The Notebook: Reviewing a successful Easter weekend of athletics

Welcome back from the holiday, for those who got one, anyway. If not, then welcome back from the weekend!

While absolutely nothing happened on campus (and odd change after Super Bulldog Weekend eight days ago), there was much going on across the country for various Mississippi State teams, and most of it was very good.

AGXZCAQKCJRWFTS.20140420043406As a recognition of speed, we’ll start with the fastest news around.

- MSU sophomore Brandon McBride (who won the indoor national title in the 800 meter dash) just set an MSU outdoor 800m record over the weekend, clocking in at 1:45.35, the fastest time in the NCAA.

To put that in perspective, 800m is a half mile, and while it doesn’t work this way at all, his time would come out to running a mile in 3:30. Very impressive.

- Speaking of impressive, MSU softball had the SEC Pitcher of the Week for the second week in a row after freshman Alexis Silkwood earned the honor today following her stellar road performance at Tennessee, including a shutout victory in the opener Friday night.

After senior Alison Owen won it last week following big outings against Alabama,  MSU’s back-to-back honorees have done it against the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the country.

Those honors, of course, reflect a huge swing the last couple weeks, with MSU taking down two top-five teams, one at home and one on the road. The Bulldogs seem to be clicking and getting hot at the right time, with only six regular season games left and in seemingly good position for the NCAA Tournament.

Oh, and one more softball note to pass along: third baseman Caroline Seitz was named as a finalist last week for the NFCA national Freshman of the Year. Lots of good things happening over there.

HBMTKQVFQCBYSCM.20140328213931- Sticking on the diamond, you likely saw where MSU baseball swept Missouri in Columbia over the weekend, moving the Bulldogs into a tie for third in the West and just two games back from first in the SEC overall.

Following the sweep, MSU moved up to No. 20 in the Perfect Game, Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America polls with a record of 26-15 (10-8 SEC). The Bulldogs have now won four of their six SEC series this season, with Texas A&M coming to town this weekend.

In particular, pitchers deserve extended mention as senior Ben Bracewell, junior Jonathan Holder and junior Ross Mitchell were crucial in getting the wins.

Bracewell threw six innings Sunday, the second-longest outing of the year, recording seven strike outs and only allowing one run to keep MSU in the game.

For the third time this year, Mitchell threw a complete game for MSU on Saturday, allowing only two runs over the course of 142 pitches. Beyond the individual performance, his nine-inning effort saved the bullpen, setting John Cohen’s team up for the sweep in extra innings on Sunday.

On Friday night, Holder came up huge in a close contest, pitching 5.1 innings of scoreless relief in an 11-inning game.

On the offensive side, MSU’s bats had big weekends as the Bulldogs tallied 31 hits over the course of the weekend, getting several clutch hits with runners on base.

In particular, a pair of freshmen – Cody Brown and Reid Humphreys – had impressive weekends at the plate in the re-tooled lineup (which seemed to work), while seniors CT Bradford and Derrick Armstrong continued their hot hitting and clutch moments.

- In one final note on teams preparing for the postseason, MSU’s women’s golf team had a superb final round in the SEC Tournament, carding an 8-over-par 296, the third-best final round score in the conference.

- Switching to fall sports as we end this, good news came for Dan Mullen’s program today.

Junior quarterback Dak Prescott has been invited to attend the Manning Passing Academy this summer as a counselor, an honor extended annually to the nation’s top college quarterbacks.

This marks the second year in a row for MSU’s starting QB to attend after Tyler Russell went last summer for the Bulldogs.

- On the basketball court, this news came late last week, but is worth sharing again as Rick Ray announced the signing of junior college forward Johnny Zuppardo.

A national title winner at Jones County Junior College this season, Zuppardo averaged 15.2 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game as a versatile forward. Over the course of the campaign, he shot 62.7 percent from the floor and 43.1 percent beyond the arc. He also racked up 32 steals and 25 blocked shots.

 

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ABC Mailbag: Football stars, baseball beards, facilities and food

Each week on The B&B Show (a radio show I co-host on Bulldog Sports Radio; you can listen to today’s full show here) we have a segment we call ABC, which you’ve seen me mention if you follow on Twitter.

It stands for Ask Bob Carskadon and is, basically, a radio mailbag of some serious and many non-serious questions sometimes but not always relating to Mississippi State sports.

Every Tuesday, we ask for questions on Twitter (tweet them to @bobcarskadon) and now, every Wednesday, I’ll pick some good ones to answer here on the HailState Beat. (PSA on those tweets: if a twitter profile is locked, people who don’t follow it can’t see its tweets, even if they are mentioned in the tweet.)

Keep in mind, as always, opinions and views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of MSU, though sometimes they very well may.

To draw some semblance of a line, the topics are conveniently divided in sports and non-sports.

Sports Questions:

Cowbell Tales @CowbellTales: DNF or DWS?

BlEWStQCcAEF_mxBob: Man, you really like putting me on the spot here. Assuming I get to experience the game as a fan, not a media member, I’ve got to consider the ease, quality and uniqueness of eating food in the Left Field Lounge, where tailgating only happens before games in football.

But, 60,000 fans, two massive video boards, colossal hits and SANDSTORM blaring? Football has its good qualities, too.

I’ll say this. Season opener (with hopefully decent weather): Dudy Noble Field. End of season (Egg Bowl): Davis Wade Stadium.

John Jeffrey Nelson @Christ1st_JJN: How good can Nick Fitzgerald be?

Bob: The true freshman early-enrollee quarterback far exceeded expectations this spring. Some on the outside thought he may end up switching to tight end (he’s very big and athletic, after all), but his performance in his first practices on campus have cemented him at quarterback.

Fitzgerald certainly had moments where you could tell he was someone who should otherwise still be in high school, but he picked up on the offense quickly, displayed a strong arm and did well on the run, as expected. The starting job is obviously Dak Prescott’s for the next two years, but Fitzgerald will be in the competition to replace him in 2016.

Matt Saracen @MattSaracen: Have you seen this job on MSU’s site? https://www.jobs.msstate.edu/applicants/jsp/shared/frameset/Frameset.jsp?time=1397317020402  … Does it look like MSU is about to get serious about video?

Bob: Yes, I have, and yes, it does look that way. The MSU athletic department, if you don’t want to click the link, is hiring another full-time video person as part of an ongoing process to amp up the department.

You may have noticed the increase in quantity and quality of video the last 6 or so months (at least I hope you’ve noticed) and MSU recognizes the need for strong video production, both in branding and recruiting.

Dave Robertson @Dwr4MSU: Any update/timeframe on the tennis and softball complex renovations?

Bob: It’s hard to put a specific timetable on this, because that’s not the issue. At last check, MSU had at or a little over half the funding for a new softball stadium and dual softball-tennis complex, and it won’t be until most of the needed sum is raised that the project will begin.

How long will that take? Who knows. Construction could conceivably start in May if the funds are raised by then. I know all coaches involved (Vann Stuedeman, Daryl Greenan and Per Nilsson) have said how much new facilities would help in recruiting, and there would be obvious benefits in fan experience.

8148990Randy Holloway @randyholloway: What’s your favorite nickname for a MSU player, or fave nickname per major sport if you can’t pick one?

Bob: Out of current players? Turtle (Christian Holmes) gets the nod for football, while Chicken (Craig Sword) takes it for basketball. What’s strange, I realize while thinking about it, is that baseball doesn’t really have any guys with real nicknames that aren’t just derived from their real name.

James Carskadon @JamesCarskadon: Does forcing baseball players to shave their beards actually motivate them?

Bob: Sup, bro? I’d certainly think that John Cohen got their attention with the mandate to rid themselves of facial hair. You’ll recall, last year was the only one in Cohen’s tenure that he allowed the beards at all. One point to come out of this is that this is not last year’s team, the other being that they need to earn things like that.

I liked the beards, despite my lack of ability to grow one, but the coaching staff and team certainly needed something to bring about change, and facial hair is just one of several things they’ve done to that end this week. It’s just the most obvious one when we look at the players.

Luke Goff @Lukegoff5: Who’s more likely to redshirt, Fitzgerald or Elijah Staley? Fitz is more of a project it seems but he had spring practice.

Bob: Dan Mullen has raved about incoming QB Elijah Staley (who also plans to play basketball), saying he was a five-star by their rating system. That said, I think Mullen hopes that neither of the true freshmen will play while Damian Williams and Prescott take all the snaps.

Of course, he hoped the same last year with Tyler Russell and Prescott, yet it was Williams who had to come in and win in overtime against Arkansas.

If I had to guess which is more likely to play in such a scenario, I’d say Fitzgerald this year, based on the fact he’s already had bowl practice and spring practice and will have had a full summer and fall camp by the first game.

That Guy @ThatGuy1878: Is Fred Brown this year’s Jeremy Chapelle? Huge spring, no action in the fall?

Bob: Brown really did have a big spring, including those 219 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Can he build on that? I’d say yes. He played some last year, but some penalties got the best of him. Now, as a third-year sophomore, he may have matured past mental mistakes like that.

The issue, however, is his place in the rotation. Jameon Lewis, Malcolm Johnson, De’Runnya Wilson, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and Fred Ross are all likely ahead of him on the depth chart, while running backs (especially Brandon Holloway) will account for a certain number of catches, as well.

Where does Brown fit in? It’s up to him to prove to coaches he should be in there, and this spring was a good start to that.

 

Non-Sports Questions:

Blake Thompson @StateDOG: What is a habit you’d like to break?

Bob: I probably should spend less time on my phone, but then how would I tweet?

Abigail Stricklin @AbigailS12: Favorite Harry Potter movie/book? And you have to pick one.

Bob: This is like picking children. I know for sure that the second book is my least favorite (in much the same way that winning one million dollars would be my least favorite way to win millions: it’s still incredible).

Book seven, The Deathly Hallows, likely takes the prize as favorite just for the full range of emotions throughout, the drama and the way it wraps everything up.

In the movies, Half-Blood Prince is easily my favorite. It was the first, and really the only, of the movies to stray from the book. Having read the books first, I felt like I was watching something entirely new the first time I saw something different.

Rob Hataway @vhdawg: What profession would you not like to do?

Bob: Anything with math or science. Architect, engineer, physicist. Couldn’t handle it.

Rob Hataway @vhdawg: What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

food-networkBob: There are two things I’ve dreamed of doing: hosting a late night TV show and hosting a food show (a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives type thing, just without Guy Fieri). I also have vague interest in politics, but I spend so much time worrying about sports that I can hardly tell you what’s happening in the country, let alone the world.

Rob Hataway @vhdawg: Better Easter Treat: Cadbury’s Easter Eggs or Peeps?

Bob: For eating? Cadbury eggs, without question. For sticking toothpicks in and making them have jousting battles in the microwaves? Peeps all day.

Andy Atkinson @n8chaboy508: Now that KISS is rightfully in the Rock Hall of Fame, who becomes the “How are they not in?!” title holder?

Bob: I did a quick google search and find myself upset at the following be omitted from the hall (assuming the internet is right): Deep Purple, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chicago, Cheap Trick, Journey, Steppenwolf and Boston, to name a few.

The biggest travesty in my musical heart comes from Steve Miller band being left out. They’re a little simple, sure, but they’re so enjoyable and have way too many chart-toppers to be left out.

COWBELL FEVER @hailstatefan1: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Fogle off Superbad.

Bob: McLovin? Yes, yes they have. More than once.

Ryan Nelson @ryannel76: What is proper etiquette for TV spoilers on Social media?

Bob: Don’t. Perfectly fine to say things like, “Wow!” “Oh my!” or “Holy cow did you see that episode of New Dramatic Show? So dramatic!” But I try to wait months or longer before saying anything about the ending of shows, books or movies.

Between Netflix and increasingly busy lives, not everyone watches when something airs or even the very next day. I try to give time, and I think it’s a nice courtesy to do so, though I know not all follow the same guidelines.

Ryan Nelson @ryannel76: What is your favorite vegetable to cook on the grill?

Bob: Do potatoes count as a vegetable? Not real clear on that, though I think they do. Omitting those starchy delicacies, I’d say asparagus and whole corn on the cob come in a close tie.

However, I do enjoy fruits over flame. Ever had grilled pineapple? Dunk the slices in brown sugar, heat up quickly and enjoy. Goes great on a burger, especially with a little teriyaki sauce.

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Spring football positional review and Spring Game video highlights

 

This afternoon, the final practice of the spring for Mississippi State football will take place, a more ceremonial affair effectively ending the first trimester of the offseason.

The big finish, of course, came in the Maroon-White Spring Game on Saturday as part of Super Bulldog Weekend.

We’ll do full-spring positional breakdowns below, but the above video and some quick stats ought to help in reviewing the scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium.

With a final score of 41-38, it’s not hard to see that the offenses collectively had big days, which is likely a good sign. Defenses will always be relatively vanilla in these types of contests, so it can be concerning if the offense still can’t move the ball.

It’s also worth noting that it was a very pass-heavy game.

Highlights from the statistics –

Leading rushers:

  • Nick Griffin – Nine carries, 35 yards, one touchdown
  • Josh Robinson – Five carries, 22 yards
  • Dak Prescott – Three carries, 12 yards, one touchdown.

Leading receivers:

  • Fred Brown – 10 catches, 219 yards, two touchdowns
  • Robert Johnson – Five catches, 55 yards
  • Fred Ross – Four catches, 81 yards
  • De’Runnya Wilson – Four catches, 87 yards
  • Joe Morrow – Four catches, 68 yards, one touchdown

Leading passers:

  • Dak Prescott – 7-9, 131 yards, one touchdown
  • Damian Williams – 21-32, 347 yards, four touchdowns
  • Nick Fitzgerald – 17-26, 175 yards, one touchdown

Leading tackler:

  • Beniquez Brown, 10

Sacks:

  • (All had one) Preston Smith, Ryan Brown, A.J. Jefferson, Jordan Washington, Trent Simpson

Now, enough with the numbers. Let’s look at we learned and some big picture reviews from the spring in the positional breakdown.

Quarterback

KTZFSKZARUSTFKC.20140412220926MSU knew what it had in Dak Prescott, and him building on that and emerging from the spring without injury is the biggest key here. However, the improvement by sophomore Damian Williams and freshman Nick Fitzgerald stands out as a big positive. Williams made strides after getting so much experience as a true freshman, the results of which we saw in the spring game.

Having a quality backup, especially in the SEC and with a running QB, is important for Dan Mullen’s team.

Offensive Line

After each scrimmage and following the spring game, we never found ourselves talking much about the offensive line, which is the best compliment you can give them. Sophomore Jamaal Clayborn has done an outstanding job taking over at left guard for Gabe Jackson, being sandwiched nicely by seniors Blaine Clausell and Dillon Day at left tackle and center, respectively.

On the right side of the line, minor injuries have prevented us from getting the full picture, but those available (and there are several in this deep group) performed well over the course of the spring. Senior Ben Beckwith, the returning starter at right guard, was outstanding when thrust into the lineup last year, though players like Justin Malone and Jocquell Johnson, depending where they end up, could push him for that gig when healthy.

Running Back

Mullen told us day one that Josh Robinson entered the spring as the starter, and everything he’s done on the field has kept him in that position, but the emergence of finally-healthy senior Nick Griffin, the biggest back in the group, has shown it won’t be a one-man show.

Griffin was one of the breakout stars of the spring and has certainly carved himself a role in the offense.

A change of pace guy, speedy sophomore Brandon Holloway seems to have a found a good home for his particular set of skills. Not that others can’t catch the ball, but none in the backfield can touch his speed, while he’s also shown some shiftiness I didn’t know he had. He’ll be used in a multitude of ways and, like LaDarius Perkins often did, he’ll line up at receiver plenty. A few touches a game, in some form or fashion, may be all Holloway needs to make a big impact.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Mullen said after the scrimmage Saturday that this is the best group of pass-catchers he’s ever had at MSU. I try not to argue with him anyway, but I wouldn’t even want to on this occasion.

Jameon Lewis looks like he’ll continue his pace of yards and scores in a variety of ways from last year, while true sophomore De’Runnya Wilson has already gotten better after playing as a true freshman. At 6’5” with speed, strong hands and a good vertical, Wilson can be the X-factor opposing defenses have to worry about.

As expected, veterans Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow had strong springs, while youngsters Fred Brown (a sophomore), Gabe Myles (a freshman converted from corner) and Shelby Christy (a freshman who also runs track) made big jumps.

Christy was part of one of the more impressive plays of the spring game, hauling in a diving touchdown catch from Damian Williams in the back corner of the endzone.

MSU also finds itself deep at tight end, where senior Malcolm Johnson is a known quantity, while junior Brandon Hill has been as consistent as ever backing him up. The surprise star of group for the spring has been sophomore Gus Walley. He’s never been healthy until now, but tight ends coach Scott Sallach compared him to Johnson in terms of what he can do.

Defensive Line

Senior tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls were limited, but David Turner knows what he has in those two. He’s also got no lack of confidence in senior end Preston Smith, who decided to return for his senior season rather than the NFL Draft, and junior Ryan Brown, a rangy player who Turner praised as a lunch pail guy.

The star of the spring, in my eyes and Turner’s, was sophomore end A.J. Jefferson. He may not be as big as some others, but whenever he’s in, he makes plays. Turner called him the most consistent player of the spring and he’s seemingly taken hold of the role as No. 3 end.

Of course, not just the star of the spring but the star of the whole defensive line is sophomore tackle/end Chris Jones. Probably the most feared player in the group, Jones dropped a few pounds to bolster his already strong pass rush, and he’s finally learning the defense, figuring out how to play without thinking.

If he continues on this trajectory, he’s in for a big year.

One final story from the line is sophomore tackle Nick James. He played as a true freshman before redshirting last year, but the big-bodied and extremely talented player seems to have figured things out. He’s gotten himself in shape, trimming down and working on his endurance. If he meets his potential, he’s yet another stud in the group.

Linebacker

Talking to defensive coaches, I got a surprising answer to the most improved player: junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney. He chose to turn down the NFL for at least a year and return for another season, but the fact that he could be on an NFL roster right now is not hard to see when you watch him at practice.

Elsewhere, sophomore Beniquez Brown is grabbing strong hold of the starting spot at outside linebacker vacated by Deontae Skinner. He’s been one of the top playmakers this spring and looks primed for a good first season as starter.

One name which has kept popping up is that of freshman Dez Harris, who may be the next in line of freakishly athletic and long linebackers after K.J. Wright and McKinney. He may not be a starter as a freshman in 2014, but have no doubt he’ll be an impact player off the bench, and sophomore Richie Brown won’t be far behind him, taking a leadership position amongst the group and steadily improving with each practice.

Defensive Back

Both starting corners from last year – senior Jamerson Love and junior Taveze Calhoun – return for 2014, but the depth at this position has changed dramatically over the last 12 months. Junior Will Redmond may have made more big plays than anyone else in the secondary over the last several weeks and sophomore Cedric Jiles seemingly caught on fire the final two weeks of spring.

No matter who starts, all four will see the field frequently.

At safety, MSU has an odd mix of experience and inexperience. Senior Justin Cox made the move from corner to safety and it appears to be a much more natural fit for him. One of the fastest players on the team, and with good length to boot, he has breakout potential on the back line.

Senior Jay Hughes is the unquestioned leader of the group, and one of the leaders of the team, though he was very limited over the spring.

Junior Kendrick Market filled in well after injuries last year and clearly learned from the experience, showing maturity in the spring. Behind them at safety is sophomore Deontay Evans, who has shown tremendous potential and will push for playing time in 2014.

Special Teams

The biggest news of the spring came on its very last play when sophomore placekicker Evan Sobiesk nailed the game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the spring game.

Running backs coach Greg Knox has taken over special teams and the effects seem pretty clear. Sophomore Devon Bell, focusing solely on punting, has been near perfect with distance, hang time and placement and the return game shows potential with some speedy players back deep for kicks and punts.

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The stories of Super Bulldog Weekend 2014

In sports, history’s best moments often have to become just that – history – before their greatness is realized. Time and consequences are needed to prove their importance.

But, at times special enough, those who are a part of the moment understand the gravity immediately. When measurable history meets with a story that will become legend, no wait is needed to know this is something people will talk about for years.

BlEWStQCcAEF_mxOn Saturday, Mississippi State had all the parts of a Maroon and White tale to be told for generations. There was historical significance in the biggest crowd to ever watch an on-campus college baseball game, 15,586 packing the house. There was an unlikely hero in the freshman catcher Gavin Collins and there was even a perfect antagonist in the arch-rival Ole Miss Rebels.

Like any good story arc, the good guys and bad traded blows in front of the masses, with the home team nearly suffering defeat before one man stepped up in the very last moment to save the day and win the game.

“This is something our kids will never forget,” MSU head coach John Cohen said.

In the 10th inning Saturday, the sun was falling behind Dudy Noble Field as Ole Miss pulled off the unlikeliest of acts, crushing a two-run homer over the centerfield wall off MSU’s All-American closer.

By the end of the frame, the Rebels had taken a 5-2 lead over the home ‘Dawgs and set a good chunk of the record crowd streaming for the exits, figuring the likelihood of comeback in the final three outs was slim.

Even if the Bulldogs were going to lose, they had barely made it this far, anyway. It had been a rocket throw from Derrick Armstrong in left field to Collins at the plate which saved MSU from giving up the go-ahead run in regulation to begin with.

Needing three runs to tie and four runs to win in a game where MSU had only previously scored two, the outlook was grim at best.

But just as Collins made the tag to keep MSU from losing, it was he who eventually made the hit to give the Bulldogs victory in the bottom of the 10th.

When the rally started, gloom in the stands turned to cautious optimism as hope flared up. Cody Brown and Seth Heck ripped back-to-back doubles, followed by a Brett Pirtle sacrifice fly, bringing MSU within a single run.

Then the captain stepped to the plate. Wes Rea, the leader of the team, coach on the field and father to the Bulldogs. The biggest man in Maroon and White, the one everyone stops to watch when he enters the batters box. Of course it was Rea who tied the game with an RBI double.

Courtesy: Clarion-Ledger.com

Courtesy: Clarion-Ledger.com

Finally, it was the unlikely hero who found himself with the un-assumed burden of victory, the freshman catcher from California who had made big plays all day.

“It’s all credit to Gavin,” Armstrong later said. “I told him when [Ole Miss] made the pitching change, ‘you’re gonna get the hit and I’m gonna tackle you.’”

When the perfect pitch came, Collins swung the bat without hesitation, belting the game-winning single, securing walk-off victory and beating the enemy to the north 6-5.

Rarely has a park been louder when those in the dugout stormed the field.

“I saw all my teammates coming out,” Collins told reporters after the game, recalling the embraces and shouts from his fellow Bulldogs somewhere near first base of the infield. “I love those guys. I think that’s why we won. We’re such a tight knit group. We’re a family.”

Not just family by association, but relation by blood made the day special for Collins, whose mother, father and brother were at an MSU game for the first time ever. As son stood in the dugout signing autographs after the game, mother called to him from behind the protective net lining the stadium.

“This was the best birthday present I could have asked for.”

Her birthday is on Monday.

The crowd, the comeback, the weight of the situation – it was the immediate makings of legend, the kind of event none will soon forget.

“Gavin’s the hero today,” Armstrong said.

And the scene couldn’t have been more perfect for walk-off, come-from-behind victory. 78 degrees and sunny, the oft-called Carnegie Hall of College Baseball was proving once again why it is the crown jewel of its sport.

Home to every single one of top 10 crowds in on-campus NCAA baseball history, Dudy Noble Field and the seats, lounges and grass surrounding it are a monument to what makes the sport special.

The fans of Mississippi State are the catalyst, and they will tell you there are none greater in the country.

Walking through the crowded outfield during the game, everyone was there to see it. Former MSU football greats like Cam Lawrence and Chad Bumphis stopped for pictures with fans. Dan Mullen, Anthony Dixon, members from all over the athletic kingdom – it didn’t matter that this wasn’t their sport, they wanted to be there.

Having just announced the specialty uniforms the Bulldogs were wearing that day, a deep group of representatives from Adidas had made the pilgrimage for Super Bulldog Weekend, many of them at Dudy Noble Field for the first time.

“This is the best college baseball experience in the country,” one of the first-time visitors said during the fifth inning. “I’ll be back.”

That MSU set the record for largest crowd is no surprise. After all, it was their own record the Bulldog fans smashed by over 500. The excitement is in the experience and being able to say, “I was there.”

The joy comes in a venue unique to the rest of the world, a place so very appropriate for the heart of Mississippi, where students share grills with professors, where son, father and grandfather sit on top of the world in the grandstands, cheering on their Bulldogs.

In the 15,586 packing Polk-Dement Stadium and the Left Field Lounge, not one was a stranger to anyone, just old friends they’ve never met.

Walking through the outfield an hour after Collins’ winning hit was a difficult scene to describe. The debris from a day of tailgating and a game full of ups and downs was strewn across trailers and the deck lining the fence as game workers would later come to clean it up.

Of the record crowd, only dozens were left; family members, friends and dedicated fans who just seemed too happy to leave, milling around and looking for reasons to stay, holding on to the moment as long as possible. Like Collins in the immediate aftermath of walk-off victory, they were in the happiest kind of daze, still processing what they had just experienced.

“If there’s an epicenter of college baseball,” one the remaining Adidas representatives said just outside the stadium, “it’s right here.”

————————————————–

My goal for Super Bulldog Weekend 2014 was simple in its intent, though exceedingly difficult in practice: attend every single event over the four day bonanza. 15 events, several pots of coffee and a few short sleepy respites later, I came out victorious, if not a touch exhausted.

Thursday night, soccer exhibition vs. Alabama

The weekend more or less started for me with the Adidas press conference Thursday afternoon (and the deep-fried dinner that evening), though the first official event was soccer’s exhibition game against Alabama at 7. Bringing an opponent like the Tide in for an exhibition was a strong move, as typically events like that are played against lesser opponents.

unnamedMSU lost a tight game 1-0, but it served as an entertaining kickoff to SBW 2014. The stands were packed with family and fans, as well as fellow Bulldogs from State’s other athletic teams.

Of the many people met over the weekend, one of my favorite came Thursday night in a young girl named Belle (a variation on cowbell, I can only assume).

Unlike those around her, she was a literal Bulldog of the eating out of a bowl on the ground and going to the bathroom in the yard variety.

Her owner had found her in Alabama, though she’s now a Mississippi girl and frequenter of MSU events.

The moment was funny, watching a Bulldog watch the Bulldogs on Super Bulldog Weekend. An appropriate beginning, to be sure.

Friday afternoon, pig cook-off

The last thing I did before leaving the office was an unplanned soccer game in the hallway with Bart Gregory from the Bulldog Club as we killed our final free moments of the day.

“For the two people who get accused the most of not working,” he said after a misfired kick, “this is pretty appropriate.”

Immediately following, our CFO walked through the door and we pretended not to have been doing any of what we were doing on such a busy day.

Courtesy: Bulldog Sports Radio

Courtesy: Bulldog Sports Radio

A quick walk down the street was the annual pig cook-off, where the cooking portion had begun, the eating time not yet arrived.

Here, I ran into an old friend and fellow Starkville native tailgating and hanging out with friends and family, enjoying the relative quiet before the storm of activity to come.

The patriarch of the family had a smile on his face he couldn’t remove as he told me about his day.

“Wayne Madkin set up a tailgate tent outside my office window on Super Bulldog Weekend,” he said. “It doesn’t get much more MSU than that.”

Friday evening, softball vs. Alabama, game one

Resigned to walking across campus all weekend, I was excited to see a golf cart passing by as I headed to the softball stadium for a big game against Alabama.

“Hey, golf cart!” I yelled, trying to get the attention of the girl in the Event Operations Group jacket.

“Sorry, old people!” she yelled back, a means of letting me know she wasn’t there to help perfectly healthy if not particularly fit 20-somethings.

I realized my press pass was in my pocket, not yet hanging on my neck, so I whipped it out and called back, “Media!”

After a quick ride and many expressions of gratitude, I arrived at the softball stadium 15 minutes before the game was to begin. I’d heard Anthony Dixon was in town to throw out the first pitch, so I was happy to get there in time for it.

“Boobie just called,” softball marketing guru Daniel Watkins told me. “He said, ‘I’m passing Louisville, tell those Bulldogs not to start without me! I’ll be there.’”

unnamed-1With moments to spare (and a reserved parking spot) Dixon ran through the gate seconds before the National Anthem was sung, having timed his trip all the way from Buffalo down to the final minute.

In the circle with Miss Teen Mississippi, he delivered a perfect honorary first pitch, receiving loud applause from the big crowd.

Sitting in the stands a few minutes later, he was proud of throwing the ball so well.

“I didn’t even get to warm up!”

Friday night, baseball vs. Ole Miss, game one

It was Friday when you realized how big this weekend was really going to be, how many people had shown up and the excitement there was for this particular iteration of SBW.

I passed by Jackie Sherrill on my way to the outfield, snaked my way around thousands as I worked my way through and said hello to dozens on my way to do Taste of the Lounge at the right field tiki lounge.

This is what The Lounge is famous for, what Mississippi and the entire south stake their reputations on: food.

Every vegetable on earth somehow made less healthy. Surf, turf and anything in-between thrown onto a grill.

Smoke rises in front of cameras trying to film the game and groups have to make room when fresh burning coals are brought to re-stock steel pits of cooking flame.

While waiting for our segment in the middle of the fifth, someone passed over a plate of skewered somethings.

“What’s this,” I asked as I picked one up.

“Just eat it,” I was told with a smile.

Works for me. The answer, it turns out, was bacon-wrapped tenderloin, stuffed with jalapenos and cream cheese. Superb.

But this was Friday during the season of lent. Not everyone could eat that beefy delicacy. So what was Hobie Hobart cooking?

“Fish tacos,” he proudly said as he opened the grill. “Let me make you one.”

Saturday morning, Cotton District Arts Festival

My goal of hitting every event of the weekend included the non-sporting activities, and the arts festival is one of my favorite yearly functions.

This being his first SBW, I took Mike Bonner out there with me, where it was less than 10 minutes before we had somehow found ourselves walking in the middle of a dog parade, despite our obvious lack of dogs. Whoops.

unnamed-3Like everything this weekend, it was a collection of all types of people packing into one place for food, fellowship and whatever happens.

I commented as I passed on a cool-looking hand-drawn creation made to look like a beachy, faded street sign. It read one word: “Dawgaritaville.”

“Better buy it now,” a lady at the tent called out. “We sold out early last year.”

Along the way, Dan Mullen passed by, shaking hands and taking pictures in the hours of free time before the spring game.

“Are we gonna have enough for free beer?” he asked, referencing his joke that he would give complimentary beverages to students if they got 30,000 at the spring game.

Nearby, a pair was debating the details between two items of potential purchase.

“What’s more appropriate for an adult?” one voice asked.

Saturday morning, softball alumni game

This was the busiest hour of my weekend assignment. At 11 a.m., the softball alumni game started. At 11 a.m. across campus, the volleyball alumni match started. At noon, the spring game started. Getting to all three on foot would be difficult.

When I got to the softball field to start it off, the old heads were still inside the facility taking some practice swings in the batting cages, many of them far removed from their playing days. Waiting on them,

I walked out to the empty field as Total Eclipse of the Heart blared over the speakers.

“Forever’s gonna start tonight,” Bonnie Tyler’s voice crooned.

Oddly accurate foreshadowing, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Soon after, I headed for volleyball as either by coincidence or tip of the hat from the DJ, Sandstorm blasted across the empty stadium, perfectly sending me into my day.

Saturday morning, volleyball alumni match

I managed to catch connecting golf cart rides, one from Dudy Noble to Davis Wade Stadium, then a second from football to the Newell-Grissom for volleyball, the result having me there in time to catch some action before the spring game.

The setup of this match had current players pitted against the alumni, and it was here that one of those perfect moments happened where present mirrors past.

Jenny Hazelwood, second from center, and Brian Hazelwood, right

Jenny Hazelwood, second from center, and Brian Hazelwood, right

In what must have reminded him of college days, current volleyball assistant and former MSU football placekicker Brian Hazelwood watched from the sideline as his wife Jenny, current MSU head coach and former Bulldog volleyball player, took the court as part of the alumni team.

In those glory days of classes and college, Brian could be found sneaking over in his rare football-free weekend hours to watch his girlfriend Jenny play volleyball, the beginning stages of love eventually becoming marriage and family in the very town and place they met.

Like then, Saturday was a quick pit stop for athletic romance before football began.

Saturday mid-day, Maroon-White football game

The scrimmage itself is left to be critiqued and analyzed in different places, but the people surrounding it make up this part of the story.

On true game days in the fall, 56,000 people fill the stands of Davis Wade, music is pumped throughout the stadium and cowbells clang constantly during their allowed moments of ringing.

In the spring game, though 20,000 is a big crowd, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. Sitting in the press box and eating a small plate of brunch, I kept hearing the same group of people: the cheerleaders.

Over the noise in the fall, the voices and chants of these young men and women rarely carry all the way to our perch atop the stadium in the press box. But today, everyone at Scott Field could here them. Every shout into the megaphone spread over the stadium, every coordinated clap fell on the ears of those in attendance.

In an odd way, the spring game is their time to shine. Like the players on the field, this is their moment in front of the crowd, their opportunity to show what they can do.

Winston Chapman, left, with fellow special teamers Baker Swedenburg and Devon Bell before the Liberty Bowl

Winston Chapman, left, with fellow special teamers Baker Swedenburg and Devon Bell before the Liberty Bowl

Walking off the field afterward, I was stopped by a man who seemed to recognize me. He was the father of MSU longsnapper Winston Chapman’s, he told me, and that woman over there was his wife, Winston’s mom.

The special teams group is always the first on the field for pre-game warm ups, so they are the ones I take pictures of to tweet what uniform MSU is wearing that day. Winston, a nice guy and always willing to help, is my go-to uniform model.

“Thank you for all the pictures,” his mom said as she shook my hand. “I’ve got one of them saved as my background.”

We spend a lot of time breaking down action on the field, praising and critiquing the students in those uniforms as they put into action what they’ve practiced for months.

It’s nice, on occasions like this, to see them from another point of view. Everyone, after all, is someone’s kid.

Saturday night, softball vs. Alabama, game two

Following the previously-discussed baseball game, I hopped over to the softball stadium to catch the end of game two.

I had been so involved in baseball that I hadn’t had the chance to check twitter or do anything to keep track of what had been going at softball, so as I walked up, I didn’t know what I would find. MSU has been playing well this season, but Alabama was the No. 2 team in the country and certainly favored to win.

However, as I approached, I heard loud cheers coming over the bleachers. Much louder than the small contingent of Crimson Tide fans could produce, to be certain.

The stands blocked the view of the scoreboard, but surely a crowd wouldn’t be so loud if the home team were losing. Turns out, I had walked up just as MSU had scored the go-ahead run, taking a 3-2 lead over the Tide they would never lose.

Luckily, my media badge got me a seat on press row, because otherwise I’d have had trouble finding somewhere to watch the conclusion.

The biggest crowd in MSU softball history was there to watch the win as every designated seat was spoken for and you could hardly walk down the aisles or across the front walkway for all the people finding makeshift seats on steps and flat areas of bleacher.

“Who are we?” the left side of the stadium yelled.

“Hail State!” came the return cry from the right.

Final score: Bulldogs won 4-2, rubber match to come on Sunday afternoon.

Saturday night, Old Main Music Festival

By the time softball finished, I was 12 hours into a day of outdoor activities and I had the unfortunate odor to prove it.

But Saturday wasn’t yet over. It just needed a fun nightcap to finish it off.

At my house near campus, I could hear the sound of bands coming from the amphitheater, one of my favorite venues for a concert. Passing through the Cotton District on my way felt like the ending of a movie – uplifting music seemingly coming out of the air around you, walking into the night at the conclusion of a dramatic and beautiful day. The haze of the last 12 hours faded into the lights and sounds of campus at night.

The next day, MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin looked back on everything as he applied perspective to all that happened.

“That might be the best day in Super Bulldog Weekend history,” he said.

The come-from-behind baseball win, the record crowd, a high-scoring spring game, the victory over Alabama, the arts and the music and the gorgeous weather to top it off.

“It lined up perfectly.”

Sunday morning, tennis vs. Texas A&M

A more perfect lazy spring Sunday could hardly be designed, with a strong breeze and just enough cloud cover to tame the warm sunshine pouring down.

In this tennis center I’ve often witnessed one my favorite happenings, something almost exclusively unique to college tennis. With fewer courts than there are matches to play, not all members of the teams are playing at the same time. And unlike other sports, there’s no sideline bench area for an entire team to sit in.

Instead, those who aren’t currently in action find seats in the stands, right in the middle of all the spectators watching the matches. From their spot with the fans, they are perfectly placed to start chants, loudly cheering for their teammates down below.

Senior Day for the Bulldogs, it was the culmination of careers for three MSU seniors in Malte Stropp, Zach White and team manager Andrew Kirkland. In unfortunate results, State ended up dropping a tight match to Texas A&M, the Aggies winning 4-2, a hard end to the regular season for MSU.

But in sports, just as in life, where there is defeat, there is opportunity for redemption, and if luck is on their side, Stropp and White may not yet have played their final moments at home.

The SEC Tournament is up next, followed by the NCAA Tournament, which the Bulldogs hope to be a host for yet again.

Sunday afternoon, softball vs. Alabama, game three

Right behind the tennis courts, I was in my seat a few minutes before first pitch between MSU and Alabama softball, then rose as the National Anthem was called to take place.

At any event, this is as quiet as it will ever be. The only time one voice can be heard with every mouth struck silent in reverence, it’s respect and love for country as the fight for America’s freedom is recalled in solo song.

“…the bombs bursting in air…”

Overheard in the near silent softball stadium, cheers erupted from tennis next door, where a crucial point had just been won by MSU.

“…gave proof through the night…”

A repeating “stomp, stomp, clap” off bleachers and hands began at tennis as the singing continued at softball. The rhythmic noise-making came from ‘We Will Rock You,’ an anthemic song itself which has been heard for years at sporting events across the country, though certainly different in style to the tune it accidentally mixed with in that moment.

The National Anthem is a beautiful song, though not without strong words, the story of a battle for freedom and the realization of accomplished victory coming after.

The incidental pairing of passion and pageantry now passed, I left for baseball, assuming I’d be there the rest of the day and miss the end of softball.

BlMARYQIEAAUPZSHowever, as updates came on twitter hours later, I struggled to stay away. Finally, upon seeing softball had gone into extra innings at a scoreless tie, I skipped over from baseball to softball to watch the end.

Shortly after arrival, it seemed the trek might have been a waste. After no score for nine innings, the Alabama offense finally broke through in the tenth as the Tide racked up three runs.

Just like their baseball brothers the night before, these softball ladies found themselves needing three runs to tie and four to win in the 10th inning, despite their relative lack of offense the previous nine innings.

Facing deficit and defeat, the Bulldog bats came alive. After three batters, MSU had three runners on – the bases loaded with zero outs on the board.

A single scored the first run. 3-1.

Another single scored the second. 3-2.

A fielder’s choice tied it up. 3-3.

Saturday night at Dudy Noble flashed in my mind as a freshman catcher – Katie Ann Bailey – stepped to the plate for Vann Stuedeman’s Bulldogs, the result of the game potentially resting on her bat.

The entire crowd was on their feet waiting on the pitch to come. Some were clapping, some had their phones out ready to document the win, should it come.

When the ball came her way, Bailey did exactly what she was supposed to, sending it flying in the other direction, deep into the outfield.

Her sacrifice fly had won the game, perhaps the biggest in the history of the program, as MSU beat Alabama 4-3 and won the weekend series against the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.

The stands erupted, the dugout emptied and the celebration began.

After singing the fight song with the crowd, the entire Bulldog team and coaching staff sprinted out of the stadium, ran across the street and dove into Chadwick Lake, euphoric in victory.

Sunday afternoon, baseball vs. Ole Miss, game three

In the locker room following the game, there were very few smiles to be found in the immediate moments after loss.

Otherwise sad eyes looked up as man walked in, holding his son in his arms.

“He just wanted to meet y’all,” the father told the team after they gathered around.

BlIlGsnIIAAlcc0Battling emotions of joy and sadness came out in his strained voice as he told the team about his son, “a Bulldog at heart.”

Just four years old, little Campbell was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer two months ago.

With both tears and a smile on his face, father told the team how brave his son is and how much they both love Mississippi State baseball.

Heads bowed in prayer for Campbell, junior pitcher Ross Mitchell asked for healing and comfort for Campbell.

“It’s easy to say woe is us,” Mitchell spoke to his team. “We just had a bad day because we lost a game. Let Campbell be a reminder to us.”

Mitchell asked for happiness for their new friend. He encouraged those around him to keep Campbell in their minds and to enjoy life, not let anything get them down.

Wins and losses are accrued over time, people and players come and go.

There in the locker room, a smile on a little boy’s face as he got to meet the men of his favorite team served as example of what Super Bulldog Weekend is all about, why it’s important.

Through all circumstances, all events, the good and especially the bad, finding happiness and contentment is what makes life worth living.

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Maroon-White Spring Game rosters released

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Mississippi State released the official rosters for the Maroon-White spring football game on Saturday, the entirety of which you can view above. Players may very well switch between now and kickoff, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see guys change teams mid-scrimmage, but this gives us a good starting point for what to expect.

With a few exceptions, it’s basically the first team offense vs. the first team defense, with the No. 2s on defense pairing with the starting offense and the No. 2s on offense joining the starting defense on their sideline.

Some notable starters will be out, including Dillon Day, Kaleb Eulls, Justin Malone, P.J. Jones and Jay Hughes, as well as a few others still rehabbing various bumps and bruises.

The Maroon team (first team offense) is being coached by co-OC Billy Gonzales, DC Geoff Collins, associate head coach Tony Hughes and tight ends coach Scott Sallach, as well as a host of others.

Team White (first team defense) is being led by co-OC John Hevesy, QB coach Brian Johnson, cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend, D-line coach David Turner and the rest of the staff.

The scrimmage, for the most part, will be played like a normal game with a 10 minute halftime and a running clock in the second half. Kickoff is at noon in Davis Wade Stadium, gates open at 10 a.m.

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MSU, Adidas announce new deal; specialty uniforms unveiled

 

After unveiling new specialty uniforms for both baseball and football on Thursday afternoon, Mississippi State announced a new contract with Adidas.

unnamed-7The deal is for seven years and runs through 2020, with 2014 serving as the first year of the agreement. The contract is worth $17.5 million over the course of the seven years, including cash and gear. Adidas and MSU’s previous deal signed in 2009 was worth $3 million over five years and was gear and equipment only.

Year one of the new deal actually replaces the final year of the 2009 agreement, raising the yearly worth of the contract from $600,000 to $2.5 million annually.

That jump, athletic director Scott Stricklin said, comes as the result of MSU’s increased brand appeal and a mutually beneficial relationship the last five years. Interestingly, he added, Adidas was the only major player to show interest in MSU when they were searching for a new provider back in 2009.

unnamed-8The new uniforms unveiled Thursday are one-time alternates for the baseball and football teams. John Cohen’s Bulldogs will wear the cream vintage uniform on Saturday of Super Bulldog Weekend, while Dan Mullen’s football team will wear theirs against Southern Miss in the season opener this fall.

The football design is based off those of the 1990s teams and also serves as a commemoration of 100 years at Scott Field. Stricklin added in his press conference that MSU has received permission to use “HAIL STATE” on the front nameplate of the jersey.

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Mississippi State football coaches take to golf course, scorecard controversy ensues

Controversy has hit Mississippi State.

Photographs surfaced Wednesday morning of MSU football’s coaching staff on a golf outing at Old Waverly Golf Course in nearby West Point, Miss. Finding truth among these sometimes disturbing images turned out to be more difficult than expected when conflicting reports about who won came from the coaches themselves.

With Dan Mullen out of town for a speaking engagement, it has come down to offense vs. defense. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend played against co-offensive coordinators John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales for the second year in a row, and for the second-straight time, no one seems to know for sure who won.

Even more concerning: Townsend claims he hit a hole-in-one – an impressive feat, if true – but  the only evidence he has is a still-frame photo and a scorecard written by Collins.

I tracked the coaches down in their offices to get the story. Decide the truth yourselves. 

I spoke with Collins first, after Townsend declined interview, simply saying, “You’ll have to talk to Geoff. He’s the spokesperson.”

Bob Carskadon: So I hear the coaches played some golf this morning while the head man was away?

Geoff Collins: What happens on the golf course stays on the golf course, Bob. But it was a really good time, it was. Beautiful course.

BC: Who won?

GC: There were some discrepancies in scores, but all I know is we walked off the course as the winners.

BC: Well, I saw a picture of John and Billy being presented with a trophy…

GC: I don’t even know where that came from. Made up prizes. All I know is I’ve got the scorecard that says defense won … I’ll just say that we were the first to report our score. There were some conflicting reports where maybe one team wrote down eight on a hole and the other wrote down five. But the first to report it is the accurate one, right?

The same thing happened last year when we played. They’re reporting different numbers and claiming they beat us. But as I see it, we’re the repeat champions.

BkywHyMCAAAe7TA.jpg-largeBC: The offense is claiming you left the course early, thus disqualifying yourselves.

GC: Look, when Deshea and I finished playing, the scorecard said we won and that’s really all I have to go by.

BC: Was there anything on the line in the competition?

GC: Pride. And right now, I’m a proud guy.

BC: Did Deshea really hit a hole-in-one?

GC: There were a lot of great shots today. Really good golf was played. Some excellent performances out there.

(At this point, Collins interrupted my follow-up question, pointing at his phone.)

GC: Blake Bortles just liked my photo. He’s about to be a top-five pick and he’s basically confirming, by liking the picture, that he agrees. Can’t argue that.

Between interviews, any attempts to hide the arguments were forgotten as coaches openly battled in the hallways on the finer points of the results. I told Collins I’d have to talk to the other side for an unbiased report.

After some verbal disagreements were broken up, I sat with coaches Hevesy and Gonzales in the offensive meeting room as they reviewed film.

While Collins often attempted to talk around answers, Hevesy was direct in his responses, preferring to stick to the hard evidence.

BC: I know you’ve tweeted otherwise, but Geoff and Deshea are claiming they won today.

John Hevesy: Why would you listen to that? Who’s got the trophy? The scorecard is written in pencil.

BC: Geoff claims to have no knowledge of this trophy.

JH: That’s because he quit. He’s a quitter.

BC: You stated pretty boldly that the defense left the course without finishing, but they say it’s not true.

JH: How do you finish 18 holes in an hour and 36 minutes? That’s borderline impossible. If you take the facts into consideration, I think you’ll find the answer. We teed off at 8. Deshea tweeted that they won at 9:36. An hour and half. That’s impossible. So he’s a liar.

BkyIHd-CEAEWYneBC: Did he really hit a hole-in-one?

JH (after an eye roll): Sure.

BC: Do you have the trophy I could see?

Billy Gonzales: They’re carving our names into it, so it’s still at Old Waverly. It’s just gonna stay there for us until next year when we win our third in a row.

BG (continued): They left. Coach Collins was wearing swim trunks. He left halfway through to go the pool. We tweeted the whole thing. It should be easy to figure out if you look at the facts and the timeline.

And with that, our interviews were finished.

Collins had earlier claimed the bright blue swimsuit was just a distraction, saying they are Hevesy’s least favorite shorts.

In fact, one source told me, Collins and Townsend were so eager to get in the heads of their opponents that they arrived at the first hole with the hit ‘Turn Down For What’ playing at full volume.

Asked for final comment, Collins pulled a smeared sheet from his pocket and smiled as he said, “We just let our scorecard do the talking.”

In the minds of Hevesy and Gonzales, the trophy, given by George Bryan himself, serves as trump card in the on-going scorecard scandal.

Reached for comment upon his return, Mullen perhaps unsurprisingly sided with the offense after hearing both sides of the story.

“Mr. Bryan presented the trophy to John and Billy,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders. “That’s checkmate to me.”

Who is telling the truth? Who really won on the pristine greens of Old Waverly? Did Deshea Townsend actually hit a hole-in-one?

Those who search for truth, it seems, must decide on their own.

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A weekend of rivalry and revelry in Baton Rouge for MSU-LSU baseball

Part One: The Titanomachy

Walking through the grandstands of Alex Box early in the game Friday night, a Mississippi State fan stopped me as I passed. After talking for a moment (he was a State grad, but his daughter, sitting nearby, had attended LSU), he introduced me to the friend he was standing with: a man with blue jeans, gray hair and a bright purple pullover.

The Tiger fan had a name he told me, but I quickly lost it when he started talking about the famous names in baseball history, sharing the stories he seemingly had stored at the front of his mind for decades, waiting for any opportunity to share with the right crowd.

I, in a maroon and white jacket, was his preferred crowd, the friend with him likely there for the umpteenth performance.

In 1985, the older man was just a man, not yet gray and not yet a baseball fan. He’d always cheered for LSU, making it to every football game he could, but baseball had never held his interest.

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Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro

However, that year, he recalled, he had an opportunity his Tigers hadn’t yet provided him. The top-ranked team in the country was taking the diamond in Baton Rouge.

“I had to see it,” he said. “Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark – I wanted to see No. 1 Mississippi State.”

On Friday night, the first game of the series, that Tiger fan made his way to the stadium, where luck nearly prevented him from witnessing one of the greats.

Somehow, the Bulldogs’ starting pitcher had missed the bus from Starkville. Not content to take the weekend off, however, he drove himself from northeast Mississippi down to Baton Rouge, making it in time for the game.

That spring night, starting pitcher Jeff Brantley and No. 1 Mississippi State beat LSU 7-0.

“I’ve been a baseball fan ever since,” the smiling Tiger fan told me, despite his school having lost.

Nearly 20 years later, he finally made the return trip to see the team which had accidentally awoken his love for baseball. Last season, this LSU fan travelled to Starkville to see the Bulldogs and Tigers, two clubs who would ultimately make it to Omaha and the College World Series by season’s end.

“I always wanted to go to Dudy Noble Field,” he said. “It was on my bucket list.”

After the Friday night game, he went out to the parking lot and discovered his car to be broken down. Within minutes, one of the many State fans passing by stopped and offered help.

“He was a lawyer, wouldn’t you know it? I’m a lawyer, too, though.”

The maroon-clad lawyer gathered friends to help his purple and gold counterpart.

“They gave me a drink and told me to relax while they fixed my car.”

Once they had him fixed up, the MSU fans invited the grateful Tiger to join them at their tailgate in the Left Field Lounge the rest of the weekend, an offer he happily accepted, getting more than he expected while crossing one more item off his bucket list.

“That’s the way baseball should be,” he told me, as a means of ending the story he so enjoyed telling.

BNXDNNWDPNOPPWK.20110421225002Beyond the fences, outside the foul lines and behind the dugouts, he’s right. That’s how it’s been for MSU and LSU, the traditional powers of SEC baseball. Both will tell you they have the best fans in college baseball. Perhaps each is right in their own way – the best possible backers for their particular brand of coach, player and game.

The passion comes from success, and from that success has come decades of rivalry on the field, battles for supremacy not just in their corner of the country but across the entire nation, one or the other making seemingly annual pilgrimages to Omaha each June.

One of the most ancient of stories is known only by reference to its existence in other historic texts. The great Greek epic called the Titanomachy, also known as the War of the Titans, centers on the mythical battles of those who ruled the Earth long before humans arrived to till soil and hunt game, and its full text has never been found, only re-created from references elsewhere in a millennia of Greco-literature.

The Olympians, as legend tells it, lived to the north on Mount Olympus, while the Titans fought from the south on Greece’s Mount Othrys. The final war lasted 10 years, though years and years before were the first battles fought amongst the Titans.

Perhaps, MSU coach John Cohen said last week, a big reason for the rivalry between his school and LSU is that, for so long, theirs were the only fan bases in the SEC who really traveled, who showed genuine and consistent passion both at home and on the road.

Having played at MSU, Cohen has known the rivalry longer than most, one that started with success by the Maroon and White. His Bulldogs were the first of the two programs to reach the College World Series, making the journey out west four times before the Tigers could reach it once. Almost fittingly, LSU’s first appearance came in 1986, just one year following that 1985 No. 1 MSU team.

All together, the programs have combined for 25 trips to the College World Series.

In 1990, Cohen was a senior for the Bulldogs when both clubs made it to Omaha, an SEC West feat which happened again in ’97 and ’98.

But after 1998, the Bulldogs only made it back once over the next 15 years, and by 2009 LSU had won its sixth National Championship.

It was that year when Cohen returned to Starkville, named the head coach of his alma mater, taking over for Ron Polk, the legend who built the program and the man he played under.

Those in Starkville and Baton Rouge didn’t know it, but the war which had seemingly laid dormant for so long was about to begin again.

As the ancient text once told it, Cronus was the ruler of the Titans during their longest reign. His lordship over Earth began when he overthrew Ouranos, the father of the Titans. His very own dad, in fact.

As he lay dying at the hands of his son, Ouranos used his final breath to prophesy that Cronus’ children would one day do to him what he had done to his own father, bringing down Cronus’ rule.

zeus-von-einem-anderen-planeten-sch-ne-bilder-und-fantasy-192075To prevent an uprising, Cronus is said to have swallowed his children whole immediately upon birth, ending any chance they would have to grow up and take him from his throne. But his wife, horrified at the fate of her children, saved the youngest offspring by wrapping a rock in a blanket, which Cronus foolishly and unknowingly swallowed thinking it was the child. For years, baby Zeus grew in secret, away from his father’s paranoid eye.

Once reaching adulthood, Zeus disguised himself and worked as a servant for his unwitting father, perfectly placed to begin the war when the time came.

After graduating from MSU, Cohen continued his career in baseball, working his way through the ranks of the coaching fraternity. In 2002, those travels brought Cohen back to the SEC as an assistant at Florida. By 2004, his résumé` landed him the head coaching job at Kentucky, where he built a program nearly from scratch, the Wildcats becoming one of the top contenders in the SEC.

Finally, it was in 2009 when he returned to Mississippi State, taking his rightful place as the leader of the program, to begin re-building the proud tradition of Bulldog baseball.

It was no quick fix, to be sure, but by 2011 he had MSU back in the NCAA Tournament. In 2012, his team won the SEC Tournament. Then, in 2013, his Bulldogs broke through.

For the first time in a decade, MSU was host to an NCAA Regional. State made quick work of the homestand, swept through the Super Regional the next weekend and rapidly found itself at a familiar home – the College World Series.

That postseason run ended in the championship series, MSU finishing as finalists, capping the best season in the history of the university’s many athletic programs.

It also signaled a return by the Bulldogs to their natural place on the front lines of the war for the SEC and country, a mountain of baseball success and history in the Western Division returned from temporary dormancy.

The mountain to the south, LSU also appeared in that 2013 World Series, marking the fourth time the two titans of college baseball had reached the big stage in the same year.

For 10 years after Zeus’ surprise return, he led the Olympians in battles against the old guard of the rulers of the heavens.

Battles were fought at each mountain base, and plenty more in the valleys between. In the midst of loss after loss in overthrow efforts, Zeus was given his most cherished gifts, lightning and thunder, which he eventually used to turn the tides of bloodshed and win the grandest-scaled war history has ever known, relegating his defeated opponents to an eternity of servitude while the Olympians ruled.

So long as the SEC stands, so will MSU and LSU, along with a dozen others. In a conference so competitive as theirs, Cohen said, every week is a rivalry match-up. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Florida, he listed off, all considered rivals of certain degrees.

The successes or failures of Bulldogs and Tigers are in no way dependent on the other, but the inherent respect for history in baseball makes these battles some of the best every year.

MSU and LSU playing in 1907 at Hardy Athletic Field at Mississippi A&M (Courtesy SB Nation, Mississippi State University Libraries, University Archives)

MSU and LSU playing in 1907 at Hardy Athletic Field at Mississippi A&M (Courtesy SB Nation, Mississippi State University Libraries, University Archives)

Legends like Polk and Skip Bertman are the founding fathers, while Cohen and Paul Mainieri are the present-day mantle bearers. Many of the SEC’s best players and biggest names moved through these programs over years and years of victories.

MSU has reached the College World Series in each of the last five decades, 50 years of unrivaled achievement.

LSU’s championships and accolades speak for themselves.

In the grandstands of Alex Box over the weekend, maroon and purple intermingled, seated next to each other, lining up behind one another and re-living decades of success, not thinking that years from now these are the “glory days” they’ll find themselves remembering and longing for.

On the field, from first pitch to last, few teams are more passionate about their fight. Just as competition breeds success, so success will breed competition in this never-ending question of who wants to beat each other more.

Battles on weekends are won and lost, but the War of the Titans, the fight for college baseball supremacy, has just begun to re-kindle its flame.

Part Two: The Journey

“I’ve got my ticket for the long way ’round,

The one with the prettiest of views,

It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers,

It’s got sights to give you shivers,

But it sure would be prettier with you…

“And I’m leaving tomorrow. What d’you say?”

I needed a ride to Baton Rouge.

The Diamond Girls needed someone to take them.

Certainly not advanced enough in years to be a dad, I am at least of age to qualify as, perhaps, a responsible older brother, so myself and Rhett Hobart in MSU’s marketing department signed on to escort the Diamond Girls to and from the MSU at LSU baseball series.

The assignment I was given: enjoy the weekend as a spectator. Avoid the press box, find the people and the stories of an historic college baseball rivalry. Experience the journey as one on the road searching for food, fun and fellow Bulldog travelers.

11 a.m. Friday, Palmeiro Center parking lot

“You’re coming with us?”

“I’m your chaperone,” I answered.

“Best day ever,” Walker responded.

There were eight girls on the trip. Eight. Not seven, six, or any less. If we came back with seven, there would be problems. Every stop, start and movement in between came with a count-off. Gotta make sure we have all eight.

I discovered along the way that nothing is so quite so humbling as traveling with this group of Diamond Girls, fun as it may be.

Our first stop after leaving Starkville was two hours down the road in Madison, a quick timeout from the asphalt for lunch and bathroom breaks.

As half of us ate burgers and the other half waited on their meals, a lady walked over to our corner of the dining area.

“Y’all are the Diamond Girls!” she exclaimed in southern delight. “I have your calendar in my office. I see y’all every day.”

Those calendars are how trips like this happen, scraping together a budget any way they can. The Diamond Girls had to move a lot of calendars to make the two-week trip to Omaha last summer a reality.

Back in the van after our quick meal, a request came for Drake Radio on Pandora. If Rhett and I thought we were hip before (we didn’t), our complete lack of recognition for any song played proved us wrong.

Our time came soon enough as the road wound on.

“I think they’re all asleep if we want to change the music,” I told him after a glance back at the three rows of sleeping diamonds.

“Please,” he responded.

“‘90s Hits?”

“Perfect.”

6 p.m., Alex Box Stadium

Alex Box Stadium

Alex Box Stadium

This was my first trip to Baton Rouge. Somehow, in years of football, basketball and baseball, I’d never made it down.

Beyond excitement for the ballyhooed food scene, I’d been told LSU has one of the best baseball atmospheres in the country in the new Alex Box Stadium, something I was anxious to experience.

Within sight of Tiger Stadium, it’s a pretty park from the outside, and after running by will call and through the gate, we walked up the steps and into the concourse for our first view of the inside.

However, the first thing to catch my eye wasn’t the clean grass, the suspended sky boxes or the perfectly-Louisianan bottles of Zatarains seasoning sitting right next to ketchup and mustard on the condiment stands.

The first person to cross my view was wearing a tight-fit maroon jersey T-shirt with white stripes on the shoulders and the name “Palmeiro” printed across the back.

State fans travel well, too, you know.

There was no dedicated visitor seating in the park, but maroon and white were splashed among purple and gold throughout the entire place.

Being with the Diamond Girls likely enhanced our welcome, as every Bulldog we saw waved, smiled or stopped to chat.

“Whenever we walked in the gate, it’s like we were famous,” one of them said in the van after the game.

Indeed, it felt that way, though it wasn’t just their presence which made it so.

There’s something about finding kinship in a strange land, and Baton Rouge certainly is that, in the tastiest and most enjoyable of ways.

In Starkville, seeing someone in a Mississippi State shirt or hat is expected. They get no different response in passing than any other person walking down the sidewalk.

But on the road, someone who would otherwise just be another stranger in the sea of faces becomes a treasured friend, a family member you’d somehow forgotten you had.

Handshakes, conversations, hugs and “Hail State!” followed us throughout the weekend, all of them offered in return.

Of course, it wasn’t just the MSU fans there. While blood boiled on the field between the two dugouts, the LSU fans behind the wall [mostly] welcomed us like travelers at a country inn.

unnamedSitting behind the MSU dugout, two of the Diamond Girls on a break from on-field duty watched as the game progressed. In front of them, three young boys sat between mother and father, all Tiger fans.

Like moth to flame, the 10-and-under boys couldn’t help chatting up the college girls who happened in behind them, sharing their peanuts with their new crushes and giggling amongst themselves every time Kelly or Jordyn smiled at them.

“Do y’all dance?” one of them asked after seeing LSU’s dance team do a routine on top of the dugout.

“Well, we do the Chicken Dance sometimes,” Kelly responded.

“That’s embarrassing,” the boy responded, sending he and his friends into fits of laughter.

A few innings later and a little ways down the third base line, sitting a few rows up in a stadium very much on top of the field, two more MSU fans had made the journey to foreign territory.

The crack of a Bulldog bat sent a ball high, high into the air, sailing in the direction of the same box in which the pair sat. As the ball started to come down, the two reacted as instinctually as possible.

In the aisle seat on the left, one turned to make a run for it, snagged her foot on the step next to her chair and fell knees-first into concrete stadium. Next to her, terrified fan No. 2 dove right, wanting no part of the fast-moving ball coming her direction and not even caring that she had overturned their shared cup of Coke with only one sip taken.

One with bloody shins and the other with cola-soaked shoes, the two looked up from the ground in time to see the ball fall safely into the glove of the LSU third baseman next to the wall in foul territory.

Post-game, Friday

On the way back to our van outside the stadium, Rhett, myself and all eight of the diamond crew passed by a vendor selling miniature remote-controlled helicopters.

“One for five dollars,” he called. “Or get two for 10!”

“Any of y’all doing the math on that?” Sarah Beth asked. “What a deal,” she sarcastically finished

The after-game dinner gathering came at an establishment named Fred’s, though I never did meet Fred himself, if he actually exists.

Like at the stadium, the first person I noticed was wearing a jersey shirt. This one: Pistol Pete. We were certainly in LSU territory.

The mixture of people was unique. One young man, leading a girl he presumably knew to the dance floor, accidentally knocked over a stool on the way, the seat of which landed precisely in the middle of my big toe.

He looked at me, terrified, struggling for apologetic words, scared for no reason that the least intimidating person in the place might be angry.

“It’s fine,” I told him smiling, and picked up the stool as I waved him off.

Not long after, I turned to find a group of Diamond Girls listening to the lectures of another young man in an LSU jacket.

“I make more money than you,” he said to me as I walked up.

“Um, nice to meet you. I’m Bob.”

Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he hadn’t yet learned how to impress women in a more subtle manner. But, somehow, the conversation actually turned positive as we talked about what we do, even discovering a mutual friend as we discussed baseball, football and life in the SEC.

Before long, the girls stood alone as, despite his apparently great riches, he was completely happy to talk sports with this State writer.

The night ended as any evening on the road should, with the singing of the fight song by the gathered groups of MSU fans who had found each other in enemy land.

Saturday morning, team hotel

My toe hurts.

Just as in the stadium, any MSU fans in the hotel made a point of interaction.

At breakfast downstairs, I found two of my favorite people, longtime State supporters I know well from the Left Field Lounge (and elsewhere).

We sat and talked over toast, fruit and waffles until well after the restaurant had shut down, chatting about movies, books and experiences with LSU people, with even a few war stories interspersed, somehow leading to more conversations about music.

Midway through, the parents of MSU catcher Zach Randolph passed through, stopping to talk as they started their day.

By the time fellowship in the now-empty dining hall had finished, it was time for lunch.

unnamed-5A friend of the Diamond Girls had graciously offered to take us to lunch at The Chimes right on the edge of campus, the one place I’d been told I must visit or suffer pain of unfulfillment.

As we waited outside, a guy in a Louisiana-Lafayette shirt walked by.

“Go Cajuns!” Walker called as he passed.

He turned to see where it came from, waved, then smacked directly into a parking meter, stomach first, as he turned back around to keep walking.

Humbling, these Diamond Girls can unintentionally be.

Starkville has no lack of delicious eats, so we certainly stay well and enjoyably-fed in our town, but the experience of eating new food for the first time is one of the best parts of any road trip.

The Chimes delivered on expectations. Crawfish and three cheese macaroni. Duck and sausage gumbo. Boudin balls. Seafood pasta. Crab and alligator, cheese and jalapeno, chicken and shrimp. Po boys, platters and deep-fried members of the entire animal kingdom.

It ruined us in the best way.

2 p.m., Saturday, LSU campus

With hours to kill until that night’s game, we took an intentioned walk through campus as someone informed us that the hit movie ‘Pitch Perfect’ had actually been filmed at LSU. The Diamond Girls wanted badly to see the picturesque amphitheater from one big scene in the film, so we began the search, asking anyone we could find for directions.

Nearly there, interruption came in the form of a golf cart stopping some ways away to ask if we wanted any T-shirts.

Sure, we yelled back.

With a bang, a ball of cotton came flying our direction, shot out of a T-shirt cannon they’d been hiding in the back. Seven more pops of the machine sent the eight girls (I counted) weaving around each other to get the free souvenir.

Then, around the corner, we finally found the spot we had been searching for.

unnamed-6Concrete benches rose in growing half circles up the hill, full live oaks looking over the seemingly-ancient amphitheater, our group nestled at the bottom.

On stage right, four actors rehearsed a play. On stage left, Skylar had discovered a cup, leading to a rendition of the song made popular by the ‘Pitch Perfect’ movie.

“I got my ticket for the long way ‘round…” Kelly sang the Anna Kendrick solo as Jordyn rhythmically tapped and bounced the cup on the side of the stage.

Back at the hotel, I missed the first elevator up when I stopped to chat with one of MSU’s team managers.

Moments later, I hopped on the next elevator up behind a group of teenage girls as one of the Bulldog baseball players stepped off.

“Did you see him?” one of the girls asked the group, obviously smitten at first sight.

“Mhmm, I did,” the one next to the floor buttons replied.

“His name is Demarcus,” I told them.

When the giggling subsided (theirs, not mine), they had time enough to respond.

“Are you a coach?” one of them asked as the door opened on floor seven.

I smiled and wordlessly stepped off, fighting the urge to introduce myself as John Cohen.

Saturday afternoon, alumni tailgate

We got to the stadium early Saturday with the intentions of stopping by the MSU tailgate on our way into the game, though it took some time after a group of LSU tailgaters stopped Skylar to offer the group crawfish, games and a batter-wrapped creation only I was brave enough to try.

unnamed-2Eventually, however, we made it, and on arrival we were welcomed with shrimp, fruit, smiles and offered-but-politely-declined drinks.

The Baton Rouge chapter of the MSU Alumni Association has only recently started to get on its feet, I’m told, but with a sizable group, they’ve had some success. Companies like Dow lead to many MSU-trained engineers ending up in LSU country. Now, it’s just a matter of getting them together and finding them amongst the heavy Tiger following in the city.

A few minutes into conversation with one of the Bulldogs under the tent (“So, what’s gonna happen in football this season?”), I looked up to see two Diamond Girls standing on oak branches 10 feet in the air, looking down at two more who were trying to figure out how to get their friends out of the tree they had so easily scaled.

“We really didn’t plan out the getting down part when we started climbing,” Sara Beth said as she looked down at Anna and Walker in cheerleader positions trying to ease the descent.

“I think I broke my ankle,” Sloan laughed after her dismount brought the whole group tumbling down near the big roots of the oak tree.

Talking to an LSU fan who happened to be at the MSU tailgate, he told me has was from Natchez, Miss., and lives in Jackson now. He went to LSU and shared stories of the old Alex Box from when he was in school, but conceded the point in bragging rights to MSU and Dudy Noble Field.

“I love The Box,” he told me, “but we don’t have anything like the Left Field Lounge.”

Very few do.

6:30 p.m., Saturday, game two

That said, what LSU does have that State does not is a nacho machine in the press box. It’s the same thing you see in concessions stands, only untrained and ever-hungry media are allowed to operate it at will. A bowl of tortilla chips sits between and a cheese and chili machine and a hot dog warmer, offering ballpark food to those working the game.

Like any good journalist, I’ll never turn down free food. As a guest, I’d consider it rude to even think about doing so.

When I came back to our seats in the stands with a full plate of a chili-cheese covered chips and a bottle of water, I realized what my dad must have felt like when he used to order a pizza for himself, only to have my brother and I lay claim to half of it, despite having already eaten our own dinners.

“Ohhh, nachos,” Anna exclaimed upon my arrival.

“Is that water?” Sarah Beth asked.

“Can I have a chip?”

The voices ran together as I gave up and passed the plate and bottle down the line.

A small sacrifice, I suppose.

The usual sights and sounds of game play continued as Ross Mitchell took the mound for the Bulldogs.

“He’s got some kind of wind up,” an LSU fan behind us remarked.

During the seventh inning stretch, the grounds crew stopped mid-sweep to perform a choreographed dance to ‘I Will Survive’ in the dirt by second base.

Post-game, Saturday

Following the game and a bit of discussion, Fred’s once again turned out to be the post-game destination as we explored Baton Rouge and “Tiger Land,” the area of town similar to Starkville’s historic Cotton District.

Within minutes of finding a table, a young man approached us. Sitting there surrounded by college girls, I was a bit surprised when he came up and talked to me, not the eight (still got all of ‘em) Diamond Girls surrounding me.

He’d seen the MSU jacket I had on and wanted to talk about the game.

“My SEC brother!” he called, holding out his hand for a hearty shake.

As we talked, he chalked it up to a bad day for the Bulldogs, saying that surely the battle for the SEC West and the entire conference itself would continue all season.

In line for the bathroom, another LSU fan spotted the jacket, too.

“Who won the game?” he asked.

He genuinely seemed to have no clue.

Much to mine and the Diamond Girls’ pleasure, it was apparently ‘90s night at Fred’s, meaning overly-enthusiastic singing to N*Sync, Spice Girls and the like.

The entirety of the crowd stared when ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ came on, perplexed at the group of girls who were dancing and singing like they had just won the lottery.

Sunday afternoon, game three

After one stop for lunch and a second to pick up gummi worms for one of the MSU pitchers, we arrived for the final game of the series, rain coming down on and off, with winds making the air feel cooler than it should on an April afternoon. It was here we found ourselves next to the biggest character of the weekend.

Every team has super fans. The most visible and often the loudest in any stadium, coliseum or park, it’s the fan who everyone recognizes.

If they’re cheering for your team, you love them. If they’re cheering for the other team, you loathe them.

LSU’s is the K Lady. Like the Candyman at MSU, she surely has a real name, but odds are that very few know it.

After every strikeout by the Tigers, K Lady yells as loud as she can and pulls a purple plastic board with a big yellow K on it out of a bag by her seat. She holds it high over her head as she jogs down the stairs to hang it on the railing along the front of her portion of the grandstand, the metal chain tied onto it clinking the whole way.

She starts cheers between strikeouts, yells for her players before and after each at-bat, starts vocal movements throughout the stadium; she’s the de facto leader of the crowd.

Looking closely, you’ll see the earrings she wears are two silver Ks, one hanging from each ear.

The cheers rarely stop.

“What are they chanting?” Jordyn asked mid-game Sunday.

“I don’t think it even matters,” someone replied. “Just making noise.”

Like anywhere, of course, there are all types of people.

While it evokes the deepest and loudest of passions for some, baseball is a leisurely event for spectators, particularly on Sunday afternoons. Something in the nostalgia about the sport and the pace of play make baseball a supremely romantic game.

As the rain came down Sunday afternoon, the final contest of the weekend continued while those not under the roof of the stadium moved in search of drier seats.

unnamed-3Finding an open spot in front of us, an older man slowly led his wife to a seat where she would be protected from the rain. For the entirety of the game, husband sat with arm wrapped around wife, a couple happy to be together and watch a game they enjoy.

But without doubt, the love in the stadium was blocked by an invisible barrier before it could hit the field as the two teams who so dislike each other played through the wet afternoon.

In a dually-unintentional tip of the hat and shot across the bow, Jonathan Holder was on the mound as LSU’s Mark Laird stepped into to the batter’s box with his walkout song playing – God’s Gonna Cut You Down by Johnny Cash, the same song Holder famously comes out to in Starkville.

As the game wound down, two of us went to the concourse, seeking consolation and encouragement in the form of fried food, the way God intended.

At the first concession stand, we were told they were out of corndogs, “but they might have some down there,” a very nice girl told us.

“We don’t have any right now,” the guy at the register ‘down there’ sadly shared. “But if you wait 5-8 minutes we can make some for you.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Two please.”

5-8 minutes later, we got the freshest corndogs LSU had to offer.

“I’m so happy,” Avery said. “This is the bright spot in today.”

Though there were certainly other happy moments, too. On both Saturday and Sunday, the Diamond Girls made it onto the video board after tweeting their pictures from the stands in LSU’s “#SnapLSU” promotion. Cheers erupted amongst the group on each occasion, Walker, Sarah Beth and Sloan feeling like they had gained at least one small victory over the Tigers by putting MSU’s Diamond Girls on their big screen.

MSU assistant coach Nick Mingione displayed on Sunday the sportsmanship which helps make baseball so special. After scooping up a foul ball late in the game, Mingione tossed it to a young boy in an MSU shirt sitting nearby, an innocent and routine enough act.

To his surprise, however, two young boys wearing LSU gear were very upset to have not received the prize.

“I’ll get you one, I promise,” he yelled from his post next to third base.

After the next batter, a manager passed him a spare ball, which he happily threw to the two little fans on the front row.

The ride home, Sunday night

The game ended in fitting fashion for the weekend’s weather, gray and gloomy all over. Loss is never fun, obviously, and especially not so when it comes after vaulting to a tie for first in the SEC

But, like the weather, forecasts and fortunes change. Today’s showers are tomorrow’s flowery fields and one weekend’s losses are the next weekend’s motivation. In a long season, and with nearly anything still possible and even realistic, MSU only finds itself two games out of that first place spot it so painfully vacated in Baton Rouge.

The literal road back to Starkville Sunday and the figurative road the Bulldogs are on this season are both littered with storms. Ours, at least, ended on the safe side of the tumult.

The night wore on and the rain let up while Rhett and I sat in the front of the van as saturated green shapes popped up along the road out of the gray misty wall hiding our horizon. Behind us were quietly sleeping diamonds, resting up for the next game.

Baton Rouge was only one stop along the way to wherever this season leads.

Next up: Ole Miss and Super Bulldog Weekend at Dudy Noble Field. They’ll need the rest.

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Week two report from spring football practice

Now officially just past the midway point of the spring, Mississippi State has more than gotten into the groove of the offseason practices. Dan Mullen’s football team has a strong group of returning starters, veterans and leaders, but most of those are known quantities.

This time of year, and at this point in the spring, we can gather some information on the young players who will step into bigger roles. Last spring, for example, Taveze Calhoun was just a young, backup cornerback. All eyes were on the receivers as they had to replace their top four pass catchers. Josh Robinson was muddled in with several others backing up LaDarius Perkins and even Dak Prescott himself was second string.

We can’t predict all the future stars this far in advance, but the spring is an opportunity to at least have some ideas of who is making moves.

Position by position, we’ll break down the action of week two, which included the first scrimmage of the spring for the Bulldogs.

Defensive Line

7641842With the top three defensive tackles sitting out of the scrimmage, it should be at that position where we talk about youngsters. While Nelson Adams and Nick James certainly have produced enough on the inside to be talking points, it’s actually on the outside at end where one of the big stories has popped up.

Sophomore defensive end A.J. Jefferson has quietly but forcefully made a push to be the third defensive end in the rotation behind Preston Smith and Ryan Brown. With how much MSU substitutes, that spot is just as important as nickel corner.

Said defensive line coach David Turner about Jefferson, “There’s a young man who has really started to mature in terms of how he approaches meetings and practice. A.J. was kind of the class clown and I had to get on him a little bit about that. He understands now. He’s a little more focused and zeroed in on practice. He is in meetings, studying tape, he knows what to do. He’s probably been the most consistent guy this spring, which is a welcome surprise. Hopefully he’ll continue to develop. I like what he’s doing right now.”

Linebacker

The same way we currently look back and wonder how it was that Benardrick McKinney redshirted, we may eventually ask the same question about Dez Harris. Like McKinney, Harris arrived on campus both extremely athletic and extremely raw, in need of a year of development.

After redshirting last year, the long, speedy and instinctual Harris is making a push to be the first linebacker in after the starters.

“The kid’s awesome,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. “One of the fastest kids on the team. He’s the first one in the building and the last one to leave. Every time Beniquez is in there, he’s like a sponge watching him.”

Harris’ interception returned for a touchdown in the scrimmage only further cements his potential break-out status.

Defensive Back

Will+Redmond+Alabama+v+Mississippi+State+e-wyPXJhNLBlThere are several candidates, but junior cornerback Will Redmond may be the star of the spring. He’s making a very clear push to be the No. 3/nickel corner, and if he continues at this rate, he may even make a case to become a starter, though he’ll certainly get plenty of reps in the third spot if that’s where he ends up.

“He’s been looking really good,” junior corner Taveze Calhoun said. “It’s great, because we cant have everybody playing 90 reps a game. He’s probably stood out the most in the spring.”

After missing, basically, half his career, Redmond finally got on the field for the second half of last season. With a little bit of experience under his belt, the promise and potential he’s had since signing with MSU is starting to be realized.

Quarterback

Dak Prescott remains Dak Prescott, so there’s not much new to report here. However, it’s certainly worth noting that freshman early-enrollee Nick Fitzgerald has made substantial strides. He’s plenty athletic, but his arm has improved with seemingly each practice gone by.

Running Back

The story here, without question, is Nick Griffin. The senior has blown out each of his knees, never being truly healthy at MSU. Now, he may finally be. With Josh Robinson out in the first scrimmage, Griffin racked up 74 yards on 11 carries, including a 53 yard touchdown run.

That single run may be what says the most about where he’s come. Griffin outran the entire first team defense for more than half the length of a football field on his way to the endzone, exhibiting the speed he had pre-injuries. Mullen said he still sees some hesitation out of Griffin, but if health can catch up with talent, the big-bodied back could be in for a surprising senior campaign.

“Nick is as high character a guy as we have on our team,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium.

Receiver/Tight End

SVCDDEQORJZKUSY.20131015153853The tight end group was particularly impressive in the scrimmage, as Malcolm Johnson and Gus Walley combined for nearly 200 yards and a score.

Sophomore receiver Fred Brown has been impressive throughout the spring, piling up over 100 yards Saturday, including a 70-yard touchdown pass from Damian Williams on broken coverage by the second team defense.

Offensive Line

To this point, offensive line coach John Hevesy seems pretty happy with Blaine Clausell at left tackle, Jamaal Clayborn at left guard, Dillon Day at center and Ben Beckwith at right guard. The question has been right tackle. Damien Robinson has likely drawn the most reps with the first team, but Rufus Warren, Cole Carter and Jocquell Johnson have all found their way into the rotation at different points, as well.

Like so many other positions on this roster, there are several qualified players vying for a single open spot. It will be interesting to see who earns the gig, and we’ll also be tracking where Justin Malone fits in at either guard or tackle when he regains full health.

Special Teams

Two returners looked particularly effective in Saturday’s scrimmage: Will Redmond and fellow DB Justin Cox. They are two of the quicker and more nimble players on the team, so it certainly makes sense.

The field goal unit had two attempts blocked, though Mullen said his confidence in the actual kickers remains high. Mullen also heaped praise on Devon Bell and his punting, saying he’s carried over well from his duties at the end of the season.

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Lindgren faces high school teammate, Zdeb draws first start; two stories years in the making

Toward the end of every preseason, in any sport, coaches and players share some form of the quote “we’re ready to stop playing against each other and go against other people.”

Toward the end of the regular and postseasons in baseball, those same coaches and players realize they may be saying goodbye to their teammates for good, at least at the college and high school levels where graduation and the MLB keep young men from spending more than a few years together.

BHUCQVERQVFSXFE.20130421001602In an odd happenstance, Mississippi State junior pitcher Jacob Lindgren found himself bucking both of those trends, when he pitched against his former high school teammate on Sunday afternoon as his Bulldogs hosted Arkansas.

MSU has a full host of players from the Mississippi coast, but only Lindgren is from Bay St. Louis, where he played high school ball at St. Stanislaus alongside Razorback designated hitter Krisjon Wilkerson.

Wilkerson was actually Lidngren’s catcher back in those formative days, offering him a bit of insight on MSU’s undefeated reliever, even if it has been a few years.

“We used to face each other all the time in intra-squad games,” Lindgren said. “He knows everything about me. It was kind of cool getting to face him. We hung out the past couple days. Took him out to eat. It’s all good.”

Oddly enough, the pair wasn’t far from being college teammates, as the athletic Wilkerson was actually a two-sport walk-on at MSU, playing both baseball and football, though he quickly decided to go to a junior college and up his value on the diamond. The result landed him at Arkansas, eventually bringing him face-to-face with his old high school pitcher on a trip back to Starkville.

Wilkerson did have a single early in the game Sunday before Lindgren got in the game, but when the teammates met at plate and mound, Lindgren got the better of the match-up, striking out Wilkerson swinging to end the seventh inning.

On the day, it was quite an impressive performance for Lindgren, securing the win (his third of the season) and striking out eight batters in four innings pitched, only allowing one hit. The Bulldogs went on to win 5-1, now tied for No. 1 in the SEC and the western division with a 6-3 conference record, winning all three of their series’ so far.

———————————————–

While baseball was still waiting to begin, the MSU softball team started their third and final game of the weekend against Marshall at noon, the Bulldogs hoping to get the series sweep.

unnamedA run of minor injuries meant several changes in Vann Stuedeman’s lineup, including Rachel Zdeb starting in right field.

After four years of practice, training, watching, cheering and waiting, it was the first start for the senior. She didn’t know it was coming until shortly before the game, and her parents didn’t find out until they heard their daughter’s name called in the starting lineup.

As luck would have it, they were in Starkville to watch.

“I went and gave my dad the biggest hug,” Zdeb said after the game. “It felt really good.”

Zdeb has been an emotional, mental and physical backbone for the team, always one of the hardest workers no matter the situation, be it in the weight room or class room.

Few in the dugout are as supportive as Zdeb (which you can read about in the Dog Pound story here), and anyone who saw my efforts to complete the Bulldog Break-In last year will find it easy to believe that she is one of the most fit and strong on the team.

The Bulldogs entered the fourth inning on Sunday leading the Thundering Herd 4-1. Zdeb was the first batter up for the bottom frame.

Dad watched from the stands as daughter stood at the plate, swung and knocked the ball deep into the outfield for a leadoff double. The crowd cheered as always, while Zdeb’s teammates in the dugout erupted, yelling and clapping for their senior.

Before long, Zdeb was batted in, scoring the first in a five-run inning which ultimately led to MSU run-ruling Marshall for a 9-1 win.

“I just wanted to get on base for my teammates,” Zdeb said. “I felt really comfortable today. I just trusted myself and trusted the work and the practice. I’m really happy that it turned out the way it did.”

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