This past spring, we’ve seen two completely different teams on their respective diamonds, and many have been wondering and speculating what to expect next year for each. Before I get into my expectations and comparisons for next year, let’s review a little bit.
Let’s start with softball.
In what was expected by many in the media and many fans to be a rebuilding year for the softball team, Vann Stuedeman’s club had completely different plans. Those plans included going to a program record tying 4th regional appearance, beating the number 1 team in the nation in LSU 9-4, and going 36-21.
The season wasn’t without its own valleys and tough losses. Getting swept by Tennessee at home during Super Bulldog Weekend was a black eye and sore spot on the season. Losing the series to Ole Miss, having a first round exit from the SEC tournament, and falling short in the Lafayette regional were all difficult to watch.
And where there were shortcomings for the season, there is room to grow and improve. And there is plenty of room for growth for this young team, including several key vacancies left by departing seniors. The pitching staff, which is a microcosm of the entire team, is built around Alexis Silkwood (an emerging star in the SEC and the nation) who takes most of the starts for MSU. Cassady Knudsen, Mackenzie Toler, and Holly Ward all have had impressive performances but all have struggled as well. With some development from Ward, Toler, and Knudsen, this talented pitching staff could easily be considered one of the best in the SEC next season. But they have to take some strides forward this offseason.
In addition to growth within the ball club, the ball club itself is having some growth externally. A $6 million project to build a shiny brand new stadium with a 1000 chair back seat grandstand, a new state of the art video board, and improved dugouts and training facilities will be finished in time for the upcoming season. Improvements that were all drastically needed, and well deserved by an improving program.
The bottom line is this: that after years of developmental growth, Vann Stuedeman has become, and built her program into, a consistent winner. But she herself has stated that she wants more. And ultimately the fans do too. With a developing pitching staff and emerging star in Alexis Silkwood, a shiny and brand new stadium, and booming support from the fan base, 2016 might be the perfect storm for this team to take that next step.
On the other diamond, unfortunately we’ve seen regression rather than growth the past two years for our baseball team.
This season had promise. We had senior leadership at key positions. Our starting rotation appeared to be deep. And we took the season by storm with a 13-0 start. Yes, some were skeptical in our start to the season, but overall we were winning and that’s what mattered at the end of the day. Then the wheels fell off the wagon. And then the wagon fell to pieces. A team that started the season 13-0 followed that streak by going 11-30 for the rest of the season, ending up 24-30 and last in the SEC with a conference record of 8-22.
The program that was key in jump starting college baseball across the conference, and the nation, took a major stumble this year. They fell out of the national spotlight and became mired in mediocrity.
But, the only place to go is up from here. The precedent has been set by UCLA who went 25-30-1 in 2014 after their championship in 2013. This year, the Bruins hosted a regional and had an overall record of 45-16. I’m not saying that we’re bound to be a national seed regional host next year, but I’m saying that it is possible that we could bounce back in similar fashion next year.
The bottom line here is that pressure is mounting on John Cohen and his ball club. With that pressure building, can they take a step toward redemption next year? They have just about no other choice. This next year’s team is incredibly talented, having two top 10 recruiting classes already in the program, and another about to enter. And the talent that is present won’t have the excuse of being young anymore. They’ve been around for a little while now. Their backs are against the wall. Support from fans is seemingly waning. That young talent and coaching staff have a lot to play for and a lot to prove next season. It’ll be interesting to see what they can do to redeem themselves.
Both programs should feel a sense of pressure and urgency, but for completely different reasons. Vann Stuedeman’s team should feel the urge to take that previously mentioned next step toward the Women’s College World Series and OKC by getting through a regional. Hosting a regional, playing in a super regional, and finding a way to Oklahoma City are all within the realm of that next step of development that Stuedeman has brought to Starkville.
John Cohen’s ball club has the pressure of being the only team on campus to not be experiencing any sort of positive momentum. Add on having to play up to the standard set by the deep, rich history and legacy of teams in the past, and there is a lot for this team to live up to. They have plenty of talent around that dugout and some great arms in the bullpen, but can they step back into the national spotlight after a year lost in the wilderness? Can they redeem themselves after a season of struggles and mediocrity?
I think both teams will have success next season. I’m optimistic about the future. I even think both teams make regionals, with softball hosting theirs. But I don’t expect Cohen’s team to get beyond that point. I think that’s as far as they can go. However, I hope they prove me wrong. We all know that they have the talent to do so. As for Stuedeman’s bunch, a super regional trip wouldn’t surprise me. In fact, that’s exactly what I expect out of them. I don’t think it’s impossible for them to make a run all the way to Oklahoma City. I think it’s very possible, but it depends on how well Ward, Knudsen, Toler, and Silkwood can develop. I think the offense is there and ready, but this team will need a complete pitching staff to really go far. While I don’t expect them to make it to Oklahoma City at the moment, Stuedeman has worked wonders in years past with the pitching staff. She has brought out the best in all of her players too. Once Stuedeman has replaced her graduating senior in the field and lineup, this team will be one for the rest of the nation to watch out for.
I look forward to next year for both teams. I expect vast improvements for each. And I cannot wait to see them out on the diamonds playing their hearts out. Hail State.