After an uneven week on the road against stiff competition, the Mississippi State softball team returns to Nusz Park to host the Bulldog Invitational tournament from Friday to Sunday.
The Bulldogs (8-5) went 2-3 at the Lone Star State Invitational, splitting with Texas State, losing to No. 7 Texas and then-No. 23 Baylor and beating Houston. On Wednesday, Mississippi State struck out 16 times in a 4-0 loss to No. 3 Alabama.
But the Bulldogs will get a respite this weekend in Starkville as three unranked schools come to town. Mississippi State will open play against Ball State on Friday afternoon with a game against Alcorn State scheduled for the evening. On Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs will take on Western Kentucky.
From there, the teams will be seeded 1-4 for bracket play, with the No. 2 and No. 3 teams squaring off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and the No. 1 and No. 4 schools playing at 6 p.m. Saturday. The losers of the two semifinals will play in the consolation game at 11 a.m. Sunday, and the winners will face off in the championship game at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Here’s a look at what Mississippi State can expect from each of its three opponents this weekend.
Ball State (2-2) — 3 p.m. Friday
2020 record: 18-9
The Cardinals have played just four games this season, beating Saint Louis and Austin Peay and losing to DePaul and Southern Illinois. The Salukis also dealt Mississippi State an extra-inning defeat Feb. 21, the Bulldogs’ first loss in 18 games.
Star hitter Stacy Payton returns for Ball State after posting a .400 batting average, eight home runs and a 1.328 on-base plus slugging percentage in 27 games last season. A one-run loss at No. 8 Louisiana was the Cards’ only ranked contest of the season.
Pitchers Deborah Jones (1.63 ERA in 2020) and Alyssa Rothwell (1.79) both return for Ball State. Mississippi State pitching coach Josh Johnson previously held the same position for the Cardinals until joining Samantha Ricketts’ staff in 2019.
Alcorn State (2-4) — 5:30 p.m. Friday
2020 record: 5-21
If the Bulldogs hope to take home a win in round-robin play, the Braves are likely their best bet.
Alcorn State is off to a 2-4 start after posting a 5-21 record in the abbreviated 2020 campaign. The Braves didn’t have a single hitter finish above .825 in OPS and posted a team ERA of 6.10 last season.
Mississippi State beat Alcorn State twice last year, posting 8-1 and 9-1 wins on Feb. 29 and March 1 at last year’s Snowman (Alex Wilcox Memorial) tournament in Starkville.
Former Bulldogs infielder Sarai Niu, who played for Mississippi State from 2016 to 2019, returns to Nusz Park as a graduate assistant for Alcorn State.
Western Kentucky (6-1) — 12:30 p.m. Saturday
2020 record: 20-5
Western Kentucky, off to a 6-1 start to 2021, could be Mississippi State’s toughest opponent this weekend.
The Hilltoppers posted a 20-5 record last spring, though no ranked opponents graced their schedule.
So far in 2021, Western Kentucky has three wins against Indiana State and victories over Chattanooga and Bowling Green State. The Toppers also split a pair of games with Kennesaw State.
Leading hitters Kennedy Sullivan (.417 average, 1.146 OPS) and Taylor Davis (.437 average, .918 OPS) are back for Western Kentucky.
Pitchers Kelsey Aikey (1.86 ERA in 79 innings pitched) and Shelby Nunn (1.15 ERA in 54.2 IP) also return for the Toppers.