When Mississippi State’s best postseason run in softball history came to an end a year ago, coach Vann Stuedeman was ready to flip the calendar to the next year.
That new year is here and the Bulldogs already are gaining accolades.
In the preseason National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) / USA Today Top 25, MSU checked in at No. 24 Tuesday. It is the program’s second preseason ranking, and first since 2001. MSU is also receiving votes in the USA Softball preseason poll. No. 5 / 5 Florida, No. 6 / 7 Georgia, No. 8 / 8 Tennessee, No. 9 / 9 South Carolina, No. 9 / 11 Alabama, No. 11 / 10 LSU, No. 13 / 15 Kentucky, No. 14 / 12 Arkansas, No. 17 / 17 Auburn, and No. 20 / 20 Texas A&M round out the Southeastern Conference teams in the NFCA and USA Softball polls.
“We have a chance to be a very good offensive team,” said Stuedeman, who begins her eighth season. “Offensively, we should be able to put pressure on the other team. We will score enough runs to give ourselves a chance most nights.”
Under Stuedeman, the Bulldogs have always been competitive in the rugged SEC. The pitching has been adequate, while the offense has been average some years and slightly better than that other years.
In 2019, the Bulldogs look to have some serious pop at the plate.
Sophomore third baseman/catcher Mia Davidson earned preseason all-conference
honors. Last season’s SEC Freshman of the Year, Davidson hit a school-record 19 home runs a year ago. She finished 10th in the league with 70 hits and had a .370 batting average.
A year ago, the Bulldogs hit .292 and averaged 5.2 runs per game. The top four hitters from that team return.
Senior outfielder Kat Moore hit .344 last year, while senior utility player Emily Heimberger hit .332.
The Bulldogs return 16 letterwinners and five position starters from the 2018 team that went 38-23 and advanced to a sixth regional in seven seasons. The year ended with a one-run loss to Arizona in the championship round of the Tucson Regional.
“That experience will help this team a lot,” Stuedeman said. “They know what we are doing is good enough with just one more push.”
The biggest question mark going into the center is in the circle, where graduates Holly Ward and Cassady Knudsen took 294 2/3 innings of work with them.
However, Stuedeman’s pedigree Is as a pitching coach. She has some talented young arms ready to make major contributions.
MSU has a manageable schedule, including three home tournaments. The Bulldogs also will play in the annual Puerto Vallarta Challenge in Mexico, as well as a tournament at Duke.
As has been the case in several seasons under Stuedeman, the Bulldogs most likely will fight for a host spot in the NCAA regionals late in the season. Typically, a couple of key losses have sent the Bulldogs on the road, such as a year ago when the team was sent to Arizona.
Granted, a team can still make a super regional when playing on the road. However, the challenge is much steeper.
The SEC appears to be loaded, as 11 conference members were ranked in the preseason poll, with MSU being the last one.
The SEC schedule includes Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, and Missouri at home. Each of those series can be considered winnable. Road series against Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida will be far more challenging.
Eleven of the first 15 will be at home. The goal will be to start fast while the pitching plans fall into place.
When the season ends, the Bulldogs should still be playing meaningful softball. With a little bit of good fortune, those games will be at home.
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.
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