Running thread: MSU softball in NCAA Lafayette Regional

Good day from sunny Lafayette, Louisiana. As Mississippi State’s softball team competes in the Lafayette Regional, we’ll keep a running thread of stories, notes and the like here on the same page for easy access and convenience. To keep the freshest stuff at the top, we’ll run this in reverse chronological order, which will only be a touch confusing by the end of the weekend.

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9 a.m., Sunday, team bus

A luxury in the moment and a source of sadness later, you never realize at the time you’re doing something that it’s your last time to do that something – not when you don’t expect the end to come, anyway.

Mississippi State’s softball team planned to still be on a field today – they expected to be playing for weeks longer. But that’s the sting of a postseason which provides no bowl games, consolation rounds or soft landings. In one moment you’re alive for the National Championship, and in the next, it’s over. Done, just like that.

BlMARYQIEAAUPZSHad any of MSU’s players stopped to think, ‘This might be our last time in the locker room together,’ they’d have already lost. Athletes trained to never quit, never give up and never get down, they block themselves from wondering if this is their last time in the batter’s box, last night on the road with their roommate or last time to be on their home field, even if it’s just practice.

They can’t think like that. They won’t. They live in the moment they have, with the expectation that there are more to come.

But at some point those moments run out, and no one tells you when your time is about to be up.

The last pitch was much more than the end of a game. It was the end of a season. The culmination of months, years really, of work and preparation. Training, working, pushing and anticipating a chance to prove themselves.

Starting in August, players, managers, coaches and staff saw each other nearly every day – working out, running, practicing and playing. Taking classes together even. Once the season started, all involved began what equates to a musical act’s world tour. They ate together, practiced together and spent weekends on the road together, traversing the country by bus and plane, putting on shows in Starkville for the home crowd and standing together in dugout and field united against the fans and players of the teams they faced on the road.

When it ends, it’s like a year-round summer camp coming to a close. But there’s no last night around the campfire to reminisce on all they had been through. They’re not allowed those moments, which makes the end so much harder.

Teammates become family over the months and years. At the end, it’s not goodbye to a season. It’s goodbye to brothers and sisters, coaches who are like parents. For some, they’ll be reunited again in August. For the seniors who must move on in life, it’s a see-you-later without knowing when that later will be, or if it will ever even come.

But the sadness only hits because of how happy they were. Before even leaving the dugout, they were nostalgic for things which had happened only moments before.

Tears come – and they came in buckets Saturday – because you had something good. And those Bulldogs will have that something to hold on to the rest of their lives.

WMHLAHTKQMKXDON.20140512024543When they left the stadium, they walked away as the catalysts of one of the best seasons in Mississippi State softball history. So many things they did, so many milestones hit, they were the first to do it.

Wins, runs, walks and strikeouts – the names of the 2014 team already littered the record books before the postseason began.

“You had a great year,” Vann Stuedeman told her team on the bus Saturday. “You can definitely keep your heads held high.”

It’s tough to apply perspective in the immediate moments after loss, but records already show this to be one of the best clubs to play at MSU, and time will likely prove the group to be one of great importance in the future of the program.

The last three years, a foundation has been built. The one-day champions of Bulldog softball will stand on a base created by those before them.

This year’s team itself made it this far because of the work they themselves have done. Those returning will reap the rewards of the seeds of success they sowed together.

All good things must come to an end, they say, and as much as an end may hurt, it doesn’t take away the greatness of what you had – love, friendship, laughs and tears.

No person and no game can take that away.

“You came a really, really long way together,” Stuedeman reminded her club Saturday night. “These people on the bus will be your friends forever.”

10 a.m., Saturday, team hotel

Pitchers’ duels are easily some of the most stress-inducing games in sports, when just one hit given up or one hit seized upon can be the difference in winning and losing. Such was the case for Mississippi State Friday in their NCAA Regional opener against Texas.

CXXCGQCGQAPPHXI.20140224225639A solo home run by the Longhorn leadoff hitter – just her second of the year – proved to be the only hit that mattered for either team all day as UT went on to win 1-0, despite stellar performances from senior pitcher Alison Owen and freshman pitcher Alexis Silkwood.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the batter,” Owen said after the game. “It was a good pitch and she hit a good ball.”

Despite the close loss, neither Owen nor Vann Stuedeman were anything other than optimistic.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” Stuedeman told reporters. “We’ve been battle-tested, and we know we can get through this. I feel like our schedule has prepared us for postseason play.”

Yes, in fact, MSU has not only been through this before, it may have been against a tougher road then, at least going by the rankings.

Back in April, the Bulldogs opened up Super Bulldog Weekend on Friday night at home against the No. 2 team in the country – Alabama.

To their disappointment, MSU lost the game that night.

The schedule tells us how they responded to the loss: they won four-straight games, taking the next two from Alabama to win the series, securing victory in a midweek game then going on the road and beating No. 4 Tennessee at their place on Friday.

The last time MSU lost a big game like this, then, they responded with three wins over top-five teams.

Leading up to this Regional, Stuedeman talked about similar ideas. After a full season in the SEC, she said, they’d basically played three months’ worth of Regionals and Super Regionals. The NCAA Tournament, and anything it throws at them, won’t faze the Bulldogs.

“We have a ton of confidence,” Owen said when asked about the mental state of the team immediately after Friday’s game. “We’ve definitely been in this position before. If you don’t know much about us, we grind for our state and we’re always fighting.”

None could fault a pitching staff which only gave up one run Friday, and it was big surprise from a Longhorn freshman which stymied MSU’s own offense.

UT pitcher Tiarra Davis had been up and down throughout the season, but she’d been working on a secret weapon, a strikeout pitch she hadn’t used before and debuted against MSU.

The freshman’s changeup pitch accounted for five of her seven strikeouts, as well as countless strikes mid-count.

The scouting report on Davis said her changeup was shaky, at best. The UT writers had never seen this from her before and asked when it started becoming one of her go-to pitches.

Davis smiled and said, “Today,” then laughed a bit and continued, “two hours ago, really.”

But, just as any time all season, MSU won’t be slowed down or stopped by the unexpected. To talk to the team, calling it ‘bouncing back’ wouldn’t even be accurate. In their minds, they never went anywhere. They were just on the wrong side of a great postseason game and they’re ready now to make a run.

“We did it against Alabama,” Stuedeman said. “Losing a game then winning four in a row. That’s what it’s gonna take and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve been there.”

12:30, Friday, team bus

Exactly two days after leaving Starkville, MSU is finally on game day and preparing for the opening contest of Lafayette Regional, today’s 3 p.m. matchup with Texas. The Bulldogs took BP and a full practice at the Ragin Cajuns’ field yesterday and are on their way now to warm up and prepare for the game.

Bnw_f9_IgAAd6p8It’s always entertaining on road trips with teams of any sport to see where they find a space to warm up and do necessary activities when they can’t be on their field of play. I’ve seen elegant ballrooms turned to aerobics areas and training rooms for 300 pound gargantuans. Seen football players warm up on baseball fields and baseball players warm up on football fields.

This morning, needing a place to stretch out and get loose, MSU’s softball team found a nice open patch of grass in front of the hotel to use. Must have been a strange sight to those driving by or looking out the window of their room: 20-something college kids running around, stretching and jumping in synchronization.

A couple quick hits as we prepare for the game.

TV/Broadcast: ESPN3 ( http://espn.go.com/watchespn/index/_/id/1791179/NCAA-Softball-Mississippi-State-vs-Texas-(Site-5-/-Game-1) ) with audio from Anthony Craven on HailStateTV

Matchup: Three-seed Mississippi State (38-19) vs. two-seed Texas (33-21), last meeting in 2005 NCAA Tournament (1-0, Texas in 14 innings)

What to Watch For: It’s simple but true: whoever pitches best will win the game. Both the Longhorns and Bulldogs have aces who can beat anyone, which ought to make for a fun matchup.

That said, it’s a small park, only 200 down the foul lines and 220 in center. Balls sail over the fence easy here, so don’t be surprised if a few batters get a good hold of a ball and send it out of the park.

For balls that stay in play, however, MSU ought to be in good shape. The Bulldogs finished the regular season amongst the best in the SEC in fielding percentage, led by sophomore shortstop Kayla Winkfield who has become one of the top defenders in the conference.

In a pitcher’s duel, MSU’s secret weapon may be their ‘We Don’t Move’ philosophy. The Bulldogs have a double-digit lead in the SEC in hit by pitches, having gained 50-plus extra base runners over last season by standing tough at the plate.

6 p.m., Thursday, Louisiana swampland

Well, I built me a raft and she’s ready for floatin’

Ol’ Mississippi, she’s callin’ my name

Catfish are jumpin’

That paddle wheel thumpin’

Black water keeps rollin’ on past just the same

Old black water, keep on rollin’

Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shinin’ on me

10313811_845215355506857_3978241872428494698_nFor the first time in, I’m guessing, at least most of our lives, we saw true black water. In fact, we even received a scientific explanations for the why the water of Louisiana swamps and bayous is so black (something about the trees and chemicals they release).

It’s dark enough just looking at a placid surface, but when it gets churned into the air by the engine of a swamp boat stuck in some combination of mud, log and shrubbery, the water is darker than chicory.

“I’ve got to conquer my fears,” first base coach Jessica Cooley said as she stepped into the swamp tour boat and sat down along the left side.

Either by keen ears or mystic luck, our tour guide standing at the rear offered her something less than encouragement as he thought aloud, looking out at the swamp he was about to take us into.

“Gators could be anywheres,” he calmly said, almost like he was talking to himself.

A gray mustache as thick as his Cajun accent only served to muffle his voice farther to the borders of what we could understand.

He’s the patriarch of Champagne Swamp Tours just outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, and he’s a tremendously informative tour guide, if not less-than-uplifting for Cooley, whose fear grew with every alligator seen, each sway of the boat and after all stories told by our navigator whose strong tan legs look like two more stumps coming out of the shallow swampy habitat.

“We’ve had snakes get in the boat before,” he said as if he had just remembered. “Happens every now and then. They get in the trees and fall in as we pass by.”

Cooley looked up into the branches, hands gripped to the back of the seat in front of her, as if she was about to spot a water moccasin diving out of the sky.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’m sure he’s joking.”

Don’t know if she believed me or him more, but I’m not sure which of us was being more truthful anyway.

At least a few times on the two-hour float through one of nature’s strangest areas Cooley was caught in moments of fear.

Rusted barrels hung from high up in trees, primitive deer stands from back in the day. Random 4X6 wooden platforms, with ¾ of the planks still in place, would pop here and there between the trees, old fishing spots. Our bayou-bred tour guide told us about overgrown rats – nutria – whose meat most turn their nose up at despite how much of it there is. We were educated on which parts of the alligator are best for eating if you manage to catch one.

“Most people don’t like the red meat,” he told us. “No matter how much you cook it, it’s still gonna be red. They go for the white meat in the tail and head. But I don’t mind it much.”

10309368_845215465506846_1628166068450708929_nSomeone at some point in history or literature once said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the resistance of fear. In Cooley’s case Thursday, it was true. In the matter of our tour guide, it couldn’t be more inaccurate. His mind had nothing to resist. He was fearless as he navigated between trees, through alligator beds and out of the occasional mire surrounding the engine in the shallow black waters.

Cooley played four years for Mississippi State’s softball team before taking the role she has this year, so she’s a trained student-athlete with the reflexes needed to corral hard-hit balls on a softball field.

Gliding along, our boat hit a veiled stump in the water. Hit it hard. Our driver, out of  either wisdom or his lack of a fear, just gunned the engine to go over rather than around it. As he did so, the boat tipped. And not just a little. It tipped big, the right side jumping into the air, and the left side – Cooley’s side – dipping immediately and nearly submerging its edge into the water.

With those reflexes born from her training, Cooley leapt up and was standing in the middle, leaning right to put her weight on the airborne side of the boat, eyes wide and every muscle in her body flexed as tight as it would go.

Deep belly chuckles came from the back of the 15-seat boat as our guide gunned the engine and we hopped the stump, landing flat and safe, if not a touch unnerved.

On the other end of near disaster, we kept on as calm as could be and came across a dozen baby alligators resting, swimming and sunning around a big stump.

Most of them will die, our guide told us, but the babies who survive become borderline immortal. If left unhunted by humans, gators will usually live past 150 years old. If they somehow lose a leg, their body has the ability to shut off blood flow to that area and continue on as if nothing happened. They’re immune systems are resistant to nearly every disease and these monster reptiles can go an entire year without eating.

“Think about how hungry he is when he sees you,” the guide told someone in the back.

There’s a reason these pre-historic looking monsters have been around so long. It’s the same reason Cooley is so afraid of them.

As we left the babies to fend for themselves, we came across an older, bigger and much more grown alligator – one of the gators our guide had described which could be alive in this same swamp for another century with almost no effort.

Cooley, far right, wipes tears from her eyes on the way out

Cooley, far right, wipes tears from her eyes on the way out

We pulled in closer to get a look. Turned the boat so we could all get a good view and a picture. While slowly rotating, and approaching closer and closer, we hit another stump and SHOOMP, sent the left side of the boat dipping down. Dipping toward the gator, who was startled by the sudden movement and dove from its log to the water right beside us. Right beside Cooley.

If she had felt fear before, it was nothing to this moment. 10 minutes later, she was still wiping the tears from her eyes, even if she was able to laugh about it.

I’d have to ask her to know, but if Cooley hadn’t conquered her fears, she most certainly faced them head [and snout] on.

1 p.m., Throwback Thursday, Lamson Stadium

Here they sit in late May, down on the bayou in Louisiana preparing for an NCAA Regional, one of the last few steps in a process that began back in August. What started in late summer has reached all the way back around to early summer for Mississippi State’s softball team.

In the beginning of August, all 21 players reported to what amounts to fall camp, the start of preparing their minds and bodies for the postseason which was then so many months away.

Building muscle, strength coach Alicia Catlette said, is one goal. As is fostering endurance, power, agility and speed.

Above all else, those months are about mental strength.

“What we build in the offseason is the mental component,” Catlette said. “Building guts and developing mental stamina, that when they get tired at the end of the season, they’ve already been prepared for it because they’ve been through way worse in the fall.”

Dozens of miles just in sprints, somewhere near 100 tons of weight lifted in all the reps and workouts, races to the top of the football stadium, milking cows, running hills, bar hangs, plank holds and even an Amazing Race style hunt through MSU’s campus were a part of what the Bulldogs did.

Prepare in the offseason so you’re ready for the postseason.

“We want these girls to perform at an elite level from February to June,” Catlette said, “and be performing at that same level in June as they were in February.”

The work paid off, obviously, as MSU practices now the day before their game against Texas in the Lafayette Regional.

The team got off to a program-best 15-0 start to the season, the first loss of the year then coming narrowly in a one-run game with a ranked opponent.

Speaking of rankings, the Bulldogs have beat ranked teams a near record-breaking eight times in 2014, including series wins over two top five opponents in the final month of the regular season. MSU even has nine wins against other teams selected for the NCAA Tourney.

Entering the postseason with a 38-19 record, Vann Stuedeman’s club has the second-best record to this point of any in MSU history.

Senior pitcher Alison Owen has claimed the record for strikeouts in only two seasons at State, with more games to come, while freshman pitcher Alexis Silkwood has been named All-SEC and SEC Pitcher of the Week, racking up 152 strikeouts along the way and registering wins over ranked SEC foes.

Freshman third baseman Caroline Seitz has been named first team all-region, ranking third or higher among MSU freshmen all time in doubles, triples, home runs, slugging percentage and total bases.

A testament to the mental strength they built, MSU has an impressive 13 come-from-behind wins this season and has faced one of the toughest schedules in the country, including seven of their eight SEC opponents being ranked.

All of these are reasons the Bulldogs are here, and the hope is that they are the same reasons the Bulldogs advance.

(For the fun of Throwback Thursday, here’s a video from last February of me attempting the Bulldog Break In, the team’s offseason conditioning test)

10 a.m., Thursday, Team hotel

Nine hours of sleep and six hours of driving ago, we left Starkville on our way to MSU’s third-straight NCAA Tournament, a not insignificant feat.

WMHLAHTKQMKXDON.20140512024543Of course, the importance of the postseason can be temporarily lost in the silliness of a road trip with 35 student-athletes, coaches, administrators and taggers-along. The video below is an example of that as I spent a few minutes talking with senior Logan Foulks as the bus rolled through Louisiana.

It’s later this morning when the serious stuff will begin, as the Bulldogs will take in their first practice at ULL, preparing to play as one of the final 64 teams alive after hundreds began the year with hopes to be where MSU is now.

Vann Stuedeman has often talked about the need for balance of that serious mindset and a willingness to have fun, a sentiment echoed in her words before the team left for Lafayette.

“I mean, it’s a game,” she told reporters. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

As such, it’s easy to spot both sides even after less than a day on the road. Last night, Julia Echols was dancing to the old-man band playing at dinner, and this morning she’ll be crushing balls in batting practice.

At breakfast, the team discussed the best ways to be proposed to (“I don’t want mine to be in a public like a flash mob or something.”), as well as who will be the first to be on the receiving end of one of those proposals. But, later today, they’ll be reviewing their opponent in game one – Texas – and going over their own routines in their off day for practice and preparation.

Off to practice No. 1 now, from where we’ll have plenty more updates, both today and through the weekend. Until then, Logan Foulks gets a little sappy as a senior, tells you about her favorite game to play on the bus and what Stuedeman is like to travel with in the video below.

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One Response to Running thread: MSU softball in NCAA Lafayette Regional

  1. Pingback: The Notebook: MSU and the Ferriss Trophy, plus several postseason highlights | HailStateBEAT

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