Inside Mississippi State’s softball facility last Thursday, a group of hitters were waiting in line to step up to the plate opposite the pitching machine and take some swings with a lacrosse stick. 10 yards away in a batting cage, another Bulldog batter was taking tosses from a live pitcher as balls came flying through what’s called the V-Flex, a giant contraption hanging from the ceiling, suspended between pitcher and hitter.
The lacrosse stick and the net at the end of it are for teaching batters to get on top of bunts. The V-Flex is to enhance vision and awareness of the strike zone. At the center of all of it, new MSU hitting coach Samantha Ricketts was calmly directing traffic, offering pointers and even playing a few hitting games herself (eventually coming in second place in line-drive knockout, which is not nearly as deadly as it sounds).
Ricketts is only in her fourth year as a full-time coach, her first in Starkville, but she’s already getting praise for the impact she’s had at MSU, something everyone around the program except for her calls the “Ricketts Effect.” The Bulldogs have never been a bad hitting club under head coach Vann Stuedeman, but the jump they’ve made in 2015, despite losing several big hitters from last year’s squad, is garnering attention across the country.
To list a few examples, State’s team batting average has jumped from .257 in 2014 to .325 this year. With 14 games to go in the regular season, the Bulldogs already have 40 home runs in 2015, compared to 34 the entirety of last year, as well as 12 triples this season, surpassing the 10 hit all of 2014.
“Coach Ricketts for President,” Stuedeman joked. “I’m going to write her in on the next election.”
Maybe only a half-joke, if she’s being honest. With a specialty in pitching, Stuedeman likens herself to a head coach with a specific area of expertise who leaves the other side of the game up to a coordinator. In this instance, Ricketts is her offensive coordinator, and she’s got the freedom to do pretty much whatever she wants.
It’s that freedom that got Ricketts to MSU in the first place, leaving her post after three years as hitting coach at Wichita State. Remember her interview with Stuedeman, Ricketts said she was the only head coach who didn’t ask her what her hitting style is.
Ricketts recalled the interaction: “She said, ‘I don’t care. You’re the offensive head coach. You can have them and do what you want.’ That’s a lot of pressure, but it was cool to hear.”
Ricketts arrived at MSU with a strong resume, including an illustrious playing career at Oklahoma, where she graduated as the all-time Sooners leader in home runs and RBI. In fact, her monstrous RBI numbers were the most in Big XII Conference history. She was never supposed to do any of that, though. She had next to no offers out of high school, signed site-unseen with Oklahoma at the last minute and was the only unheralded member of her class. But she went on to outperform all of them, and it’s that process that led to her being such a good coach now.
“You hear a lot that the best players aren’t the best coaches,” Ricketts said. “For me, I was always more of a thinker as a hitter, and really, the best hitters aren’t. I liked to learn it. I had to work so hard to be good and I think that’s where it translated. It’s a lot of studying and trial by error.”
Sophomore Amanda Ivy, for example, barely saw the field last year and was a combined 0-for-5 on the season. With over a dozen games left in 2015, she’s hitting .343 with 34 hits, 31 RBI and five home runs.
Perhaps the best example is athletic junior Kayla Winkfield. Winkfield is as dangerous as anyone on the country on the basepaths, but her problem in the past was getting there. This season, her batting average has jumped over 100 points, going from .221 in 2014 to .339 in 2015. She’s got 40 hits so far and already has 11 extra base hits, compared to just one all of last season.
For Winkfield, the change wasn’t mechanical; it had little do with footwork, stance or swing. It was all in her head, in a good way.
“We really worked on my mental game,” Winkfield said. “Most people think it’s all physical. I didn’t have any confidence when I went up to the plate and I was just thinking negative things. Coach Ricketts instilled that confidence in me. Now, when I go up to the plate, I’m thinking, ‘OK, I can do this. I got this.’”
Said Ricketts, ”An athlete like Wink, she’s unbelievable. She’s so talented, there’s no way that she could not be a good hitter. It’s really been getting her to believe it.”
Between Ricketts, Stuedeman and assistant coach Tyler Bratton, they feel like they’ve got a staff built for success both short term and long. With Bratton getting some of the best players in the country, Stuedeman teaching them how to pitch and Ricketts teaching them how to hit, they’ve got a trio that works incredibly well together and balances each other perfectly.
On the season, MSU is outscoring opponents an impressive 246-154 in 39 games, attention-worthy numbers on both sides.
Sophomore pitcher Alexis Silkwood is a perfect hybrid of the talents the staff has, a multi-time SEC Pitcher of the Week (including the last two) who is also hitting .340 at the plate with 16 RBI in 50 at-bats, a significant jump from her .231 average in 2014. She’s 21-7 on the year pitching with a 2.38 ERA and 164 strikeouts, too.
“Usually,” Ricketts said of players who both pitch and hit, “you’ve got one who’s stronger in one than the other. With her, it’s so much her mentality. She’s such a fighter and she’s so determined.”
Just like Silkwood, MSU has a staff adept at all parts of the game. Sitting at 29-10 on the year with three SEC series left, the Bulldogs are setting themselves up well for their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in as many years under Stuedeman.
If they make it again this year, Ricketts will be a big reason why.
“It’s a testament to what a great coach she is and what a great coach she’s going to be,” Stuedeman said. “She’s just got a good head on her shoulders. This is her offense and these are her numbers and our kids’ numbers. I’ve been really, really impressed.”