The long, strange timeline and story of how Western Carolina came to Starkville

Wednesday, February 12: The threat of winter weather had Mississippi State University two days into precautionary closure, while around the country one of the biggest winter storms in recent memory was tearing its way across the Midwest and through the eastern seaboard, bringing everyday life in those parts of the U.S. to an unusual halt.

1625530_812321672116338_929990171_nWhile relatively unaffected by the weather, those in Starkville still had to deal with the indirect repercussions of the storm. John Cohen’s baseball team at MSU was supposed to open their season on Friday, but their opponent – Hofstra – was having trouble getting to Mississippi.

LaGuardia had all but shut down, sending Hofstra in search of other means of travel, perhaps flying out of New Jersey or even chartering a jet to get out of town.

MSU’s travel coordinator and trusted bus driver Everett Kennard had already been sent to Atlanta to pick up Hofstra’s team and staff at the airport so he could drive them to Starkville once they found a way to travel.

“I was just convinced that they were gonna get out,” Cohen said, “and they just didn’t.”

7:30 a.m., Thursday, February 13: Greg Drye had been the man on MSU’s staff coordinating the communication between MSU and Hofstra and it was he who finally broke the news to Cohen – Hofstra wasn’t gonna make it, despite exhausting every possible resource to find a way.

“They did everything within their power,” Cohen said. “They even tried to charter a jet at the last second, but they couldn’t do that because their school had shut down. There were some real concerns, because they had gotten so much snow, that they were worried about power. They were worried about their indoor facility collapsing. They weren’t just trying to get on an airplane.”

And so the search began. Cohen, Drye and sports information director Kyle Niblett immediately began searching online, tracking Twitter, Googling and using all means to find someone to play, with the rest of the staff soon joining in.

After all, it was opening weekend. The Bulldogs had to get games, and they were only one of many teams affected. Some people couldn’t get out of town, while others, like State, couldn’t get their opponent into town.

1625675_812321722116333_1157726565_n1 p.m., Thursday: Assistant coach Nick Mingione got back to the office to find what he could only compare to a draft war room with the entire staff on their computers and phones working angles, trying to find out what other people were doing, who was playing, who wasn’t and what it could mean for MSU.

In-state school Southern Miss had their opponent cancel, but by the time MSU knew for sure Hofstra wasn’t coming, USM had already scheduled games elsewhere. The same happened as conversations around the region continued. Other teams were willing to schedule MSU into their weekend series’, but that would mean packing up and playing on the road instead of home at Dudy Noble, and it might mean only playing a couple times.

1:24 p.m., Thursday: Mingione, rather than scour websites for cancellations, actually logged onto weather.com to track the storm and find host teams in its path who likely wouldn’t be able to play, though the question of travel remained an issue.

The first school which looked like a good candidate was actually one he was very familiar with. Before coming to MSU in 2009, Mingione was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Western Carolina, hired by head coach Bobby Moranda who is still there now running the program.

Knowing North Carolina was being battered by the storm, Mingione called his former boss.

“I got my guys on my field,” Moranda told him. “We’ve got eight inches of snow on the field, but we’re gonna play on Saturday.”

Not exactly what Mingione wanted to hear, but that’s alright.

“I said, ‘OK, great.’ And I asked for the phone number of a coach elsewhere,” Mingione recalled. “And I told him, ‘If it doesn’t work out at your place, we’re looking for somebody and we’d love to have the Catamounts.’”

Such is the burden of college baseball, where there are snowstorms to start the season, tornados in the middle and 100-plus degree temperatures by the season’s final weeks.

Cohen actually used the difficulty of recruiting to explain the obstacles of an outdoor sport working on a different timeline than most.

“Our sport just really can’t be planned out the way others can,” he said. “It’s funny, people will ask where we’re going to recruit this weekend. Well, issue one is who’s pitching? Issue two is what is the weather gonna be like that day? Issue number three, what is our schedule? It’s really difficult. When a basketball coach goes to recruit somebody, they’re gonna play. They’re not worried if they’re gonna pitch that relief guy. You’re gonna get to watch your guys. Our sport is different.

I really appreciate our administration here, because they understand that. Our timetable is almost impossible to predict.”

3 p.m., Thursday: Working their way through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and even as far out as California, MSU’s staff was getting nibbles, but no bites on hosting a series in Starkville like they wanted, and even the prospects on the road weren’t great.

“Never in 23 years have I been through something like that,” Cohen said. I really felt like our entire coaching staff devoted all of Thursday to try and find a ballgame for our team. What you want to be doing on Thursday is focusing in on your team. You don’t like to spend a lot of time not focusing on your own players and that’s what ended up happening, I think it was very frustrating to our staff.”

That’s when Moranda and WCU called back.

“This isn’t going so well,” Moranda told Mingione. “Are you guys still looking for someone?”

“Hey, Mo, we’ve got some things in the fire,” Mingione told him. “You might want to ask your administration if this is something you’re considering.”

They were considering it, sure, but Moranda and the Catamounts’ No. 1 priority was trying to get Ohio, their scheduled opponent, into town and get their field cleared so they could play in front of the home fans.

Their issue was, despite the hours of effort, their field wasn’t getting much better and the newest weather projections called for another two inches of snow on Friday.

So Moranda told MSU he was interested, but he was still trying to find a way to stay at home. Basically, he’d let them know.

And the search continued.

1513650_812321768782995_1686185677_n6 p.m., Thursday: For the first time at MSU, the school was putting on a pep rally at Dudy Noble Field to kickoff the season, bringing Cowbell Yell to the baseball stadium.

Thousands of students and fans poured in the gates when they opened at 5, despite the fact MSU still didn’t even know if they’d be playing on that same field the next day. Internet and media speculation at that point was that Hofstra was having trouble traveling, but that was as much as most were aware of publicly at the time.

The awkwardness of holding an event for an opener that might not even happen, though, was surpassed by the happiness and pride Cohen got out of seeing the huge crowd in near-freezing temperatures.

“When you get right down to it, that’s what this whole thing is about,” Cohen said. “I love our fans. I love our fans who have been with us for 50 years, and those older fans fell in love with Mississippi State baseball when they were students here or when they were that age. I love the fact that we’re connecting with kids that age. I love it when our students get on the field with us. I love it when they’re interactive. I love to see them in the outfield, I love to see them in the grandstand. I think that’s the neat thing. Our people make this thing special.”

6:14 p.m., Thursday: After a quick conversation with athletic director Scott Stricklin over what he should say about the questions surrounding opening weekend (if he mentioned them at all), Cohen stepped onto the field, took the mic and spoke to the crowd in attendance.

Almost as soon as his words began, Mingione’s phone rang in the dugout – the last of a dozen calls he got from Moranda Thursday.

The Catamounts were in.

“Myself, Scott Stricklin and Butch Thompson were in the tunnel working out the final details,” Mingione said with a laugh. “We finalized it right there.”

While WCU’s field was unable to host a series, the opening in their schedule was only the first part of the puzzle. That availability on its own wasn’t enough.

They couldn’t play at home, but they also didn’t have a way to leave it. Their bus company is in Asheville, N.C., meaning every bus they had was snowed in. They couldn’t even pick the team up, let alone drive them to Mississippi.

BgodoeyCYAAwLNFMeanwhile, the aforementioned bus driver Kennard had found himself snowed in while awaiting Hofstra in Atlanta. He was actually supposed to have gone to Birmingham to get them at one point, but he was trapped in the middle of the same storm Wednesday night as everyone. And he, it turns out, was the key to it all.

Throughout the day Thursday, Kennard was MSU’s ace in the hole. His being stranded in Atlanta, the hub of the south, became MSU’s most valuable asset.

“Hey, I’ll do whatever you guys need,” Kennard said.

“What about driving to North Carolina,” he was asked. “It’s a couple hours away.”

“You tell me when,” Kennard responded, “and I’ll go.”

And that was the final hurdle in making sure baseball happened at The Dude on Opening Day.

“E has the most servant heart,” Mingione said. “Everett was gonna make it. It didn’t matter, he was gonna be there. Sure enough, he got there Thursday night and they were on the road Friday morning by 7.”

“Everett’s not just the transportation director at Mississippi State,” Cohen added. “He’s a great ambassador for all of our athletic programs. I consider him to be a great friend. He’s a great resource for all of our programs.”

2 a.m., Friday, February 14: The lights were still on in the baseball offices, where Mingione, Thompson, the video staff and everyone available were busy preparing for WCU. After months of expecting Hofstra, all the scouting and work had been done. Now, MSU had less than 24 hours to prepare for what they considered one of the best teams in the country.

The Catamounts were unanimously picked to win their conference by league coaches and also had the preseason Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year in the Southern Conference.

WCU led the country in home runs per game in 2013, was third in slugging percentage, ninth in scoring and entered 2014 boasting one of the top MLB Draft pitching prospects as their Friday night starter.

MSU was ecstatic to be playing, of course, but the opponent made things very different for the Bulldogs, and they had to adjust in a hurry.

“There’s so much that goes into preparing for a baseball game, like any other sport,” Mingione said. “In a matter of 12 hours we had to redo everything. We started with a scouting report from scratch. We captured all of our video. There were a lot of people up here working late nights. Everyone was doing their part. That’s one of the special things about our staff and our program is we do have synergy. We have the 1+1 equals 3.”

“It was crazy,” Cohen confirmed. “There are enough issues on Opening Day. Is the coffee hot at the concession stand? Is the grass gonna be green enough? Is the scoreboard gonna work? All those things you’re concerned about on Opening Day, and here you are throwing all these new things in. All of our staff did a great job.”

1621744_812321842116321_1197418156_n5:30 p.m., Sunday February 16: Game three had finally concluded, the Bulldogs winning 7-2 and clinching the series 2-1 after a loss Friday and victory on Saturday.

The sun was setting behind Polk-Dement Stadium on one of the most stressful four days in some time for MSU’s baseball program.

On the ground and behind home plate, Mingione stood with his wife and Moranda, the man who had hired him so many years ago, and posed for a smiling picture to commemorate the unique event.

In fact, on Friday, Moranda had come to Mingione’s house to visit. While the two remained close after Mingione left for MSU, Mingione had met and married his wife Christen after arriving in Starkville, meaning she and Moranda had never met.

So the former boss came over to finally meet the bride.

“Bobby Moranda is one of my dear friends in college baseball,” Mingione said. “In any profession, especially college baseball, when someone gives you an opportunity to work for them, they’re basically trusting you with their program and in a lot of ways they’re trusting you with their family.”

That initial trust became one of the many parts of this story making a strange weekend happen.

In fact, the connection goes a hair deeper for Moranda and MSU. Back in 1990, Moranda was a graduate assistant at Eastern Carolina when the Pirates had a game in Starkville. 25 years ago, Cohen was a player on that Mississippi State team Moranda was in town to play.

So many years later, under the oddest circumstances he’d have guessed, Moranda once again looked from visitor dugout to home dugout and saw Cohen in his Maroon and White uniform.

What a wild weekend.

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