Tomorrow, Vann Stuedeman will lead her softball team in their first game of the season in the brand new, $6 million newly minted Nusz Park. Stuedeman will look to lead the Bulldog softball club to set a program record fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but their aspirations for this season go beyond that. With returning stars in Alexis Silkwood, Katie Anne Bailey, Caroline Seitz, Kayla Winkfield, and Loryn Nichols, this team hopes to live up to the upper limits of their potential and attempt a run at Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series.
In 2015, we saw Vann Stuedeman’s team take a step forward in developing the program as they made their way through a season that had several highlights and big wins. Most notable amongst their wins would be beating the top team in the nation at the time in LSU 9-4 with a dominant effort. Other notable wins came with a series win over Texas A&M and game 3 of the Florida series. A&M would go on to make a deep run in the Tuscaloosa Super Regional to end their season. LSU and Florida both wound up as two of the final four teams in the WCWS, with Florida being the eventual national champion.
But with every highlight the Bulldogs had last year, there were also instances and games where it was clear that development was still needed. Being swept by Tennessee during Super Bulldog Weekend last year was certainly not a bright spot for this team. MSU’s end to the season was also something less than stellar; being run ruled in the SEC Tournament by Mizzou, and then following that with failing to get beyond the Lafayette regional was a disappointing finish to an enjoyable #RoadToWCWS:
So, where does that leave MSU coming into this year? Well, they’ve been getting some attention nationally with receiving votes in both major polls. Vann Stuedeman has also improved an already strong coaching staff by bringing in Keilani Ricketts, sister of assistant coach Samantha Ricketts, to be a volunteer assistant coach. There’s also plenty of returning talent for this season, as well as a ton of depth across the board, most notably filling in gaps in the pitching staff.
Last season, we saw Alexis Silkwood make strides to become one of the best pitchers in the conference as she continued her trek to become the best pitcher in Mississippi State’s 25 year history. Silkwood posted a 26-16 record alongside a 2.85 ERA. Silkwood also had 24 complete games last year, as well as 6 shutouts. Despite Alexis Silkwood’s stellar year, MSU had a hard time finding support from other pitchers. Cassady Knudsen and Holly Ward both showed promise, combining for a record of 8-3 with 3 complete games and 68 strikeouts.
However, both Knudsen and Ward struggled with giving up runs and subsequently they had ERAs of 4.94 and 5.98 respectively. That being said, they were both freshmen this past season and after an offseason of working with Vann Stuedeman and NCAA pitching legend Keilani Ricketts, it should be expected for both young pitchers to take huge strides forward. In addition to developing current pitchers, Stuedeman also worked to bring more talent to Starkville as she signed two freshmen to come in and help add depth and more options for the Bulldogs.
Along with improving and strengthening the bullpen, Mississippi State also brings back key offensive contributors in home run leader Caroline Seitz, base running and stealing experts in Loryn Nichols and Kayla Winkfield, and Mackenzie Toler and Katie Anne Bailey, both of whom have become well rounded batters in their time in Starkville. To go with those proven starters, MSU also brings back several potential key players from last year’s team and introduces six other new freshmen to the program as well.
With over a third of the team being new faces coupled with losing proven starters in Erika Gaul and Julia Echols to graduation, it is possible this team might struggle in a few games early on. Though I don’t think this will be a major cause for concern seeing as most major contributors from last year’s team returned, I do think it is something to keep an eye on. Something that does concern me is the rigorous schedule this team will have to face. 16 games on the Bulldogs’ schedule will be against six teams that made it to Oklahoma City last season. Of note, MSU’s SEC slate will feature particularly tough matchups with Auburn and LSU at home. The Bulldogs will have to travel to Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida.
The bottom line is that the program is better off now than it has been at any other time in history. Vann Stuedeman, with the backing of Scott Stricklin, has built a competitive and winning program here in Starkville. The new stadium, Nusz Park, has to be one of the best facilities in all of NCAA Softball. There is a new level of exposure with a program record of 32 games being televised along with hosting the SEC Tournament at the end of the season. Things are better than ever for the softball program. But, will the team be able to live up to the growing expectations and compete with the best teams in the nation?
By all accounts, having a third of your team being freshmen means your team is rather young. Though the youth movement will likely pay off down the road, it might be a hindrance early on in the season. They’ve got an uphill battle with such an arduous schedule. But, this pitching staff has the chance to be the best Stuedeman has ever had the opportunity to work with, and the depth will allow Vann to work out better matchups for her pitchers. And though the team is young, the veterans on the team have proven that they can compete with the cream of the crop and even beat national title contenders.
I think this team will go as far as the pitching staff will take them. They may not be incredibly impressive to start the season, but toward the end of it, we should see a group that can potentially go deep into the SEC tournament. As for other postseason aspirations, I don’t see why this team can’t host a regional. Is it all that likely? That’s hard to tell. As a fan, I'm truly hoping that they can and will make that run to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series.
And if, for whatever cause, you need anymore reason to hope that they'll make it, here's this:
We’ll have a better picture of how good this team can and will be once Super Bulldog Weekend is here. Looking at the big picture, if this team can get past the regional level, I would not be surprised to see their momentum carry them throughout the postseason. Though I believe they’re truly one year away from contending for a national title due to their youth, I wholeheartedly think they’ll compete and upset some of the nation’s best teams this year. Vann Stuedeman and her team still needs to prove that they can win consistently, but this season is the perfect time to do that.
Also, how could you not expect success from a program that tweets pictures of adorable dogs?