The Mississippi State University softball team remains confident even though it is on a nine-game conference losing streak.
With a little more than a month remaining in the regular season, MSU realizes there is plenty of meaningful softball to be played, but it knows winning on the road will need to be priority No. 1.
MSU (19-18, 3-13 Southeastern Conference) will start that trek this weekend when it faces the University of Arkansas (18-16, 2-12) in a three-game conference series. The teams will play a 3 p.m. doubleheader Friday and an 11 a.m. game Saturday at Bogle Park.
MSU’s scheduled game against Southern Miss on Wednesday at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland was canceled due to the potential for rain and severe thunderstorms.
“Coach Vann (Stuedeman) always reminds us that the season is a marathon and not a sprint,” MSU sophomore second baseman Heidi Shape said. “It is not how you start, it is how you finish. We have played some of the top teams in the country and either won or had close defeats. That is one thing about this team is we have not lost out confidence.”
Six of MSU’s past nine league losses have come to teams ranked in the top 10 of the latest National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll (No. 10 University of Tennessee and No. 2 University of Alabama). MSU also has lost three games to No. 6 University of Florida, two of three to No. 9 University of Georgia, and three to No. 24 LSU. It is the only SEC team that has played those four ranked squads.
“The schedule has made us a tougher team,” Stuedeman said. “This is what you expect in the Southeastern Conference. You expect to be challenged every inning of every game. You can’t lose sight of your long-range goals. You have to work every day in every situation to become better as a ballclub.”
With four three-game conference series remaining, the Bulldogs should be looking at brighter days. After playing five of six ranked conference opponents to start the year, the next four SEC opponents are each unranked and are a combined 13-34 in league play (76-67 overall).
“I think every player on this team believes we can play with anybody,” MSU senior outfielder Brittany Bell said. “There have been some bumps on the road, but the thing about this team is we come out ready to play every day. Lesser teams would have gotten frustrated. Instead, we just keep competing. Each day begins with no score and a chance to win.”
One of the byproducts of one of the nation’s most difficult schedules is a hefty RPI. The Bulldogs dropped all three league games this past weekend to No. 2 Alabama. Despite that lack of success, the NCAA’s latest RPI figures saw the Bulldogs move up eight spots to 31st in the nation.
MSU is attempting to return to a regional for the first time since 2009. To be eligible, the squad must finish at least one game over .500. In addition to the final conference games, MSU will play non-league games against Southern Mississippi, Memphis, Jackson State, and two against Tennessee Tech.
“There is a lot of softball left to be played,” Stuedeman said. “The primary goal is to make postseason play. I think this team has grown up and matured a lot since the beginning of the season. Championship teams learn how to win on the road. It’s a process. That is where we are. We are learning how to live in the moment and take care of our own business.”
It is unclear whether Wednesday night’s game against Southern Mississippi in Ridgeland will be rescheduled. The Bulldogs also lost a rainout during an early season tournament at home. MSU could finish with 54 games or could add two makeups to get it back to the NCAA-mandated limit of 56 games.
Based on playing a full schedule, MSU would have to win 10 more times to get to 29 wins to clinch a winning season and secure regional eligibility. The top eight teams advance to the league’s single-elimination postseason tournament. MSU would be on the outside looking in if the event started today.
In 2009, MSU qualified for postseason play with a 28-26 record. To return to that destination, road wins will be critical. On the present schedule, 10 of the final 17 games of the regular season will be played on the road.
“We have already played a couple of challenging tournaments on the road,” Stuedeman said. “SEC series on the road are no different. You have to create your own energy. I think this team has a comfort level on the road. They enjoying being with one another and do a great job of focusing on business when it is game time.”
Arkansas has lost eight straight games, including seven straight in the SEC. The Razorbacks have been shut out five times in that span. While Arkansas has a league win against No. 10 Tennessee, it also has a pair of home losses to the University of Mississippi and road losses at the University of South Carolina.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.