A 10-0 record to start a season is certainly impressive, and even more so for Mississippi State’s softball team that they reached double-digit wins in single-digit days, hitting their unblemished mark on Saturday of only their second weekend of the season.
What has head coach Vann Stuedeman so happy in it is her relative lack of anything to be unhappy about, a rarity for a coach of any sport.
A pitching specialist, not only has Stuedeman’s club already racked up 59 runs, it has held opponents to only six scores through 10 games. In fact, the margin could be even greater had the Bulldogs not run-ruled four of their early-season opponents.
On the mound, MSU had been led by a senior and a freshman, backed up and aided by the deepest bullpen Stuedeman has had since she arrived.
Senior pitcher Alison Owen is the veteran of the staff and was one of the MVPs of MSU’s run to an NCAA Regional last year.
While it’s admittedly a cliché, both Owen and Stuedeman say the stud pitcher feels better than she ever has.
Beyond experience and maturity, Owen says it’s been a combination of re-focus in the weight room with strength coach Alicia Catlette and a new post-game regimen with trainer Kari Kebach.
“At this point last year,” Owen conceded, “me and Coach Cat were bumping heads and I wasn’t making my best times in the weight room. Ever since I transferred here, it’s just been a complete different transition. I’ve just gotten stronger and stronger and stronger. I know everyone else has felt the same way.
“Right now, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I just feel good. In the past, after three innings I would be exhausted. Now, I feel like I can go for 30. I just feel comfortable and I can breathe. It’s just easy.”
An example of how strong her arm must be feeling: Only 10 games into the season, Owen has already pitched enough to earn a 5-0 record of her own at the mound.
In Boca Raton, Owen pitched three consecutive days in various roles without incident or concern, something Studeman believes is a good sign and an example of what she’ll have to do when SEC play begins.
“To still feel good says a lot about what Coach Cat and Kari have been able to do for Alison, and then for Alison to do it,” Stuedeman said. “We can provide the information, but it truly is up to them to put that in motion and she’s taken it seriously.”
Of course, Owen hasn’t been the only pitcher impressing the coaches. Shana Sherrod and Jacey Punches have advanced over the offseason, giving Stuedeman both tools to work with and veterans she can be confident in.
Added to the mix are freshmen hurlers Mackenzie Toler and Alexis Silkwood giving quality innings for the staff.
Silkwood, despite her youth, has quickly emerged as a rising star for the Bulldogs, setting a freshman record with 12 strikeouts in a game against FAU over the weekend. Coming off the weekend, Silkwood boasts an impressive 0.38 ERA, while holding opponents to an astounding .082 batting average.
“She’s got a mental toughness about her that is rare,” Stuedeman said about her freshman. “You don’t see it all the time. We’ve just worked on a lot of spins. When freshmen come in, we talk about being a pitcher versus a thrower. I think she’s becoming more of a pitcher now. Being able to spin and spot the ball rather than just throwing it up there and hoping it jams somebody. Now, she has an idea of where the ball’s going, how it’s getting there and what her body is doing to make it get there.
“She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around in my life, and determined, just incredibly determined. She just needs education and then she runs with it. It’s been fun to work with her and see her progress.”
However, all the success certainly hasn’t been relegated to the mound.
The Bulldogs have been just as if not more impressive at the plate, where a combination of veteran experience and youthful talent have led to some big numbers.
Junior Julia Echols and sophomore Loryn Nichols are both batting .400, senior Jessica Offut is second in the SEC with six stolen bases already and freshman Caroline Seitz leads the team with 10 hits, three doubles, two home runs, 21 stolen bases and a .724 slugging percentage.
Meanwhile, senior Heidi Shape is one of the best not just in Maroon and White but in the full SEC with a .553 on-base percentage and senior Sam Lenahan has delivered the game-clinching RBI in the last two outings.
Shape, who has scored the game-winning run in four different games, says the production at the plate is carryover from practice.
“We’re definitely improving,” Shape said. “The coaches put an emphasis on the hitting and we’ve all bought in to what they’re teaching and the process and we’re just going out there and trusting our swings. It’s paying off, so far.”
“Offensively, I’m very proud of the mature approaches,” Stuedeman said. “The upperclassmen, it’s up to them to teach the underclassmen how to approach their at-bats and how to be mature about failure, and they’re doing a really good job of that.”
This afternoon at 3, MSU hosts Central Arkansas, and while it’s a coachspeak thing to say, the Bulldogs are concerned with ending the day 1-0, rather than the big picture of starting the season 11-0.
“It’s been a really fun ride,” Owen said of the 10-0 start,” but I think we’re going for the next step and looking towards the next game. We had one day off because we have to, and a bunch of us came in on our own anyway. We’re not worried about our record. We’re just focusing on getting better in practice. What can you do that practice to get better for the team? Right after the win we celebrate then on the bus we’re thinking about the next game. It’s fun, it’s cool but we’re looking forward to the rest of the season.”