A brand new stadium, hosting the SEC Tournament at the end of the year, plus a veteran and talent-laden team – it’s no surprise Vann Stuedeman is pumped. Even more than usual, that is.
“I’m excited,” the head coach said as Mississippi State softball prepares for the start of the 2016 season. “We’ve got a great group of girls that I enjoy. They’re fun to be around. They work hard. They like each other. We’ve got an incredible stadium. We’ve got an incredible school to play for. The SEC Tournament is coming here. It’s just an exciting year. There are a lot of great things going on. I’m proud of the product we’re going to put out.”
This is, she said, as excited as she’s been for a season since her first one in Starkville, and she’s got good reason for that. Her Bulldogs have been to four-straight Regionals in her four years at the helm, but things have been building toward 2016 for some time. And that’s not just a statement about the roster. There has been literal building going on for the last eight months as MSU’s new stadium was constructed over the course of the offseason, the grand opening of Nusz Park to come this Thursday when the Bulldogs open their season against Georgia Southern. Plus, MSU has been chosen to host the SEC Tournament at the end of the regular season.
Let’s start with the team itself. In any other year, all the talk would be about how talented the group is and how high the expectations are. Discussions to that end certainly continue, but it can be easy to miss among all the other excitement that this group has some serious potential.
“I’m vying for postseason,” Stuedeman said. “I want to be able to play here and not have to travel. We win in our schedule, we’ll be in a good spot.”
MSU finds itself with a good combination of veteran experience and young talent. The two seniors have mostly been in the starting lineup since arriving, Loryn Nichols and Kayla Winkfield two of the SEC’s fastest players. Then the core of juniors is expected to be the driving force, starting with the pitching-catching duo of Alexis Silkwood and Katie Anne Bailey. Silkwood is on pace to own just about every pitching record MSU has, while Bailey’s presence both defensively and offensively at the plate has been a catalyst for two years. Fellow juniors Caroline Seitz, Amanda Ivy and Mackenzie Toler, like their counterparts, have been among the more dominant and clutch hitters on the team and even in the conference.
“We’re gonna be relying heavily on those juniors and their leadership,” Stuedeman said. “They’ve been there. They’ve done that. And it’s time to take the next step. They realize that, but I don’t feel like they feel it’s a lot of pressure. They feel prepared. They feel confident that they can compete for a Regional championship and go to a Super Regional and compete for a Super Regional championship that would put us into the World Series. I feel like, mentally, that is what the junior class expects of themselves and the people around them. That’s the message that I’m getting from them.”
As for the stadium that talented team will be playing in, yeah, it’s nice. Stuedeman, who has been around the country seeing the best and worst around, believes it to absolutely be in the uppermost tier of college softball stadiums. The $6 million facility, named after Tommy and Terri Nusz, has 1,000 chairback seats, plus standing room only areas with drink rails. Then, of course, there is the softball version of the Left Field Lounge on the deck surrounding the outfield wall. And while no one can sit there, the new video board over the left field wall is an impressive addition, as well.
Construction through the offseason has led to some “creative” ways of practicing, including occasional use of the city’s softball fields. Now that Nusz Park is finished, however, Stuedeman considers it very much worth any adjustments they had to make in the offseason.
“You stand at centerfield and look into home plate and you’re like, ‘wow,’” she said.
The rest of the SEC will get to have that experience at the end of the season, of course, when MSU hosts the 2016 SEC softball tournament. It’s the 20th anniversary of the sport being introduced into the league, coming on the inaugural year of Nusz Park. Planning for the event had already been going before the 2015 tournament was played last year at LSU where MSU officials were on site to research and help prepare for 2016.
They’ve still got a few more months to plan, but they’re already looking forward to the event.
“It’s gonna be amazing,” Stuedeman said. “Last year, SEC softball was No. 1 in RPI. We had five teams at the World Series. They’re all gonna be here in Starkville playing softball. It’ll be the best softball in the country for four days in a row right here in Starkville, Mississippi.
“We get to showcase our city. We get to showcase our facilities and our school. What an honor to do that and what an opportunity to educate people about Mississippi State.”
The Bulldogs open the 2016 season on Thursday at 5:30 hosting Georgia Southern as part of the Bulldog Classic, including five games this weekend. Each of them will be broadcast online on SEC Network+.