5:30 p.m., Saturday, South Alabama softball field
In the top of the sixth inning, Mississippi Valley State leading Mississippi State 1-0, a media relations person in the press box asked if I wanted to interview anyone from the winning team after the game, meaning Valley.
Two outs for MSU in the bottom of the inning, then the Bulldogs got hot.
Outfielder Jessica Cooley, who had struck out twice in the game, stepped to the plate and drilled a solo home run to dead center, higher than the scoreboard.
Game tied at 1.
A walk and a bunt single later, Shelby Fisher came to the plate with both outs still on the board and hit a liner to left, scoring the go-ahead run and securing the final score of 2-1.
Junior pitcher Alison Owen, who threw MSU’s full game against Florida State yesterday, again pitched a complete game, only allowing one unearned run. With the win Vann Stuedeman improves to 40-1 when leading after six innings.
MSU takes on host South Alabama shortly. Follow @mstateSB and @bobcarskadon on Twitter for updates, or watch via ESPN3.com.
10 a.m., Saturday, Marriott Mobile
Bacon, coffee, fruit, bacon, toast, coffee, bacon and more coffee for breakfast.
It’s elimination day in Mobile, either win or go home, and Mississippi State plays Mississippi Valley State at 3:30 to decide which it will be.
Yesterday’s regional-opening 5-2 loss to Florida State was a bit of a shock to the system for the Bulldogs, who had been off for almost two weeks and may have let nerves get the best of them in the early innings Friday afternoon.
As we’ve chronicled here, Vann Stuedeman and the team worked on a mix of hard practice and recreational enjoyment in the days leading up to the regional. For whatever reason, the relxation turned to stress when yesterday’s game began.
“We need to go back to playing our kind of softball,” outfielder Jessica Offutt said. “I think we just put too much pressure on ourselves.”
The “our kind” of softball that got MSU this far is a fundamental brand of play, being smart, efficient and timely.
With four errors Friday, MSU got away from the fundamentals and lost a bit of the fun when the pressure Offutt mentioned kicked in.
“Softball is catching and throwing, and we just did not do that very well,” Stuedeman said. “We played 12 days ago, that was the first time I’ve seen them tight in 12 days. It just took them a minute to get loose.”
The tightness led to the errors and the errors led to the loss.
Three of FSU’s runs were unearned, coming directly from the errors, which as Stuedeman pointed out after the game, would have kept it tied.
“We should still be playing at 2-2 right now.”
Even those two runs were indirect results of previous errors, where the inning should have been over had things gone as they usually do.
Knowledge of errors does nothing to go back and change the final score, but it gives MSU a clear idea of how to rectify the problem.
“It’s mainly about relaxing, having fun and playing the game we love,” third baseman Logan Foulks said. “Be a Sandlot kinda kid and go out there and have fun. It’s not a big deal. It’s a game that we love.”
The key now, Stuedeman said, is to find a way to make sure that happens.
Make sure MSU plays with the same state of mind that got them comeback wins, blowout victories and hard-fought Ws in the regular season.
That type of play finally began to show in the final innings of Friday’s game, when the Bulldogs put their runs on the board and at one point have enough runners on the field to have potentially tied the game.
MSU’s mantra all season has been “late-game, our game.”
“It’s just a matter of taking those late innings and putting them into tomorrow,” Foulks said after yesterday’s loss.
“I feel bad for them that they couldn’t play loose and enjoy the NCAA postseason,” Stuedeman said. “They earned the right to be here. You only get four chances in your college career.”
GAMEDAY 10 a.m., Friday, Marriott Mobile
Compared to the previous two days, oddly enough, gameday is a pretty relaxed one. For the morning, at least.
At this time yesterday, Mississippi State was halfway through its first of two practices. Today? The Bulldogs just finished breakfast and are hanging out at the hotel, watching TV, messing around on laptops, getting their minds together and ready for the game.
The big game, of course, when MSU plays Florida State at 3:30 in the first game of the regional. The same FSU team which was once again eating breakfast at the same time and place as the Bulldogs. Definitely not awkward.
While gameday does bring a more manageable schedule, it also ramps up the mental game.
One way players and coaches cope: superstitions.
I asked around at breakfast – where assistant coach Beth Mullins said she’ll have the exact same plate of food tomorrow “when we win today.” If it works today, better do it again tomorrow, is the thought.
Freshman outfielder Loryn Nichols will spend most of the morning planning what she’s going to wear. Not because she’s worried about looking good on camera, but because it all has to be done just so.
“I wrap my shoelaces around the bottom of my cleats, then tie them and tuck them into my shoes,” she said. “And all my layers have to be the right colors. They can’t be the same.”
If she’s wearing white pants, it has to be black sliding shorts. Black jersey top? Maroon shirt underneath. And the bow (there has to be a bow) must be a different color from the jersey.
“But if I hit well,” she said, “I wear the same bow the next game, even if it’s the same color.”
Bow continuity takes precedent over alternating colors. Of course, if Nichols goes O-fer and doesn’t get a single hit in a game, she trashes the bow, thrown away forever.
“My mom used to get so mad at me in high school. She’d always yell at me, ‘You’re wasting perfectly good bows!’”
Doesn’t matter. That bow was bad mojo.
Sophomore outfielder Briana Bell, once at the game, doesn’t have many superstitions for what she wears, but don’t touch her bat.
“We’ll try and pick it up to hand it to her,” junior outfielder Rachel Zdeb said, “and she’ll just yell at us, ‘No! I’ll get it!’”
“Someone picked up my bat once,” Bell said. “My eyes got big and I was like, ‘Nooooooo!” and buried my face in my hands.”
Junior pitcher Alison Owen has to do what’s called “touches.” She starts at one end of the dugout and walks to the other, touching every person along the way. Tap on the shoulder, brush of the cleat, whatever is easiest.
A few more gameday rituals I was told, “Don’t put that on your blog.”
Like telling someone what you wished for on a shooting star, sharing the secret would ruin the good vibes.
More of the seemingly-innocuous decisions, but all-too-important decisions to be made before the game: thick headband, no headband, or thin ninja headband? Sunglasses? A visor? Regular ponytail, French braid or something I’ve never heard of called a fishhook braid?
I think that’s what it was called anyway. I can barely tie my shoes, let alone braid anything.
One thing that’s easy to pick out and put on for at least some of them, Nichols and Zdeb shared, is batting gloves.
“I don’t change batting gloves all year. My right one only has four fingers left on it,” Nichols said.
“My entire pointer finger is gone on one of mine,” Zdeb said.
Whatever the superstition or ritual may be, it’s all pre-game. Once the game is over, like it will be later this evening, what’s done is done. The win or loss only affects the next game’s rituals.
We’ll see if the good vibes work this afternoon.
8:30 p.m., Thursday, Marriott Mobile
Finally back at the hotel after a long day, MSU is settled in for the night, resting for the next day’s game.
The team managed to fit a lot into just one day, getting a defensive practice in the morning, a batting practice in the afternoon, a trip to the beach, a few hours of shopping in downtown Fairhope and a lovely dinner at the house of Mullins’s family to cap off the day.
Again, that’s the balance Vann Stuedeman wants. Work hard, have fun. Enjoy yourself.
But, not too much fun. Volleyball and football on the beach is fine, but don’t overdo it. After all, they’ve got a game tomorrow.
And for the love of softball, use sunscreen.
“Vann’s gonna kill me if I get a sunburn,” third baseman Logan Foulks said while retreating to the shade of a pavilion after a swim in surprisingly-warm waters of the bay.
Also, a special thank you from this reporter to Mullins’ family for the delicious dinner after the beach. Young bachelors like myself don’t often get nice home-cooked meals. We do cook meals at home, I just wouldn’t use the word “nice” to describe them. Or any other positive adjective, for that matter.
2:15 p.m., Thursday, The Fieldhouse batting cages
The above video is the first (and quite possibly the last) edition of Dr. Bob with myself junior pitcher Alison Owen. The rest of the team is doing batting practice, so as you can imagine, not a lot to do for ace pitchers.
I’m gonna see if I can get Alison to teach me how to throw a fastball later.
Also, just for fun, here’s a picture of the moment I mentioned earlier, when third baseman Logan Foulks made a diving catch over the dugout railing and yelled, “We’re going to the Super Regionals!”
11:00 a.m., Thursday, South Alabama softball field
“You’re playing Major League Baseball now,” Vann Stuedeman told her team before practice. “No school, you’ve got your food money and nothing to worry about but softball. This is the dream.”
Indeed it is, playing softball by the beach, which is the kind of mentality Stuedeman wants her team to have.
“You made it to The Dance, be happy and have fun,” she told the team. “Now, there’s a difference between having fun and working hard and then just acting silly. But have fun, work hard and we’re gonna be great.”
The first practice of both the day and the trip was an all-defense outing, working on fielding, turning double plays, catching fly balls and wrangling in bunts, while the next practice, after lunch, is all about hitting.
On one of the final plays of the first practice, an infield pop-up from assistant coach Alan Reach pulled left to the home dugout. Running from the infield, third baseman Logan Foulks sprinted to the dugout, leaned over the waist-high fence guarding the inside and made a near-diving catch.
The entire team erupted in cheers, Foulks ran back to the field, threw the ball in the air behind her and yelled, “We’re going to the Super Regionals!”
Absolutely, Mississippi State is having fun.
8:30 a.m. Marriott Mobile: As we’ve mentioned, the Bulldogs play Florida State in their first game on Friday at 3:30. I noticed an FSU flag had been hung by someone along the stairwell as I worked in the lobby last night.
As fate would have it, the Seminoles are staying in the same hotel as MSU.
Then, as cruel fate crept in, the two teams happened to be at breakfast at the same time today. A little awkward? Certainly.
But, it turns out several of MSU’s players know several more on on FSU’s team from travel ball in high school, and there were even a couple hugs exchanged at breakfast. But just a couple. Not going crazy with the sportsmanship here.
In fact, Foulks – she of the imaginary Regional-winning catch – had been texting and talking to her Seminole friend on the bus ride to Mobile.
Lunch is up next (sub sandwiches, I believe), then hitting practice in Daphne and a trip to the beach in Fairhope for some of that fun, fun, fun Stuedeman was talking about. She may even sing more songs from The Little Mermaid like she did during warm-ups this morning.
9:30 p.m. Wednesday Mobile, Alabama
The Mississippi State softball team has officially arrived and settled in at the scenic Marriott in Mobile for the NCAA Regional.
I’ll be with the team for the rest of the week and I’ll post updates, videos, stories and the like here, so it’ll be nice and easy to keep up with.
The bus pulled out of Starkville at 2:15, with Vann Stuedeman doing interviews by 2:30, and it being a travel day, the softball action was minimal.
The people action, however, was pretty limitless.
An interesting note on that interview, by the way, as Stuedeman was chatting in advance with the TV crew broadcasting MSU’s game on Friday: one of the women on the call happened to be Charlotte Morgan, an All-American coached by Stuedeman at Alabama.
But, after some interviews and extensive discussions among the coaches on how the full NCAA Tournament bracket might play out, the day was mostly music and food.
5:30 p.m.: Almost to Mobile, the entire staff at the front of the bus broke out into song, singing ‘Let It Be’ by The Beatles. Why? I’m not sure, but that seems to be something the whole team has in common.
6:30 p.m.: On the way to dinner at the Original Oyster House after dropping bags off at the hotel, I was walking around the back of the bus trying to find out what a couple dozen softball players do for hours on end trapped on the road. There’s video of that below, in which second baseman Heidi Shape somehow managed to get the whole bus clapping and singing Mariah Carey. I’ve still got ‘Always Be My Baby’ stuck in my head, and now you probably will, too.
Also on the bus, Stuedeman announced to the team and congratulated a pair of players who earned a postseason honor, the details of which will be released tomorrow, I’m told.
One thing I forget being from Mississippi, is how many people don’t live near enough to the water to see it often.
As the team sat down with a gorgeous view of the sun setting over the bay, Stuedeman remembered what I did not.
“All you girls from a landlocked state, make sure you’re watching this sunset,” she told them. “There’s not much else this pretty.”
Much shrimp, fish and grits later, we find ourselves pleasantly stuffed and back at the hotel.
Tomorrow will be a significantly busier day, beginning with practice on South Alabama’s field in the morning, the first on-site preparations for MSU’s game against Florida State on Friday at 3:30.
Speaking of that game, the coaches and players are expecting a big crowd of Maroon and White this weekend. Sounds like it’s a nice weekend drive for some people.
After practice is lunch and then, oh hey, more practice. Hitting practice in Daphne, followed by a good three hours of beach and shopping in Fairhope. As I have little to contribute in practice, I’m looking particularly forward to that event.
Another cool, small-world-after-all story: assistant coach Beth Mullins is from Mobile, so the team is heading out to her parents’ house for dinner at the end of Thursday.
I’ll have updates, pictures and probably even a few videos throughout the day. Make sure to follow MSU softball (@mstateSB) and myself (@bobcarskadon) on Twitter, and an easy way to keep up with everything is the one-stop coverage center at HailState.com