For Mississippi State, the Road to Tuscaloosa is about 90 miles. To make that trip, however, the Bulldogs needed to do a lot more than hop on a bus for an hour-and-a-half ride.
MSU had to play through 25 Southeastern Conference games, including a pair of walk-off victories last weekend to seal a sweep of Kentucky, to make reservations in Tuscaloosa. Mississippi State clinched a berth in the May 10-12 SEC Tournament at Rhoads Stadium on the University of Alabama campus.
First-year coach Vann Stuedeman knows every inch of road on the stretch of U.S. Highway 82, that connects Starkville, Miss., to Tuscaloosa. She should, since she was Alabama's long-time pitching coach before being hired at Mississippi State. Stuedeman knows invitations to the eight-team league tournament aren’t handed out like promotional home-run T-shirts, and realizes making the league's postseason event is a big deal for her program.
"Every team, the No. 1 goal is to make their conference tournament and to win their conference tournament and to make the postseason to have a chance to win the NCAA championship," Stuedeman said. "I couldn't be happier for our players. They've put in the time and the energy and the effort, and they've earned it. I hope we can make this a special run for them."
Making it to the SEC Tournament is no guarantee of an NCAA Tournament berth, but history suggests that most every team that gets that far in the ultra-competitive SEC makes the 64-team national title field -- if it has a winning overall record, a requirement for an at-large NCAA bid.
"Generally you can anticipate everyone in the (SEC) tournament to make the NCAA championship (field)," Stuedeman said. "You definitely have to have that above-.500 winning percentage to play, but being in the SEC Tournament is added insurance that you will be considered."
So far, six teams have qualified. Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and MSU are in, with Kentucky, Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina battling for the final two spots going into the last two weekends of the regular season.
The road that began with the start of league play in March ends in Tuscaloosa in May.
"To play in this league all throughout the year, I think it's almost harder to win the championship outright than it is to win the national tournament," Stuedeman said. "To bring the top eight teams together, it's a high level of college softball and the atmosphere will be electric. Going to Tuscaloosa, it will be a great atmosphere for any college softball fan, and for the players and the coaches."
May Madness Update
As the regular season draws to a close, the postseason picture is becoming clearer. Here is my latest projection of which SEC teams will make the 64-team NCAA field, where they will play and who they will face. Keep in mind that the selection committee operates under a mandate to create the best possible bracket with the least number of flights, so schools not in the same conference located within 400 miles of each other will often find themselves paired regardless of where those teams stack up in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings that the committee uses as a major criteria in picking the field and pairing the brackets. This is based on the latest RPI, updated through April 24, with super regional projections for team I expect to be seeded in the top 16 nationally. There is still a lot of softball to be played, so there could still be further changes ahead.
Regional: Home as the No. 2 overall seed
Regional opponents: Expect to see Georgia Tech as the second seed in the Tuscaloosa Regional, with UAB as the third seed. If the Southwest Athletic Conference champion comes from the league's East Division, that team will likely bus to T-Town as the fourth seed. Best guess is league leader Mississippi Valley State will emerge.
Super Regional: Hosting UCLA
Regional: Home as the No. 4 overall seed
Regional opponents: North Carolina seems well-positioned to be the second seed in the Knoxville Regional. Radford is leading the Big South and would be a natural second third seed at the regional. Tennessee-Martin of Chattanooga would land as the fourth seed.
Super Regional: Hosting Washington in another SEC vs. Pac-12 showdown.
Regional: Home as the No. 6 overall seed
Regional opponents: The Gators may be looking at some rematches in Gainesville. Expect South Florida as the second seed in the regional and Central Florida as the third seed. The fourth seed could be Atlantic Sun co-leader Florida Gulf Coast or Bethune-Cookman, which is leading the Mid-East Athletic Conference.
Super Regional: Hosting Texas A&M in a SEC 2013 preview.
Regional: Home as the No. 16 overall seed
Regional opponents: Florida State is the logical second seed at the regional, but the third seed could come from a lot of places. Unless Troy, a giant-killer that hasn't performed well in Sun Belt Conference play, plays its way into an at-large bid, I'll go with Oklahoma State as a fly-in to fill this slot. There is a lot of competition for the fourth seed, with Georgia Southern leading the SoCon and Kennesaw State as the co-leader in the A-Sun.
Super Regional: Hosting top-seeded California, which will be on the road unless the Bears have made arrangements to bring in temporary lights (the NCAA requires lights) for the postseason.
Regional: The Tigers could host as a second seed, but are more likely to find themselves on the road at Louisiana-Lafayette or Texas A&M.
Regional: Auburn seems destined to fly West, probably to Arizona State as the second or third seed.
Regional: The Bulldogs could be slotted as a dangerous three seed in Oklahoma, or maybe at UCLA.
: The Wildcats don't currently have the requisite above-.500 record needed, but are close enough to have hope. If Kentucky makes the 64-team field, it will have a short drive to Louisville as the third seed.
Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina
: These three are on the outside barring a late charge to get into the SEC Tournament and a Cinderella finish to win it and gain the league's automatic bid.
Here are the official Twitter accounts of SEC head softball coaches who utilize the popular social media conveyance. Follow them for updates and a glimpse at their personalities:
Mississippi State: @MSUVanntastic
Ole Miss: @UMCoachThees
South Carolina: @scsbcoach_bev
Stat of the Week
: Ashley Langoni set an LSU single-season record for walks during last Friday’s series opener against Ole Miss. She drew her 39th free pass of 2012 to break the record previously held by Ashlee Ducote, an All-American, in 2000.
Other interesting stats
: Ole Miss shortstop Allison Brown’s game-winning RBI last Sunday against LSU gave her 32 for the season, breaking the Rebels’ freshman record previously held by Lauren Gill, who earned All-America honors at Ole Miss. … Tennessee junior pitcher Ivy Renfroe has gone 10-0 over the course of UT’s recent 13-game winning streak, winning 10 decisions in a row with a 1.45 ERA, four shutouts, a .193 batting average against and 59 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings since taking an 11-inning hard-luck loss at Alabama on March 21. ... South Carolina drew its largest crowd in nearly a decade last weekend, with 928 fans packing Beckham Field for the Saturday contest. That's the most fans at a South Carolina home game since the season opener on Feb. 2, 2003, when 1,038 people came out to cheer on the Gamecocks in a doubleheader sweep of North Carolina. … Arkansas junior pitcher Hope McLemore made her first appearance of the season in the circle last weekend, throwing 2 1/3 innings. She has been out due to surgery earlier this year and hadn’t thrown in a game since April of 2011. … Mississippi State has swept back-to-back series for the first time since March, 2001, when the Bulldogs swept Ole Miss and Tennessee on the road. It marked the first time since 2001 that MSU has won six consecutive SEC games, which the Bulldogs last accomplished from March 23-April 1 of that year. … Senior shortstop Lauren Guzman set the Auburn record for consecutive games started when she took the field in last Sunday’s series finale vs. Arkansas. It was Guzman’s 222nd consecutive game, breaking the previous record of 221 held by Ashley Griffin from 2003-06. Guzman has started every game on the AU since arriving as a freshman in 2009. Guzman has not been lifted from a game since April 13, 2010, a span of 122 consecutive games and 841 consecutive innings.
Tommy Deas is executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News and has covered SEC softball since 1997