Officially, Mississippi State learned its post-season destination Sunday evening. Gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant just off campus, joined by a few-score fans and friends, the Bulldogs saw their name at 9:35. They will be a second-seed at this week’s regional hosted by the University of Oregon, paired with Brigham Young in the first round. Oregon, the #11 national seed, plays fourth regional seed Portland. The double-elimination tournament begins Thursday and will conclude Saturday, since BYU cannot be forced to play a Sunday game.
“So much emotion is going through us right now,” said infielder/catcher Ka’ili Smith. “It’s awesome, we have the opportunity to do great things and we are excited to get on the road.”
Coach Vann Stuedeman expected the at-large bid after a 33-22 regular season. Still there was some natural tension on selection day…and the ensuing thrill.
“Elated. Super excited,” said Stuedeman, adding, “I’ve never been to the state of Oregon and it’s something I can’t wait to do!”
The first-year Mississippi State coach certainly hasn’t wasted time getting the program into NCAA play. The last Bulldogs to make the national tournament were in 2009, and Stuedeman was hired away from Alabama specifically to get MSU back into post-season position. Seniors like Smith got that message immediately.
“When I met her I knew great things would happen. It’s such a blessing to have her as our coach.” Smith is one of five upperclassmen on the 2012 roster; more than that, she and Bell bring real NCAA Tournament experience to this week having played on the 2008 and/or ’09 teams. That did not keep them from being just as excited as any freshman.
“It’s awesome,” Bell said. “I wouldn’t care anywhere (we go), I just wanted to be in the tournament. But this is definitely exciting. The girls are happy, the coaches are excited, and all the fans are.” Athletic director Scott Stricklin was part of that crowd cheering with the club, too.
Bell might have been a bit optimistic about the bid so early in the season. But by late April, after the Bulldogs swept consecutive three-game series with Ole Miss and Kentucky, their coach was also confident post-season was within reach. Those sweeps were part of a 12-game win streak, and Mississippi State won 14 of the last 17 regular season contests to qualify for the eight-team SEC Tournament.
As the #8 seed they had the bad break of playing top-seed and champion Alabama, on their home field at that. Yet even as the conference tournament ended after one game the Bulldogs came away from the 5-2 final with greater faith.
“Last week didn’t go our way but I believe it was the best game in the SEC Tournament,” Smith said. “We proved to the nation we could play with the best.” Alabama is the #2 national seed. Nine SEC squads earned NCAA berths including an Arkansas club that did not qualify for the conference tournament.
“The league was so strong this year, and for the winner to have six loses shows that,” Stuedeman said. “I’ve been in leagues before where the winner had one loss. It speaks volumes for the SEC, it is an incredible league. So we can go in there with confidence knowing that we have been battle-tested since day-one. And that’s got to give them confidence going in so we will use that.”
Since returning to campus the Bulldogs have used the days productively, whether taking extra batting cage cuts or doing weights and conditioning workouts. Now they know who is in the other dugout so Stuedeman and staff will be busy tonight and Monday getting and going through as much scouting material as possible. Stuedeman cheerfully admits knowing nothing about BYU at all, meaning the opponent is as new as the venue to her. But that is what NCAA play is all about in the early rounds anyway. And should State survive the first regional rounds—something no Bulldog team has achieved in eight previous NCAA years—they are paired with the winner of the Austin regional hosted by #6 national seed Texas.
This State squad has 13 road wins, eight of those SEC successes.
Stuedeman said that as grueling as SEC season was, with a 12-16 finish, this is when all that seasoning ought to pay off. “The SEC has done a great job making sure regular-season play is formatted like post-season,” she said. “So the timing is exactly the same and we feel comfortable with the three-game routine.” Of course staying on that routine requires remaining in the winner’s bracket in the first regional weekend. Super regionals are best-of-three matchups.
The fact is that to Stuedman SEC weekends are already comparable to anything State could face in either regional situation. So, the MSU staff will plan for Eugene in much the same way. “We’re comfortable with that. You want to win the series and we will need to stay on the winning side to advance. So we’re going to manage the way we have the whole year and take the game moment by moment, pitch by pitch. And look up at the end and know we gave everything we had.”
This is where the old memories of Smith and Bell will be all the more helpful as they can relate post-season pressures—and opportunities—to their younger teammates. “We have to focus, we have to adjust as soon as possible to everything we see,” said Smith. “Be excited and cheer every single inning and live within the moment.”
Those seniors, Stuedeman said, are “vital to the success of our tournament run. And for those who haven’t been in the tournament, to get that experience will be vital in future trips.”
Yes, the head coach is already talking about NCAA Tournament trips to come. It isn’t so much looking ahead as thinking bigger-program-picture. “This is a starting point, absolutely,” Stuedeman said.
“It was really important we get into the tournament this year, to continue that foundation. Once you get in and feel that feeling that you wanted to be there, they pass that on to each class after them. That desire and excitement of the post-season.”
Smith has known the excitement herself before. This will be her last such experience, but there is more to it than taking away her own memories. Smith likes to think about what she will be leaving behind.
“This is the start of great things at Mississippi State and it will build from here. It can only get better.”
Travel schedules and game times will be finalized Monday. Stuedeman said the Bulldogs are healthy on the whole, the lone question being lefthanded pitcher Stephanie Becker with a shoulder problem. “She is a game-day decision.”