“I just remember taking a deep breath and being really, really excited. I looked around and saw everyone I had been working with for a year. I was ready. I took a deep breath and was like, ‘Let’s do this.’”
That was the first time Alison Owen stepped in the circle for Mississippi State, and seven innings later she had completed her debut with a record nine strikeouts, notching the first Ks in a total that is now just two short of an all-time record-breaking career at MSU.
Of course, that outing wasn’t the beginning of her Bulldog career; it was just the first game.
The earliest days of her Maroon and White story came after her sophomore year when she had been granted her release to transfer from Georgia and was looking for somewhere that felt like home. Shortly after, new MSU head coach Vann Stuedeman got in touch.
“I remember the first day she called me and she just sounded so sweet and straightforward; that’s the coach I was looking for,” Owen recalled. “When I came on my visit and stepped on campus, I committed … I just kind of knew.”
She enrolled in January of 2012 and spent the entirety of that first season on the bench watching, waiting, cheering and working as the first season under Stuedeman played out with Owen not allowed to get on the field.
“She’s almost been here as long as I have,” Stuedeman joked.
Then, finally, after that year of waiting, she got her very own first pitch on the home field, the beginning of an impressive and whirlwind career in which she’s amassed 450 strikeouts (one shy of the record) and 34 total wins in only two seasons.
All of that with more games to play this year.
“To me,” Stuedeman said, “that’s just incredible. It speaks volumes about the kind of pitcher she is. She makes the ball move. She misses barrels. It’s amazing to think what she’d have done if she had four years here.”
Like a great book or an afternoon nap, the end of that career comes after what feels like ages and mere moments at the same time.
This weekend, MSU hosts Arkansas in their final home game of the year, the last homestand for Owen and her six fellow Bulldog seniors.
“It’s been a really fun, eventful journey,” Owen said. “I remember my first game. When I put on that jersey for the first time and I was just like ‘Whew, this is a whole new beginning, a whole new chapter for me.’ Now it’s just really sad that it’s coming to a close. This place will always be my home. No matter where I am I’ll always be wearing Maroon and White. I can’t thank this program enough for what they’ve done for me.”
The seven seniors who will be honored this weekend, as well as student manager J Bailey, were the proverbial foundation to the house Stuedeman is building in Starkville.
Five of those saying farewell she inherited as sophomores, having spent the majority of their careers now with her. Two others transferred in nearly immediately upon her arrival to join the project.
Now, as MSU comes off back-to-back series wins over top-five teams and expects to play in the NCAA Tournament yet again, the fruits of their dedication and labor are as clear as ever.
“I think their belief in me and our coaching staff, what we’re trying to lay the foundation for, this program and our future, they’ve completely bought in,” Stuedeman offered in praise of the seniors. “I’ve said all along, they drink the kool-aid. They’ve become secondary coaches. We’ve got a coaching staff, and then we’ve got a secondary coaching staff with them. They’ve been an integral part this year, with such a huge freshman class, in teaching the freshmen what is expected, what this coaching staff and this regime is expecting of them in the future.”
Logan Foulks was the other to transfer in, one of the bright personalities on the team, swinging a bat every bit as big as her smile and celebrating louder than all for anyone’s success, hers or otherwise
Sam Lenahan, Stuedeman will tell you, exits as a player willing to do anything for her team, who has switched positions when needed and consistently struck fear into the pitchers she’s faced, cool both at the plate and behind it.
Shana Sherrod, ever-bubbly, can make anyone laugh, lifting their spirits through the bad and making the highest of highs just that much better for her presence.
Heidi Shape leaves as someone who was unlikely to have arrived at all, yet has started every single game of her career, the model of consistency, leadership and earned respect.
The consummate warrior, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has worked harder than Rachel Zdeb on the field, in the weight room and anywhere in between, never slacking, relenting or wasting even an ounce of energy, the embodiment of MSU softball.
Everything a student-athlete is supposed to be, emphasis on both student and athlete, Jessica Offutt is engineer by day, outfielder by night, an award winner in both and a treasured teammate.
Even without playing in a game, J Bailey’s passion, dedication and sacrificed time as manager make the smooth running of the program possible.
Beyond the work and hours spent, much of what has made the group so successful is how much they like each other, the chemistry they have. Find them before a game, and you’ll see groups hanging around playing hacky sack, cracking jokes and cheering for Stuedeman as she walks to the coaches’ meeting at the plate.
“It’s a lot of fun to be on the field with these girls,” Owen said. “It shows when we play.”
All will be missed, and each has put their individual mark on Mississippi State softball, cementing their part in Bulldog history, whether on the field or off.
“It takes players that are willing to put the team above themselves to build a program,” Stuedeman said. “What they’ve done is help me lay the foundation for the future.”