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Arizona to face hot Mississippi State team in Tucson Regional final

The Bulldogs scored 23 runs on Saturday, but have to beat the Wildcats twice Sunday to reach Supers

Photo via @HailStateSB on Twitter

After Mississippi State lost its Tucson Regional opener to North Dakota State on Friday, freshman catcher Mia Davidson assured head coach Vann Stuedeman that Saturday would bring better results.

“We’re winning two games tomorrow,” Davidson declared before the two stepped to the podium for their postgame interviews.

Davidson said it again as the Bulldogs made their way to the team bus.

She was right.

Mississippi State bounced back and won both elimination games Saturday to advance to Sunday’s regional final where it will face host Arizona at 4 p.m. PT (ESPN3/SEC Network).

“I think we felt like we needed to make a statement today that we weren’t ourselves yesterday and our kids really responded,” Stuedeman said. “We didn’t go away. We didn’t want the season to be over, and it was important to have some run support on the board and boy it must have looked really good up there today.”

Indeed, the Bulldogs’ offense put on quite the display, scoring 23 runs and tallying 30 hits in the pair of victories.

Despite squandering a 5-0 lead against Saint Francis, they beat the Red Flash 11-5, thanks to a six-run sixth inning.

The Bulldogs (38-22) carried that outburst over to their second game of the day, when they routed North Dakota State 12-0 in five innings — the same NDSU team they lost to 5-4 on Friday.

“They had a chip on their shoulder,” Stuedeman said. “We sorta got exposed yesterday and it didn’t feel good to be manhandled like that. And I think they went to bed thinking that’s not us and that’s not Mississippi State Softball, and that’s not what we’ve done all year and we don’t want to go away. ... So I feel that left a bad taste in their mouth with how we played last night and as soon as the game was over last night ... I just think they were determined. They decided to do it. It was a mentality. It was more in between the ears than it was physical.”

Senior pitcher Holly Ward, who threw a two-hit shutout against NDSU, agreed.

“We had a chip on our shoulder and we were just out there and ready to go and just kept passing the bat to the next hitter,” she said. “The offense was incredible, everybody just was having so much fun, and it’s really easy to pitch when we’re on a run.”

Mississippi State blew out Saint Francis and North Dakota State on Saturday to advance to the Tucson Regional Final, where it will face Arizona Softball. Hear what HC Vann Stuedeman, SP Holly Ward, and RF Carmen Carter had to say about the pair of wins and their upcoming matchup vs. the Wildcats

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Bulldogs will look to keep that momentum going Sunday, but they are in unchartered territory now.

They are set to play in a regional final for the first time under Stuedeman, and for the first time as a program since 2005. Not to mention MSU has never actually won a Regional.

Stuedeman said there are two things her team needs to do achieve that feat: trust themselves knowing that the grueling SEC has made them battle-tested, and limit the momentum shifts.

“If we can get ourselves present quickly, we have the tools,” she said. “We have the hitters, we have the speed, we have the power, we have the average, we have the pitching, we have the defense. We have everything in place. Now, I believe it’s a mental belief and a buying into not getting caught in the momentum swings of the game. Let’s really play pitch-to-pitch. One bad thing happens, so what? We’ve got the next pitch to throw, the next pitch to hit.”

In the opposing dugout Sunday will be an Arizona program that has accomplished everything there is to accomplish in this sport.

And even though the Wildcats (42-14) haven’t appeared in the Women’s College World Series since 2010, they have reached Super Regionals six times in the last seven years.

“It’s Arizona,” Stuedeman said. “They do everything well. They’re coached by one of the best coaches that’s ever coached the game. ... They’re a great team and every single person surrounding the program either has a gold medal or a national championship or an ESPY. It’s Arizona softball. And they’re at home and they’re going to want to defend their turf. And it’s the Pac-12-SEC, so it’s going to be a great game, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Of course, MSU will have to win two games if it wants to advance to its first ever Super Regional.

The 14th-seeded Wildcats are unbeaten through two postseason games, putting them in the driver’s seat in the double-elimination Regional Final.

“But it’s just the driver seat,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said Saturday. “It gives us a little more rest, but the job’s got to get done tomorrow.”

One word comes to mind for Stuedeman when she thinks of Arizona softball.

“History,” she said.

“These kids didn’t really grow up watching Arizona play. They watched the parity of our sport. Now, when you talk to me, there was no TV. There were no games on TV. The one game on TV was UCLA-Arizona in the championship game. That was the only game and I can remember being in college in my mom and dad’s den watching UCLA and Arizona play with my chin dropped to the floor, like this is what I’m going to do one day.

“And I was already in college and I was playing and loving every minute of it, and I wasn’t going to get to play there, but I was going to do it. I was going to be there.

“So Arizona is part of my softball history. They paved the way. Arizona and UCLA paved the way for these kids to get to do what they’re doing. And it’s so cool that Candrea is still here doing it. He’s an icon in our sport and a Hall of Famer, he coached the US team. But when you say all that, I’m very proud to be here with my team and we have just as great of an opportunity to do what they are doing as they do.

“It’s like going to the Smithsonian. You’re playing in a historical ballpark. It’s the last year of it. We’re going to be the last games they play in their stadium and it really is a unique experience and these kids have no idea.”

As a refresher, here is what we wrote about Mississippi State before the regional began:

All 13 SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, and only one had a worse record than the Bulldogs.

But MSU has the SEC Freshman of the Year in catcher Mia Davidson, who is hitting .371/.444./.770 and leads the conference in slugging, homers (18) and total bases (137). Those numbers landed her a spot on the SEC All-First Team.

“If she was a dude, she wouldn’t be playing [in college],” head coach Vann Stuedeman said. “She would have signed with a signing bonus, and she’d be in somebody’s farm league right now.”

Stuedeman said Davidson is “very savvy” and has a naturally high softball IQ.

“She doesn’t have to sit and study film,” Stuedeman said. “What she watches on film already helps what she’s already thinking. That’s natural for her. I don’t think it’s something anybody ever taught her. ... She’s really smart. She’s a great bad-ball hitter, she’s a good strike hitter. She anticipates things that she doesn’t (know she’s anticipating). It’s instinctual. It’s something that’s God-given that she’s been able to polish along the way and I’m just happy to be here to polish it a little more.”

MSU is fifth in the SEC in ERA (2.00) and seventh in batting average (.286), but those numbers drop to 3.49 and .233 in conference play, respectively.

MSU has committed 71 errors, which is 16 more than any other team in the SEC.

The Bulldogs have a solid ace in Holly Ward (15-7, 1.33).

Only Florida has tallied more strikeouts than MSU (396) in the SEC this season, and Ward has fanned 164 in 168 innings.

MSU is a regular in the NCAA Tournament, making it 14 times since 2000, but it has never reached Super Regionals. Last season, the Bulldogs lost in the Salt Lake City Regional.