On the ride home from the NCAA tournament Lafayette Regional, one had to think long and hard for the right words to sum up the Mississippi State softball team’s season.
The Bulldogs finished 36-21 after going 1-2 in the regional. Playing as the No. 3 seed, MSU beat No. 4 seed Weber State and dropped two hard-fought games to No. 2 seed Baylor.
Overachieving had been a word used frequently throughout the season by fans and media. Coach Vann Stuedeman finally joined the club minutes after the season-ending 2-0 loss to Baylor, when she said few people thought her team would win 36 games.
So where is MSU softball?
The Bulldogs played in an NCAA regional for the fourth-straight year, and 12th time in 24 seasons. Only one other time had the program made four-straight postseason appearances.
The Bulldogs played before a school-record 17,954 fans in 30 home dates in the final season of the MSU Softball Field. Construction has started for a new MSU Softball Field that will be ready for the 2016 season.
The Bulldogs placed 10th in the Southeastern Conference and advanced to the league tournament for the third time in four seasons.
The Bulldogs earned a national ranking in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25 for the first time since 2009.
MSU beat national seeds Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Florida, and Notre Dame in the regular season. The victory against LSU was the program’s second win against the nation’s No. 1 team.
The Bulldogs hit .300 or better for the second time in program history (school-record .312 average). The Bulldogs also hit a school-record 54 home runs.
Sophomore pitcher Alexis Silkwood matched the school’s single-season record with 26 victories. Two years into her career, she has 40 victories and is 17 shy of a new career record.
Analyzing the statistical data, one could assess the program is in good shape.
How can the Bulldogs can remain in good shape?
Assistant coach Samantha Ricketts needs to stay. Ricketts handles the team’s hitting instruction.
In 2014, two MSU starters hit .300 or better. That number grew to seven this year. The offensive records can be partially, if not completely, attributed to what the team calls “The Ricketts Effect.”
Stuedeman knows the impact Ricketts made on the program. She also knows the importance of keeping her.
Earlier in the season, Stuedeman said the most difficult aspect of being a head coach was hiring the right assistants. At the moment, Ricketts and Tyler Bratton give Stuedeman a solid, capable staff.
However, the numbers MSU produced offensively have been staggering. Despite scoring only six runs scored in three regional games, people are aware of the strides MSU has made. It will better than a 50-50 proposition some larger schools will court Ricketts in the offseason.
MSU needs to develop its pitching staff.
Silkwood was a one-woman show this season. In the Lafayette Regional, she pitched 19 of the team’s 20 innings.
For the season, Silkwood led the Southeastern Conference with 235 2/3 innings. She was second in strikeouts with 216. She appeared in 47 of the team’s 56 games and threw 24 complete games.
Due to injury and transfer, the pitching depth was challenged. Sophomore Mackenzie Toler, freshman Cassady Knudsen, and freshman Holly Ward had good moments. However, the team will need them to have some great moments next season.
MSU needs to schedule wisely.
The coaches already have a tentative conference schedule for next season. To say the Bulldogs have a daunting task in front of them would be an understatement.
The beauty of a difficult conference schedule is the bevy of RPI points that come with it.
Under Stuedeman, MSU has won its fair share of games against ranked opponents. That will have to happen next season. However, the non-conference slate will be full of must-wins.
Winning 30 or more games per season has become the norm for this program. The challenge will be tall to get there again.
The next question is how does the program become great?
MSU still hasn’t played in a super regional. The Bulldogs haven’t won the opening game of a regional under Stuedeman. Overall, the team is 3-8 in the regionals, including three-straight 1-2 records.
Bottom line — MSU needs to become good enough to host a regional. With its new state-of-the-art stadium ready for next season, MSU can submit a regional bid and not worry about visiting radio broadcasters needing umbrellas when they sit outside.
Eight SEC schools qualified for a super regional this weekend. Of those eight, seven played at home. Of the 16 national seeds that played host to regionals, 14 advanced to a super regional.
There is little doubt a regional played in Starkville before school-record crowds would greatly enhance MSU’s chances to advance for the first time. Once the program learns how to win those games, it can become habit-forming.
Ask Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU.
The Bulldogs hovered in the low 20s in RPI for most this season and last. The Bulldogs have hovered on doorstep of the national rankings, dipping in this year. The program has wanted to play host to a regional, but deep in its heart it was well aware the MSU Softball Field wasn’t the best postseason venue.
All of that has changed.
The head coach is in place. The assistant coaches are in place. The ability to line up and to beat any team on any given day is there. By next February, the stadium will be in place. Playing in the nation’s best conference is the security blanket that helps make all things possible.
The drive from Lafayette to Starkville was long. Stuedeman probably reflected on her season during the trip.
She knows what it takes to take that next step. Now is the time to get it done.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.