My assignment was to spend a game in the dugout with the Mississippi State softball team. Take notes, observe and figure out what happens in that noisy cement-built rectangle alongside the third base line.
Last Tuesday night, the sun wasn’t down, but it wasn’t out either, hidden behind gray clouds and colorless sky.
The air was wet and near freezing, somewhere in the 30s; the kind of weather people in this state are barely comfortable driving in, let alone standing around in for hours at night. Softball in the spring and summer, bathed in sunshine, is great. But this? The date on the calendar was inconsequential. This was cold, miserable winter, the opposite of what outdoor sports were made for.
Despite every reason to sulk, avoid movement and get through the night as quickly as possible, every single player and coach jumped around smiling and talking, relentlessly upbeat as if it were 75 and sunny as the game drew near.
There may not be a more encouraging place than a softball dugout.
A few minutes until first pitch against UAB, half the team was playing hacky sack and paused to watch their coach, Vann Stuedeman, walk to the plate for the meeting with the umpires and the opposing head coach.
As soon as she had started the walk, the hacky sack fell to the ground and the whole team started chanting, “OOOOOOOOHHHHHH!” like a football crowd before kickoff, only stopping once Stuedeman had finished the handshake.
“What in the world was that?”
“An intimidation tactic, more or less,” one of the assistants told me.
Finally, the game began, the start of the countdown until a return to warmth of indoors.
Alison Owen, MSU’s star pitcher, stood in the circle, ball in hand and extra sleeves on her arms, steam pouring from her face with every exhale of hot breath into frigid air.
I heard the yelling call to assembly at the opposite end of the dugout coming from senior Rachel Zdeb.
Perfect. This is what I was there to watch.
The Bulldogs, always supportive, have developed roles both on the field and in the dugout.
Every individual on the team wants to start and play every game, but with more than twice as many players as available positions, they all know how it works. Some will stay in the lineup as long as they are healthy, others move in and out and plenty more patiently wait their chance from the dugout.
And all of them have a responsibility. This group – the Dog Pound – took a name long after it organically formed. In a game as mental as softball, like baseball or golf, shaken confidence can lose a game, while heavy doses of it lead to dominating performances. Such is the purpose of the Dog Pound, to cultivate that confidence with bravado of their own.
The bench in any sport cheers for those in action when good things happen. But softball may be the only one with constant noise and exhortation coming from the uniformed teammates watching on the side, regardless of big plays or complete inaction.
Before, during and after every pitch, they yell. Leading up to each at-bat a chant of some sort comes pouring out of the dugout.
In the first inning against the Blazers, UAB’s pitcher stood on the mound waiting for the signal and getting ready to deliver a pitch.
As she paused and then moved into the wind-up, the whole dugout, or Dog Pound, chanted much like they did for Stuedeman before the game.
As soon as the called ball three breezed high into the catcher’s glove,
“BOOM!” they all yelled.
“We got some Dogs up in here!” two of them followed up.
Those two – Kayla Winkfield and Logan Foulks – patrolled the empty corridor in the middle of the dugout as Katie Gentle, Erika Gaul, Olivia Golden and other chief members of the Dog Pound stood on the bench at the back, while the rest of the team lined the outer edge of the dugout along the net protecting them from foul balls.
The cheering and yelling is constant. I’ve met enough strength coaches to know how scratchy and gravelly voices get after years of working those sound cords. How these ladies get through entire games and seasons somehow still maintaining their higher-pitched feminine voices is a vocal miracle.
Early in the game, UAB was the first to get on the board, taking a 1-0 lead.
If anything, the cheering from the Dog Pound only got louder when that green jersey stepped onto home plate.
“Right back,” they called. “Let’s go Dawgs!”
The next inning, freshman Mackenzie Toler, the designated player, stepped to the plate for MSU.
“MAC!” half the dugout yelled.
“DADDY!” the other half responded.
And the back-and-forth repeated three times before ending in an emphatic, “That’s our Mac Daddy!”
Not long after, one Bulldog took an errant pitch to the shoulder, being granted first base.
“H-B-P,” came the chant, again repeated three times, before ending in a chorus of “We – don’t – moooooove!”
In the bottom of the third inning, MSU tied the game up 1-1 as Caroline Seitz’ RBI sent Loryn Nichols across the plate.
In that half inning, real and constant barking came from the Dog Pound. Not people saying “woof,” but actual, guttural barks from the bottom of their throats. Gentle would lead it off, Gaul following suit and the whole crew eventually joining for a snarl or two.
When the top of the fourth ended, it came as right fielder Julia Echols hauled in a deep hit out in the grass. After making the catch, she turned and tossed the ball over the outfield wall to the fans watching from behind the fence, drawing laughs and whoops from her teammates in the dugouts.
I could barely feel my hands to scribble notes on the pad stuffed in my hoodie, and I’d long since lost my toes to numbness, but here this team was barking, chanting and having fun with their fans and each other.
In the bottom of the fourth, Toler was back at the plate and this time she shot a liner to the outfield, eventually sliding in safely to second base.
“MacDouble!” someone yelled.
“1-2-3,” Zdeb led the count.
“Mac Daddy, YOU KNOW!” the Dog Pound followed.
Then trouble came again in the fifth. And more trouble, as UAB got hot at the plate, scoring two runs to get a 3-1 lead. Then, after a scoreless sixth, the Blazers scored two more in the top of the seventh inning.
Entering the final frame trailing 5-1 and facing possible defeat just three outs away, the mood was no different than if MSU were up by the same score.
“It’s gonna happen,” Echols cried with no hint of false bravado.
“We’re gonna get some barrels,” Toler repeated several times in a sing-songy fashion.
I got distracted when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Owen and Foulks were walking up and down the dugout doing “touches,” a superstition involving, as you can guess, touching every person in the dugout twice.
A few batters later, Seitz crushed a two-run homer and all the sudden MSU was within two and their bats were hot.
Every member of the team raised their hands in the air as Seitz rounded third, then as one yelled “BOOM!” when she jumped onto home plate. Hugs, high fives and smiles all around.
They kept working the plate as the final frame continued. After another runner got on base, I realized the tying run was at the plate with two outs.
Not only had I gotten a notebook full of observations on the Dog Pound, but I was about to get a dramatic come-from-behind narrative to build my story around. This relentless support and mutual confidence had made a difference.
But the storybook victory never came. UAB recorded the final out and for the first time that night, the dugout was quiet. The cold was felt.
Losses happen, of course, especially to good teams like the Blazers, and it wasn’t MSU’s first defeat of the year anyway.
Whether it was because of that the knowledge or as a result of the Bulldogs’ inability to be anything but positive, the sound picked back up almost as quick as a skip on a record. Heads held high despite heavy hearts and nearly-frozen extremities, the team gathered together behind the plate and sang the fight song with their fans who had stuck out the chilly night with them.
Here would be a too-obvious time for a philosophical or inspiring thought, but the point would hold true. It’s not a matter of if you fall, because in sports, like life, you always will. But when you fall, who will pick you up?
Stuedeman has the answer filling her roster top to bottom. The same encouragement which took the Bulldogs to an NCAA Regional the last two years and the way her players own their role and responsibilities leave this team in strong position.
In fact, since playing UAB, MSU has started SEC play, beat the No. 8 team in the country on Saturday, plated 16 runs and recorded a grand slam in a win Wednesday and owns a 21-5 record going into its series with Georgia this weekend.
In Mississippi State’s dugout, getting back up is as easy as looking at those surrounding you.