TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As Samantha Ricketts and her players walked to their seats at the postgame press conference, the table in front of them tipped forward, nearly falling off the front of the podium.
It seemed like an apt metaphor for a season now on the brink.
Mississippi State (33-25, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) is just one loss away from the end of its 2022 season following a 4-0 defeat at the hands of third-seeded South Florida (45-14, 12-5 American Athletic) in Friday’s opener at the Tallahassee Regional.
“Credit to South Florida,” Ricketts said. “We knew coming in that they were one of, if not the best, 3 seeds in this tournament.”
USF showed it. The Bulldogs’ hitters couldn’t solve ace pitcher Georgina Corrick. Their pitchers couldn’t keep the Bulls’ bats at bay. And it adds up to a much tougher path if MSU hopes to make the Super Regional round for the first time ever.
The Bulldogs must win four consecutive games, beginning with an elimination contest at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Howard. Should the Bulldogs win, they’ll have to win another elimination game at 5 p.m. Saturday in order to reach the regional final against a team MSU will have to beat twice.
It’s a tall order, but it’s one Ricketts believes a battle-tested squad can fulfill. The Bulldogs played one of the country’s toughest schedules, including nonconference games with UCLA and Oklahoma and a difficult SEC slate.
“I think we’ve really been through the trenches this year,” Ricketts said. “We’ve been through the grind. We know what it’s like to have our backs against the wall, particularly the returners on this team who were on this squad last year.”
Mississippi State made things easier last season, winning its first game against Boston University in the Stillwater Regional, but the Bulldogs still won an elimination game against Campbell to reach the regional final against Oklahoma State.
But after Friday’s loss, MSU’s path is considerably tougher.
The Bulldogs played the Bulls close for five innings before USF pulled away with a pair of home runs in the sixth. But Mississippi State continued to strand runners against Corrick, leaving five on the basepaths in the first four innings.
“I thought we did a good job getting runners on base; we just couldn’t really get them past second base there early on,” Ricketts said.
MSU had its best chance in the fourth after a one-out single and an error but couldn’t bring anyone home.
Up with two away in the inning, right fielder Jackie McKenna worked the count full before popping the ball up to the left side. USF catcher Josie Foreman and third baseman Dezarae Maldonado gave chase, but the ball nearly dropped between them.
At the last second, though, Foreman reached out and snagged the softball before it hit the dirt.
USF wasn’t giving Mississippi State that kind of chance.
The Bulls played solid softball, eking out the game’s first run on a designed play in the first inning. Meghan Sheehan broke from first base, drawing a throw from catcher Mia Davidson; Alexis Johns raced home from third for USF.
Sheehan added a solo home run off Mississippi State reliever Kenley Hawk, and Foreman unloaded for a two-run shot.
Foreman said she targeted a fan’s “hit it here” sign on the parking garage across the street, although the homer — the longest of her life — didn’t quite make it that far.
“Is that all it takes?” Bulls coach Ken Eriksen joked with his catcher.
Sheehan’s and Foreman’s home runs backed a complete-game shutout by Corrick, who said it wasn’t her best day in the circle. Remarkably, she might be right: the South Florida star came in with a cool 0.53 ERA and lowered it to 0.50.
She did so with nine strikeouts — despite four walks — and with the help of her defense, including a 4-6-3 double play in the third inning.
“I knew that I was going to be able to rock out seven innings with this team behind my back,” Corrick said.
Corrick struck out catcher Mia Davidson with two on and two out in the seventh to end the game and send Mississippi State into the losers’ bracket.
But it’s a spot from which the Bulldogs think they can recover.
“With this first loss, it definitely makes this a tougher route to get to the championship game,” outfielder Chloe Malau’ulu said. “However, I think that with this season — just being in the SEC — it puts us in a good spot going forward.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.