April 13, 2018 10:01:24 AM
STARKVILLE -- The good news is the No. 23 Mississippi State softball team doesn't play a ranked opponent this weekend.
The bad news is MSU's opponent is its biggest rival.
With huge NCAA regional ramifications on the line, No. 23 MSU takes on Ole Miss in a three-game Southeastern Conference series at the Ole Miss Softball Complex.
The teams will play at 4 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network +), at 6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2), and at 6 p.m. Monday (SEC Network).
"The stakes are really high," MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. "However, it is just another weekend in the conference. We need to find a way to go on the road and win a series. We are getting late in the year, so the ramifications for each series are bigger."
In the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), MSU is No. 19, while Ole Miss is No. 32.
The Bulldogs (30-11, 4-8 Southeastern Conference) enter the second half of the conference schedule with a chance to play host to a NCAA tournament regional. While the Rebels (21-16, 4-11) are in a relatively comfortable spot to make a regional, the concern is overall wins.
To play in an NCAA regional, a team must be above .500 in regular-season play. Ole Miss has eased away from the .500 mark this week with victories against Central Aransas (9-3) and Belmont (5-0).
"A lot of softball left, but you still got to make the most the opportunity presented," Ole Miss coach Mike Smith said. "Our biggest challenge has been consistency. In the second half of the season, we found some consistency a year ago. Hopefully, we can do that again this year."
Ole Miss' primary struggle has been offense. In a series loss last weekend at LSU, Ole Miss managed four runs in 33 innings. The good news is pitcher Kaitlin Lee threw all 19 innings in a 2-1 loss last Friday. She returned to the circle for a complete game Sunday in a 3-1 victory.
Lee is 12-7 with a 2.16 earned run average. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College transfer and Mississippi native was 23-11 with a 1.82 ERA in her first season with the Rebels last year. She was the driving force behind an SEC tournament championship and the program's first regional at home.
Lee has had a hand in continuing Ole Miss' recent mastery in the series. She pitched a four-hit shutout in a 2-0 regular-season win in Oxford and a five-hitter in a 2-1 win at the SEC tournament a year ago.
The teams didn't play a conference series last year. Overall, Ole Miss has won six of the last eight series meetings. MSU's last conference series win came in a sweep in 2013.
"When you play on the road, you have to take advantage of your scoring chances," Stuedeman said. "When the other team is on the ropes, you have to apply the pressure and push some runs across."
MSU also lost its last conference series, falling in two of three games against Texas A&M.
This weekend's series is crucial for MSU because it will face No. 6 Florida, No. 10 Tennessee, and No. 11 South Carolina in its final three conference series.
Junior Kat Moore enters the weekend as MSU's second-leading hitter with a .339 average. She is one of four Mississippi natives for the Bulldogs. Ole Miss has two players from Mississippi on this year's squad.
"It's not the big rivalry like it is football," Moore said. "However, the games are intense and a lot of fun to play in. We know the crowd won't be pulling for us this weekend."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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