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MSU Softball Springing into New Year with 3-1 start

Head Coach Vann Stuedeman and the Bulldogs changing the culture in Starkville.

Vann, always animated in the third base coaching box, cheers on her team.
Vann, always animated in the third base coaching box, cheers on her team.

Mississippi State Softball is no stranger to success. With nine trips to the NCAA Tournament, MSU has suffered only five losing seasons in their 22 seasons. Unfortunately, two of those five losing seasons came in consecutive seasons causing a change in the guard in Starkville where coach Jay Miller had built a consistent winner.

In June of 2011, Vann Stuedeman was passed the reigns of head coaching duties and became the fifth coach in MSU history. After 11 years coaching up some of the best pitchers in Division I softball at the University of Alabama, she finally got her break. Bringing a relentless mindset and infectious attitude, she has ushered in a new era. In just 60 games, she has taken MSU softball to new heights and has shown the SEC and country that there is no reason Mississippi State shouldn't be a winner. An advocate for Title IX, a major factor in women's sports, Stuedeman states that no longer will the team be referred to as the "Lady Bulldogs". This team means business.

Take, for instance, the condition that these players are in. Under strength and conditioning coach Alicia Catlette, they have been trained as well as anyone in the country (As seen in this video with our friend Bob)

Bob Carskadon participates in the Bulldog Break In Challenge with Mississippi State Softball (via mstateathletics)

Coach Stuedeman has helped produce six different All-American hurlers a total of 11 times and her pitching staffs have never had an ERA higher than 2.88. She inherited a pitching staff at MSU that had an ERA of 4.90 and dropped the average two runs in just a year. Last season, she became the winningest first-year head coach in the history of the program and has transformed the players to maximize their full potential.

The Bulldogs began the 2012 season well enough with a 5-0 start and 7-1 after eight games. But the toll of a young roster and new coach caught up with them and the learning had to begin as they would drop to 19-18 going into April. Tough losses to Alabama showed that this team had come a long way in less than a year. But something began to click. The Bulldogs went to Arkansas and won two of three. After their one loss to Arkansas, the Bulldogs bit. 12 consecutive wins pushed them into the conversation as a lock in the NCAA Tournament. The 12-game winning streak and seven-game SEC winning streak were third best in school history. Although the Bulldogs would come up just shy of beating eventual national champion Alabama in the SEC Tournament, they found their way into the postseason with a trip to Oregon.

A program once flawed began to come together late and it has seemed to carry over into 2013. With the contagious winning attitude and never-say-die motto, the MSU softball team has begun the season with their ultimate goal being a trip to Oklahoma City for the College World Series.

Thursday night began the 2013 edition of the Maroon and White with a few early challenges. With University of Georgia transfer Alison Owen on the mound, the Bulldogs were cruising. In her Bulldog debut, she fanned nine batters for the best start in school history. But only three hits was all that South Alabama needed to take 3-2 victory over the Maroon-clad dawgs. A Sam Lenahan two-run blast was all the Bulldogs managed in the game and they were forced to regroup.

The Bulldogs returned to the Diamond in day two of the round-robin tournament Friday night with senior leader Stephanie Becker in the circle. Becker is coming off a breakout junior season under the tutelage of Coach Stuedeman where she finished the season in the top-10 in seven different categories for a year. She also entered in striking distance of being the greatest strikeout thrower in school history with only 115 k's till the record.

State got 5.1 solid innings of two-run ball from Becker as she fanned seven batters garnering the win. Finishing the game would be Alison Owen who went 1.1 innings with three more strikeouts and the save. The dawgs managed to put five runs on the board with smooth work on the base paths stealing eight.

Day three of the competition brought more MSU success and the offense would come alive in a big way. A six-run fifth inning broke the game open as the Bulldogs would add two more in the sixth to end the game on a run-rule, 8-0. Kylie Vry proved that MSU might have one of the deeper staffs in the conference as she turned away nine Tennessee State Tigers in just 4.0 innings of one-hit softball and in her freshman debut, Jacie Punches closed the door to earn the win.

Immediately following, the Bulldogs would keep it going against Georgia State. Owen started out on the mound and made it clear that she will be a force this season. A starter in the WCWS as a Georgia Bulldog, she brought the thunder in the opening weekend earning her first win in her three total appearances Saturday evening. Owen allowed no one to reach base via walk and allowed just one batter to get a hit in 4.0 innings pitched. Five strikeouts by Owen and three by Becker in just 1.0 inning overwhelmed GSU. Coupled with the strong pitching effort was the awakening of the Bulldog bats.

Last season Bulldog fans saw the emergence of a young Jessica Cooley. Cooley found her stroke with the help of assistants Alan Reach and Beth Mullins. A 15-home run season (3rd best all-time) made her one of the most feared batters in the country and Saturday she showed no signs of letting up. An inning after North Carolina transfer power hitter Logan Foulks welcomed herself to Starkville with a two-run shot to deep center, Cooley found herself with the bases loaded only to clear them with a grand slam. The four-run dinger was Cooley's third of her career.

Ashley Phillips would then put the game away for good with a two-run double to right with the bases loaded giving the Dawgs the win, 9-1, by run-rule.

Despite the first-night loss, the Bulldogs were dominate. The pitching staff struck out 10.9 batters per seven innings with two of those games being run-rule, combining for a 1.12 ERA and a stellar 39/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Owen started her MSU career with 14 strikeouts and zero walks with an astonishing .100 batting average against.

A deep pitching staff, aggressive base running, a stronger lineup and a will to win, puts MSU in excellent position to win big in 2013. Something special is brewing in Starkville, Miss., and it all started on that summer day in 2011 when coach Stuedeman arrived to a campus not heavily involved in softball. That all is shifting around the community as the contagious outlook is spreading.

With a top-five preseason ranking for MSU baseball and a softball team on the cusp of breaking the top-25, the spring of 2013 has big things in store. Come see for yourself next weekend Feb. 16-17 in the Bulldog Battle round-robin.