Emotions in sports are often complicated things.
Fearless, relentless confidence and excitement can turn to pain and disappointment in the time it takes for a pitch to go from mound to plate.
A team can start a game with momentum and belief, an entire world of postseason dreams and possibilities ahead of them, only to emerge hours later with eight months of training, traveling and competing having culminated in a heartbreaking end on someone else’s field, the imagined future of hours before struck down with no chance at redemption for another eight months.
Years of work and months of games, sure, but also the temporary emptiness, leaving those you battled with behind. No practice tomorrow, no bus ride next week.
The end of a season, no matter how successful, is a mix of emotions for all but one team every year.
As tears streamed throughout the dugout in Mobile Saturday night following elimination from the regional and the end of their season, Mississippi State’s softball team felt those pangs, but not without a level of hope and happiness, an optimism for the future.
Head coach Vann Stuedeman encouraged her team, letting them know their accomplishments were meaningful and that they were a part of something bigger. The future, she believes, is promising and was built by those who were feeling the sting of defeat.
“Last year, we were close to winning one game in SEC series’,” she said. “This year, we won that game and we were close to winning the second game and clinching those series’. Then last year we went to postseason and weren’t able to get a win, and we got a win this year. It’s part of the growing and building process.”
In just two seasons at MSU, Stuedeman has made the NCAA postseason twice, making it to the end of day two in the Mobile Regional over the weekend.
Several key seniors will be gone next year, but eight of nine offensive starters return for the Bulldogs, plus ace pitcher Alison Owen who debuted for MSU this year and set the school’s single-season and NCAA Tournament strikeout records.
Getting to the postseason this year was an impressive feat for a team that played 32 of its 57 games against teams who ultimately made it to an NCAA Regional, and Stuedeman hopes the experience will carry over in the future.
“The underclassmen got a taste for the postseason,” senior first baseman Shelby Fisher said, “and it’s gonna drive them to want more and more of it. It’s gonna be in everyone’s gut.”
The sting of season’s end and the tears streaming in the dugout of the team who just beat them won’t soon be forgotten.
“Getting here and being comfortable in the postseason is always gonna help everybody,” senior outfielder Jessica Cooley said. “I know that this program is going so far, that this is just the beginning of what Vann Stuedeman is gonna do. The sky is the limit for this program. I am extremely blessed to have played for her.”
Standing in front of her team for the final time, commending the seniors, praising the effort of all and thanking them for months on end of training and work, Stuedeman choked up as she told her team how proud of them she is.
“This team has just been through the ringer,” she said. “We’ve played so many games that were so close and could’ve gone our way. It’s just part of the process and building a program.
“This team is resilient,” she told reporters late Saturday night. “I told them to make a decision to either quit or fight. Have fun or be miserable. They could be one-pitch warriors or quit on the at-bat. They made a decision to fight.”
The future appears to hold hope and success, but on Saturday night, Stuedeman was thankful for the team she had, made up of players who bought in and believed.
“I’m really proud of this team and where we started and where we finished,” she said.