STARKVILLE — At some of Mississippi State softball’s home tournaments in the February cold, coach Samantha Ricketts and her players looked up and counted the fans in the stands.
Once, the tally was just 14 — meaning more Bulldogs in the dugout than there were supporters in the chairback seats at Nusz Park.
Contrast that with last weekend, when Mississippi State fans filled every nook and cranny of the venue. Nearly every seat was full, the concourses were clogged, and an expanded outfield deck struggled to contain fans with standing-room only tickets.
MSU brought a program record 2,209 fans for the first game of NCAA Super Regionals on Friday against Arizona. Saturday’s Game 2 saw an even bigger crowd at 2,299.
“To go from 14 to 2,200, or whatever it was, was just really amazing — something I don’t think any of us imagined,” Ricketts said after Game 2, a 7-1 loss that eliminated the Bulldogs from championship contention.
Mississippi State’s season was over, but the fanbase a historic year created was just getting started.
Ricketts said she hoped her team made “a couple thousand new fans” after winning an NCAA regional for the first time ever.
“We believed, but now we’ve seen that we can play at this level, and we can play in the Super Regional round,” she said. “We can host. We can draw the crowd. We can have Starkville showing up and being loud for softball.”
That was the product of two days in Tallahassee that, Ricketts insisted, didn’t come out of nowhere. On May 21-22, Mississippi State won four consecutive elimination games, including two against No. 2 overall seed Florida State, to win the regional and advance.
“It wasn’t something that we just turned on last weekend,” Ricketts said. “I know that’s how it looks from the outside, but the lessons that we’ve learned along the way we’ve gone through and not let them beat us.”
It was an 0-13 start to Southeastern Conference play in 2021 before the Bulldogs righted the ship, got hot and reached a regional final.
It was playing two of the top three teams in the country, No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 3 UCLA, in a tough first weekend in California in February.
It was “heartbreak” in Tuscaloosa as the Bulldogs lost two late leads to Alabama in a three-game sweep.
It was 22 innings in two SEC tournament games — a nine-inning win over LSU and a marathon loss to Tennessee.
“They just continued to fight and persevere,” Ricketts said. “I think that’s what led us to this stage this week.”
What a stage it was for a team not accustomed to seeing it. MSU had never hosted an NCAA Regional, and its biggest crowd of the season was just over 1,000 fans.
But people lined the outside of the park to welcome the team home on May 23 and were back in full force four days later.
“It was beyond anything that we could have imagined,” Ricketts said. “Just to see what was done in the outfield was amazing. It was a first-class, top-notch effort from everyone in our administration. It was so much hard work to make this happen over the past several days. I am so thankful for that. I am thankful for the Bulldog faithful to show up and show out. They had our backs.”
Despite the big crowd, though, MSU failed to advance to its first-ever Women’s College World Series. A veteran Arizona team won both games from the Bulldogs to make its 25th trip to the WCWS.
Ricketts hopes just getting to this stage will help Mississippi State in years to come.
“When you look at a program like Arizona, who’s there year after year, they have that experience,” Ricketts said. “Now our girls can have that same feeling.”
Mississippi hopes that feeling will be accompanied by increased fan support. There won’t be nearly 2,300 people at every game, but now that the Bulldogs have broken through for the first time, the days of 14 fans at Nusz Park might just be over.
It’ll be up to MSU to keep it that way.
“We hope that we can continue to do our part in Starkville and bring the fans back out and continue to pack them in, whether it’s in the stands or on the deck,” Ricketts said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.