before a knee injury ended her season. Since she had played as a freshman, Bell was able to redshirt. Her return as a senior coincides with the arrival of another Bell, her sister, Briana. A member of the All-SEC freshman team a season ago, Briana Bell appeared in 40 games and drew 28 starts last season. Briana is sitting out this season with a torn labrum. She is expected to return to softball activities this fall.
“This would be devastating for me if I had not seen my sister go through her injury,” Briana Bell said. “Brittany has been a huge help and a big influence on me. I can talk to her when I am feeling down. It is great having someone so close to me that has been through what I am going through to help me get through it.”
Brittany Bell has taken her game to the next level. She has fallen back in love with a sport she started playing in grade school.
“Last year was a learning experience for me,” Brittany Bell said. “Mentally, I tried to become the best softball player I could become. I would watch live stats and I would watch video feeds if I was not at the game. I took a whole lot of at-bats in my head. I really soaked up as much of the game as I could.
“It was a learning experience that helped me greatly in the end. I came back much hungrier. This year, I am going to stay within myself and play the game the way it is supposed to be played.”
While she is happy to be back in the lineup, Brittany Bell also understands her sister’s situation.
“I want to do everything I can for her,” Brittany Bell said. “She is a great player, and it is killing me not having her on the field. All I can do is tell her to stay patient and to be there any way I can. We really have grown up through our adversities. The only sad part is we won’t get to play together anymore here.”
Briana Bell says her arm strength is improving on a daily basis. She also likes the improvement of the MSU, which is off to its best start since 2008.
“Coach Vann is amazing,” Briana Bell said. “She has brought the whole energy level of the team up. It is a huge difference. Now, everybody wants to be here every day. The coaching staff has made a huge difference. We now play with a new level of confidence. I really can’t wait to get back in the lineup to play a game for her.”
MSU will look to bring that attitude to the three-day tournament, where it will face NCAA tournament regional regulars – Louisiana-Lafayette (7-0), South Florida (6-1), Georgia Tech (7-3), DePaul (6-4), and Michigan (8-1). Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Tech and Michigan are ranked in the nation’s top 20.
“Our coaches have set the expectations high,” Brittany Bell said. “They are pushing us to do well and they are expecting us to be winners. We have come out with that mentality. I think it has paid off. We are playing good ball. We are scoring runs. We are winning ballgames.”
Stuedeman feels this weekend will show her squad what to expect when SEC play begins March 7 against the No. 1 University of Florida in Starkville.
“Anytime you want to better your program, you need to play teams as good as or better than you,” Stuedeman said. “We have three nationally-ranked opponents. If you are going to play softball in this league, you got to want to be in those kinds of games.
“That is why Brittany Bell has been successful. She wants those kinds of challenges. It is a good opportunity for a little warmup before the SEC schedule. This tournament will show some of our freshmen what college softball is all about. It is a tough challenge, but it is one we will embrace. It gives us an opportunity to get better and to better ourselves as unit for the SEC season.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.