STARKVILLE — Paige Cook and Annie Willis began to nod as coach Samantha Ricketts finished her sentence at Thursday’s press conference.
The pair of Mississippi State players knew exactly why Ricketts saw a similarity between Arizona and the 2021 Bulldogs.
“When you look at them and what they did — particularly in Pac-12 play, starting 0-8 and then going on the run like they did — it reminds me of our team last year,” Ricketts said of the Wildcats.
Mississippi State started 0-13 in Southeastern Conference play a season ago but won its final seven conference games to finish with an 8-15 SEC mark. The Bulldogs won their first-round conference tournament game and reached the regional final before Oklahoma State knocked them out.
In Arizona, Ricketts sees the same fight — and even more success. The Wildcats wound up with an 8-16 Pac-12 record before going to No. 15 overall seed Missouri and winning the Columbia Regional.
“I know the grittiness and the determination it takes to turn it around when nothing’s going your way and you’re in that 0-8 or 0-13 hole in conference play,” Ricketts said. “I’m excited. I think it’s going to be two hard-nosed, gritty teams going out there and competing, giving it their best, and we’re excited to get on the field with them.”
Arizona’s two victories over the Tigers and MSU’s two upsets of No. 2 Florida State set up an unlikely Super Regional at Nusz Park. The best-of-three series begins at 11 a.m. Friday; Game 2 is at 3 p.m. Saturday, and no time has been announced for a potential winner-take-all Game 3.
With a victory, Mississippi State would advance to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. The Bulldogs would be one of just three teams to qualify for a WCWS without ever hosting an NCAA regional.
“We’re just really excited to get things started and get things rolling,” Cook said Thursday. “It’s like, ‘We’re ready to play. Let’s go.’”
The Bulldogs have been ready ever since winning four straight elimination games on Saturday and Sunday in Tallahassee to pull one of the biggest upsets in college softball history. It culminated in 5-0 and 4-3 wins over the Seminoles as MSU made its first-ever Super Regional.
And Arizona took notice. After finishing off its own regional win, the Wildcats watched the Bulldogs’ big-time upset.
“When Mississippi State comes down and takes down Florida State, your eyes get big and you say, ‘Wow, they’re playing well at the right time,’” Arizona coach Caitlin Lowe said. “We’re playing well at the right time, too, so I think it’s going to be an exciting series.”
The Wildcats are known for their high-powered offense, but pitching propelled them through the Columbia Regional. Arizona shut out Missouri twice, 2-0 and 1-0, to advance.
Lowe said she’d never seen two pitchers like Hanah Bowen and Devyn Netz “trust their stuff” like the duo did last weekend. Bowen said the Wildcats are ready to do it again in Starkville.
That’s despite a season in which Arizona lost 10 of its first 11 Pac-12 games, an uncharacteristic start for one of the best programs in college softball.
“It doesn’t matter the conference and what our record is,” Bowen said. “I think our time is right now and the endgame is here, and I think we’re just ready to go.”
The two teams have met in the postseason before. In 2018, the first time since 2005 that Mississippi State made it to Sunday in an NCAA regional, MSU was sent to Tucson. The Bulldogs lost 4-3 to the Wildcats in the regional final.
MSU has been consistent since, making regional finals in 2019 and 2021 before winning Sunday, but it can’t match Arizona, which owns eight career Women’s College World Series titles, the second most of any program.
It’s that level of success to which the Bulldogs aspire.
“Really, it’s an honor to be in a Super Regional against a program with the type of history that they have,” Ricketts said. “I know for me and for a lot of these girls on the team, we grew up watching them play in the World Series. For a program that’s been there year after year, I think we have a lot of respect for them. That is our goal as a program as well: to be a team that is in a Super Regional and working for a World Series year after year.”
That’s why the Bulldogs started their 2022 schedule with a bang. Over the span of three days in California, they played five games, including contests against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 3 UCLA.
MSU lost on the run rule in both games.
“It did not go well for us, but that was the point,” Ricketts said. “We wanted to challenge ourselves. We wanted to test the team and see where we were at and come home.”
The Bulldogs returned with plenty to work on. Ineffective offense cost them in games against South Alabama, Furman and Southern Miss. Poor defense and spotty pitching cost them in conference play against Florida, Alabama and other SEC foes.
But Mississippi State turned it on at exactly the right time. With their backs against the wall in Tallahassee, the Bulldogs shored up their fielding. Pitchers Aspen Wesley and Annie Willis carried the load. And Chloe Malau’ulu delivered the eventual winning hit as the MSU offense got into gear.
The Bulldogs rode back into Starkville on Monday to a hero’s welcome at Nusz Park. That’s a good thing — but a dangerous one for those whose heads remained in the clouds.
“When you start to look too far ahead this late in the season, it can be a little bit overwhelming,” Ricketts said.
It’s why the Bulldogs coaching staff has told its players all week to “be where your feet are” — whether that’s in the weight room, the press room or the batting cages.
MSU brought in its counseling and sport psychology department Wednesday to gauge players’ emotions and try to calm them in the midst of tremendous pressure. The team paused softball activities that day for a community service project as Ricketts tries to strike a balance between keeping her team busy and keeping the mood light.
With so much at stake, that’s not easy.
But Mississippi State has already come this far.
“This team bought into what we’re selling, which was to make history for this program and to be the first to attend a Super Regional,” Ricketts said. “For that to come to fruition over the weekend, I’m just so excited for them to experience what postseason softball is all about. We’re looking forward to it.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.