STARKVILLE — Senior outfielder Chloe Malau’ulu still can’t figure out what spurred the Mississippi State softball team’s late-season turnaround in 2021.
“Was it just the start of a new month?” Malau’ulu said. “Was it something that one of the coaches said? I don’t know.”
Whatever the reason, the Bulldogs woke up May 1 in Columbia, South Carolina, determined to change the trajectory of a season slipping away. They set out to forget it all: their 1-15 Southeastern Conference record; the 13 straight losses to start league play.
Mississippi State won that day, beating South Carolina 6-2. The Bulldogs won their next seven games, including an SEC tournament matchup with rival Ole Miss. They powered their way into a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and made it all the way to the regional final, the weight of losing lifted off their shoulders.
Now, with the 2022 season set to begin, the Bulldogs will have to recapture whatever magic helped them right the ship last spring.
And they have loftier aspirations this time around.
“I feel like our goal for this year is to do the same thing and to go to Supers,” junior pitcher Aspen Wesley said.
In 2021, host Oklahoma State kept Mississippi State out of the Super Regional round. The Cowgirls beat the Bulldogs twice in the Stillwater Regional, ending MSU’s promising year with a 35-25 record.
But this spring, Wesley and her teammates don’t merely hope to travel across the country and upend some better team’s season. They want to be the ones hosting their own regional at Nusz Park, something catcher Mia Davidson called one of the Bulldogs’ “main goals” in 2022.
Mississippi State has never hosted a regional, and changing that would be important for Wesley, one of two players from the Magnolia State on this season’s roster.
“It would mean a lot,” Wesley said.
But if the Bulldogs hope to host and win, they’ll have to weather some of the losses they incurred after the 2021 season. Graduate first baseman Fa Leilua exhausted her eligibility after plenty of home runs and bat flips. Third baseman Carter Spexarth, a dependable presence in the middle of MSU’s lineup, chose not to return for an extra year.
Coach Samantha Ricketts said the result will be a more balanced Mississippi State lineup, perhaps missing Leilua’s power but making up for it in speed and athleticism. Depth has increased, as well; Ricketts said she went from five infielders last year to as many as 14 on the current roster.
“I don’t think you replace Fa Leilua, the type of production she’s had for us the last three years, or even Carter Spexarth and what she was able to do for our lineup,” Ricketts said. “We know we might not be as much of a home run threat, maybe not putting up the same numbers that we did previously the last two years, but I think we’re going to see a more balanced offensive approach.”
Ricketts hopes that balance will extend to defense and pitching as well. Senior Emily Williams, one of the Bulldogs’ two main starters for the past three seasons, also chose not to return in 2022.
Annie Willis is back for her third season in maroon and white, and Wesley will be tabbed to help her out and share the innings load over the course of the season.
“I think she and Annie are 1A and 1B, and it could be either one of them getting the ball on any day,” Ricketts said.
Senior left-hander Grace Fagan, junior righty Kenley Hawk, freshman Bri Bower and New Mexico State transfer Matalasi Faapito will round out Mississippi State’s pitching staff in 2022. Faapito will also be a mainstay in MSU’s lineup, though at what position remains to be determined.
Finding a lineup
That’s the case with much of the Bulldogs’ starting nine, with the departures of Leilua and Spexarth allowing for plenty of competition across the diamond. In the infield, Davidson at catcher and juniors Paige Cook at second base and Madisyn Kennedy at shortstop seem to have the strongest holds on starting positions. Graduate Montana Davidson and junior college transfer Shea Moreno will compete at third base, while both Davidson sisters, senior Jackie McKenna, sophomore Addison Purvis and freshman Riley Hull are all in an “offensive battle” to play first base.
Malau’ulu will rotate between all three outfield spots as she did last season, while defensive-minded outfielder Brylie St. Clair will have to hit her way into the lineup. McKenna will play in the outfield again while not catching or playing first base, and freshman Saleyna Daniel should get some playing time.
Daniel’s nickname is “Silk,” and it’s a fitting one for the freshman from Houston, Texas.
“You’ll know why when you watch her run,” Ricketts said.
Senior Anna Kate Segars has not played since March 20 at Florida after starting 24 of the Bulldogs’ first 25 games last season. Segars has been dealing with ongoing health issues and will miss at least the beginning of the 2022 campaign as she waits to be cleared.
Otherwise, Mississippi State seems healthy as a tough opening weekend awaits. The Bulldogs play four games in Southern California from Friday through Sunday: two against Loyola Marymount, one against No. 3 UCLA and one against No. 1 Oklahoma.
“We know we’re going into an immediate challenge, and that’s by design for this team,” Ricketts said.
The Bulldogs needed to “beef up” their opening weekend schedule because they host an extra home tournament this season and travel less during nonconference play. That, in turn, is due to additional travel during the SEC slate: Mississippi State will play road series at Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky. MSU also visits Alabama.
Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn and LSU all come to Starkville in SEC play as the Bulldogs will have nary a weekend without a tough test in college softball’s toughest conference.
But that’s what Mississippi State has been waiting for ever since its season ended late last May.
In less than a week, the Bulldogs will put all that offseason improvement to the test.
“We definitely want to come back stronger than ever this year,” Malau’ulu said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.