They raged against the machine.
The Mississippi State softball team hated whenever coach Samantha Ricketts set up her pitching machine to fire what former MSU outfielder Christian Quinn called “the craziest drop ball you have ever seen.”
No Bulldogs hitter could move on from the drill until they hit five balls to a specific level of the batting cage behind the machine. Players were known to spend their whole practice flailing away, trying to reach a benchmark so difficult that Ricketts’ standard fell from five hits to three after the 2019 season.
“It’s either going to make or break your entire practice,” Quinn said. “We would call that pitching machine all kinds of terrible names because we hated it so much.”
Mia Davidson didn’t mind it, though.
During a practice early in Quinn’s first season with the team, the sophomore catcher stepped into the cage for the drill her teammates all despised. For the reigning Southeastern Conference freshman of the year, it was just “fun competition.”
“I love drop ball pitches,” Davidson told The Dispatch.
Davidson swung five times, hit the mark all five times and walked right out of the batting cage, completing the drill effortlessly. Quinn and her teammates looked on, stunned.
“Wow,” Quinn told herself. “She’s the real deal.”
More than three years later, Davidson — now in her final college season — has proven that and then some. The star catcher has set countless Mississippi State and SEC records. She has as many home runs as any player in the nation. And she’s continuing to make her mark on the program she loves before her time in Starkville is done.
“It means the world to me, and knowing that I’m leaving it in a good way, it’s really nice,” Davidson said.
‘A special one’
It’s been a long time since Davidson first set her sights on Mississippi State.
She and her sister Montana committed to MSU on June 16, 2013, when Davidson was in between seventh and eighth grade. Once Montana told her parents she wanted to come to Starkville, Davidson — a year younger — was all in.
“We knew they wanted to play together,” said Davidson’s mother, Christina Vela Davidson. “When we heard Montana say ‘This is where I’m going,’ we knew Mia was going to follow right behind her.”
The two players left their hometown of Hillsborough, North Carolina, to come to Starkville — Montana in summer 2016 and her younger sister a year later. Their parents did their best to dissuade them from spurning local schools like UNC for a 10-hour trip home, but the sisters couldn’t be swayed.
“We drove all the way from North Carolina to Mississippi to show them how far Mom and Dad will be away,” Christina said.
But Davidson had never had a problem traveling to play softball. Her first-ever travel team, the Challengers, was located an hour southeast in Garner, North Carolina. Before coming to Starkville, she even played with five future teammates on the Birmingham Thunderbolts over the summer.
And before any of that, Mia Davidson played baseball.
From age 6 to 8, she outhit and outplayed boys in the Hillsborough Youth Athletic Association. When her parents saw their little outfielder catch a ball hit over everyone’s head, they knew she was what Christina called “a special one” — complete with her own signature celebration.
“Even back then, she was doing her little fist-pump,” Christina said. “We knew back then it was something she loved and she was going to be good at it.”
Davidson’s teammates treated her the same even though she was a girl, though opponents didn’t always do so. At one point, she sported a “little bowl cut,” but she traded it out for a single pigtail with a bow in it; when she removed her hat after games, she savored the gasps of her vanquished foes.
“That was always one of the best reactions when we’d go and whip their butts, and I was a girl,” Davidson said.
But Davidson’s baseball dreams ended abruptly during a baseball tournament when she spotted a little girl wearing a softball uniform. The girl’s father told Davidson’s father Eddie to get his daughter involved in softball — whatever that was.
“Where I’m from, softball was not big at the time,” Davidson said. “It was not really a thing.”
As she and her sister got older, they had to travel to be noticed by college coaches. Despite living 20 minutes from Chapel Hill, the duo was first seen by Tar Heels coach Donna J. Papa at an event in California.
The Lady Lightning club team asked about getting the girls to try out, but their parents were unsure. Rita, Eddie’s mother, was sick with breast cancer, and Davidson’s parents had to care for her.
Ultimately, though, Davidson’s grandmother had the final word, spelling it out to Eddie.
“You need to get the girls where they need to go,” she said.
‘I guess you’re alright’
Rita Warren Davidson died on Dec. 26, 2011, one day after Christmas.
Even until the end, Davidson said her grandma remained as upbeat as possible, trying to make those around her happy and do what she loved as long as she could.
But watching Rita’s symptoms get worse was hard on Davidson. And seven years later, she had to see it again.
Former Mississippi State head coach Vann Stuedeman introduced Davidson to a new commit for the Bulldogs: Alex Wilcox from Brantley, Alabama.
Davidson caught Wilcox at a camp and found her to be “a freakin’ stud” — throwing pitches with wild spin and hitting “tanks” at the plate.
“Holy crap, this chick is amazing,” Davidson thought.
Wilcox was indeed poised for an incredible career for the Bulldogs, but she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015. She managed to play her freshman season while undergoing chemotherapy — playing in eight games and getting three hits — but the progression of her disease was inevitable.
As Wilcox’s condition got worse, Davidson couldn’t help but look at her teammate and see Rita fighting the disease that claimed her life.
“When she would see Alex, she was really heartbroken because she knew the steps of someone with cancer,” Christina said.
Wilcox died June 25, 2018, at age 18. Four days later, when Davidson and her heartbroken teammates went to a Starkville tattoo parlor to etch Wilcox’s memory into their skin, Davidson knew what she wanted.
She remembered Wilcox’s message to her on Twitter when Davidson won the SEC freshman of the year award and was named to the all-conference first team: “I guess you’re alright.” The four words — some of Wilcox’s favorites — are now immortalized on Davidson’s left forearm alongside a teal ribbon for ovarian cancer awareness.
“Anytime I would hit a home run or something and we’d meet at the plate, she was like, ‘You know, I guess you’re alright. I feel like you could hit it a little farther next time,’” Davidson said.
With Wilcox’s memory in mind, Davidson broke the MSU and SEC single-season home run records in 2019. She hit 26 long balls, slugged .882 and threw out 12 runners — tied for second in the conference — from behind the plate.
In Starkville, Davidson’s legend grew. Quinn found her teammate to be the most popular player by far when the Bulldogs hosted camps for young players.
“Lines of girls are waiting to meet Mia because they know how awesome of a person she is — not just on the field but outside of the field,” Quinn said.
Davidson’s stellar year helped Mississippi State reach the Seattle Regional final before bowing out to host Washington. In 2020, the Bulldogs got off to a scorching start, beginning the year 25-3. Then, after a win March 11 at Southern Miss — MSU’s 14th straight victory — the COVID-19 pandemic descended.
Davidson and her sister drove to North Beach, Maryland, to which their parents had moved. They were told they might return eventually to finish out the year, but a few days later, the 2020 softball campaign was officially canceled. Davidson was upset.
“‘Well, damn’ — excuse my language — ‘we just lost the season,’” Davidson said.
‘She’s Mia Davidson’
With not much else to do, she and Montana worked out in the backyard every day or had Eddie take them to a local softball or baseball field. He pitched to them and hit ground balls for them to field — “just like they were in high school or 14U,” Christina said.
That’s because both were determined to be in the best shape they could when softball was finally given back to them.
“I think that even though it was a hard time, they were still able to still make something of it because they never quit playing ball,” Christina said.
That resilience served Davidson well when she hit a slump in 2021. A slump for Mia Davidson is comparable to an average hitter’s hot streak, but the senior wasn’t playing up to her potential, and she knew it.
Her teammates were aware, too. They knew every game Davidson struggled meant another big moment once she snapped from her funk.
“When you get out of this slump, it is going to be so bad for the other team,” Quinn told her.
Once, after watching Davidson strike out, Quinn and a teammate agreed they still trusted Davidson to hit a home run each time she stepped to the plate.
“And when she doesn’t, you don’t see her come into the dugout and pissed at the world,” Quinn said. “You don’t see her, ‘Oh, I need a couple seconds.’ She’s right back on the fence cheering on her teammates. She’s exactly how she is when she’s on, and that’s key.”
Davidson had come into her own as a leader, something she practiced more and more once the 2019 season ended and she became an upperclassman on the team. Now, she can stop a drill and call in her teammates or work with a freshman hitter in a batting cage if her coaches are occupied elsewhere.
“She knows it’s coming at this point, and she’s able to take charge and be that leader on the field and get the team refocused before I have to step in and do it,” Ricketts said. “That’s something you’re always hoping for as a coach.”
Davidson has been there for her teammates since before they were even her teammates. When current junior pitcher Aspen Wesley came to Starkville for a camp in 10th grade, she was nervous — not least because her catcher was a well-known name.
“I knew she was coming here,” Wesley said. “I knew who she was. She’s Mia Davidson.”
Davidson, still a senior in high school, helped Wesley relax. Five years later, not much has changed.
“She still does the same thing: ‘Aspen, calm down. You got this,’” Wesley said.
Not much can rankle Davidson, according to Quinn. Errors by teammates — mental or physical — were learning opportunities. Strikeouts or bad at-bats didn’t make Davidson feel sorry for herself or sulk.
If there is something that vexes the Bulldogs star, Quinn isn’t sure she wants to know it.
“I don’t really want to find out what pisses Mia Davidson off,” she said. “I like her better when she’s nice.”
‘Are you even real?’
This season, Davidson has been nice to everyone but opposing pitchers.
She hit her ninth homer of the 2022 season Wednesday against Mississippi Valley State, tied for the NCAA lead just 17 games into the campaign. Davidson is hitting .432 and slugging 1.136, both tops in the SEC and in the top five nationally.
Last Friday at the Snowman (Alex Wilcox Memorial) Tournament, Davidson was retired once — because a contact lens fell out of her eye. She hit four home runs in two games that day, including a grand slam.
Quinn said when Davidson is at her best, she reaches a level not many hitters can match.
“It’s almost like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you even real at this point?’” Quinn said.
Davidson is real, and she’s proving that by continuing to set school and conference records. On Feb. 18, she homered in both games at the Bulldog Kickoff Classic, tying then breaking the SEC career home run record with Nos. 71 and 72.
Already, Davidson is up to 78 and counting. She admitted breaking the SEC record was a sigh of relief akin to “a million pounds lifted off my shoulders” after having to field questions for weeks about reaching the milestone, and her recent torrent is proving it.
“It was an amazing accomplishment,” Davidson said. “I’m so proud I got to do it in the time I’ve had. But just having that pressure lifted off of me was really nice.”
But as Ricketts pointed out — as everyone in Mia Davidson’s life knows — the Bulldogs backstop is more than the statistics she’s posted and the records she’s broken.
Davidson has helped Mississippi State set a goal as lofty as hosting an NCAA Regional in 2022, something the Bulldogs have never done. She’s helped MSU recruit key players like Riley Hull, a freshman catcher from Kentucky who is Davidson’s heir apparent at the position.
“In my opinion, I think she means to the softball program change,” Christina said of her daughter. “She’s helped put them on the map again, put them in elite status. Girls want to come to Mississippi State now. I think she has helped make the program bloom.”
Quinn said most young softball players think of Mississippi State as “the school Mia Davidson went to.” She said Davidson is the “blueprint” for younger players hoping to follow in her footsteps.
“There’s been a lot of great players who have come through Mississippi State, and she is one of them,” Quinn said. “When I think of Mississippi State, I’ll always think of Mia Davidson. I think that’s the legacy that she’s going to carry.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.