MSU softball prepares to open anticipated 2016 season

A brand new stadium, hosting the SEC Tournament at the end of the year, plus a veteran and talent-laden team – it’s no surprise Vann Stuedeman is pumped. Even more than usual, that is.

“I’m excited,” the head coach said as Mississippi State softball prepares for the start of the 2016 season. “We’ve got a great group of girls that I enjoy. They’re fun to be around. They work hard. They like each other. We’ve got an incredible stadium. We’ve got an incredible school to play for. The SEC Tournament is coming here. It’s just an exciting year. There are a lot of great things going on. I’m proud of the product we’re going to put out.”

YVTRHTZEYNSASAN.20150929135342This is, she said, as excited as she’s been for a season since her first one in Starkville, and she’s got good reason for that. Her Bulldogs have been to four-straight Regionals in her four years at the helm, but things have been building toward 2016 for some time. And that’s not just a statement about the roster. There has been literal building going on for the last eight months as MSU’s new stadium was constructed over the course of the offseason, the grand opening of Nusz Park to come this Thursday when the Bulldogs open their season against Georgia Southern. Plus, MSU has been chosen to host the SEC Tournament at the end of the regular season.

Let’s start with the team itself. In any other year, all the talk would be about how talented the group is and how high the expectations are. Discussions to that end certainly continue, but it can be easy to miss among all the other excitement that this group has some serious potential.

“I’m vying for postseason,” Stuedeman said. “I want to be able to play here and not have to travel. We win in our schedule, we’ll be in a good spot.”

MSU finds itself with a good combination of veteran experience and young talent. The two seniors have mostly been in the starting lineup since arriving, Loryn Nichols and Kayla Winkfield two of the SEC’s fastest players. Then the core of juniors is expected to be the driving force, starting with the pitching-catching duo of Alexis Silkwood and Katie Anne Bailey. Silkwood is on pace to own just about every pitching record MSU has, while Bailey’s presence both defensively and offensively at the plate has been a catalyst for two years. Fellow juniors Caroline Seitz, Amanda Ivy and Mackenzie Toler, like their counterparts, have been among the more dominant and clutch hitters on the team and even in the conference.

“We’re gonna be relying heavily on those juniors and their leadership,” Stuedeman said. “They’ve been there. They’ve done that. And it’s time to take the next step. They realize that, but I don’t feel like they feel it’s a lot of pressure. They feel prepared. They feel confident that they can compete for a Regional championship and go to a Super Regional and compete for a Super Regional championship that would put us into the World Series. I feel like, mentally, that is what the junior class expects of themselves and the people around them. That’s the message that I’m getting from them.”

As for the stadium that talented team will be playing in, yeah, it’s nice. Stuedeman, who has been around the country seeing the best and worst around, believes it to absolutely be in the uppermost tier of college softball stadiums. The $6 million facility, named after Tommy and Terri Nusz, has 1,000 chairback seats, plus standing room only areas with drink rails. Then, of course, there is the softball version of the Left Field Lounge on the deck surrounding the outfield wall. And while no one can sit there, the new video board over the left field wall is an impressive addition, as well.

01-13-16 SB RenovationA look at the softball stadium progress in mid-January 2016.Photo by Kelly Price

Construction through the offseason has led to some “creative” ways of practicing, including occasional use of the city’s softball fields. Now that Nusz Park is finished, however, Stuedeman considers it very much worth any adjustments they had to make in the offseason.

“You stand at centerfield and look into home plate and you’re like, ‘wow,’” she said.

The rest of the SEC will get to have that experience at the end of the season, of course, when MSU hosts the 2016 SEC softball tournament. It’s the 20th anniversary of the sport being introduced into the league, coming on the inaugural year of Nusz Park. Planning for the event had already been going before the 2015 tournament was played last year at LSU where MSU officials were on site to research and help prepare for 2016.

They’ve still got a few more months to plan, but they’re already looking forward to the event.

“It’s gonna be amazing,” Stuedeman said. “Last year, SEC softball was No. 1 in RPI. We had five teams at the World Series. They’re all gonna be here in Starkville playing softball. It’ll be the best softball in the country for four days in a row right here in Starkville, Mississippi.

“We get to showcase our city. We get to showcase our facilities and our school. What an honor to do that and what an opportunity to educate people about Mississippi State.”

The Bulldogs open the 2016 season on Thursday at 5:30 hosting Georgia Southern as part of the Bulldog Classic, including five games this weekend. Each of them will be broadcast online on SEC Network+.

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Newman, Weatherspoon on hot streak as Bulldogs turn a corner

The buzzwords for Mississippi State basketball at this point in the season are “comfortable” and “confident” in varying doses. The players are getting comfortable with new head Ben Howland and his system. They’re becoming confident, playing close in nearly every game since SEC play began.

HLLUTEYTKPLZMVH.20160123224250And lately, the results have shown it, as the apparently comfortable and confident Bulldogs are 2-1 in their last three games and playing a vastly improved brand of basketball in their last five. Among the many factors in play, one of the keys for this sudden burst of comfort and confidence has been the quick cohesion of a new starting lineup and a man-to-man defense.

In particular, the immediate chemistry of freshmen Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon has been leading the charge. Weatherspoon, previously a two-guard, was put into the starting lineup as, basically, a power forward five games ago against Tennessee. In the time since earning that role, he leads the team with 18.4 points per game, just a little ahead of Newman’s 15.6 points per game in the same stretch.

It’s the last three games, however, where the combo of the star freshmen has really shined. Over that stretch, including wins against Ole Miss and Missouri, the duo has combined for 38 points per game, checking in at 19.7 per game for Newman and 18.3 for Weatherspoon. It’s no surprise the Bulldogs are 2-1 in that time.

In fact, even though the two only recently broke out, they are still the third-highest scoring duo in the Southeastern Conference this season, both players in double figures. The pair being in the starting lineup is actually a reunion of days past in high school when they played travel ball together as seniors. Weatherspoon believes the chemistry from those days has returned in Starkville.

“I think we do kind of feed off each other,” he said. “Last summer, when we played together, it was kind of the same thing. We got hot around the same time and we finally just connected. I think that chemistry is coming back.”

Now, certainly, Newman and Weatherspoon are good players on their own, neither dependent on the other to do well. And they are by no means the only members of their team showing improvement. Fellow freshman Aric Holman, as Howland has pointed out, is improving rapidly. Senior Travis Daniels had, perhaps, the best game of his season at Missouri on Saturday.

CBKZUTJHAFNOGDU.20160123224251Senior Gavin Ware remains one of the best forwards in the SEC, while junior IJ Ready stands as one of the most underrated players on the roster. Senior Craig Sword is learning to fight through pain, senior Johnny Zuppardo has carved out a role for himself and senior Fred Thomas has been one of the Bulldogs’ steadiest defenders.

Things are clicking not just for one or two guys, but for the entire team and for a coaching staff seeing rapid improvement on the court. Holman, back in action after missing the entire non-conference portion of the season, has seen the difference in practice before the games.

“In practice, it’s more of a competition instead of a walkthrough,” he said. “A day before the game, you’re not just going to see us going through plays. [Howland] is going to split up the teams and see who really wants it the most.”

Most importantly, he added, “we’re all on one page now and we understand everything.”

As the team has grown and figured themselves out, it seems Newman and Weatherspoon have been biggest beneficiaries. Howland, when asked about it, was unsurprised by their recent performances. Typically, he said, you see the biggest improvement in players late in their freshman years. Right on cue, it’s happening for the two freshmen who were able to play from day one, and it’s made quite the difference to the team as a whole.

WLKVBDRHLLIWUTW.20160123224250For Weatherspoon, he said it began when MSU hosted Texas A&M in The Hump for the conference opener. That was the moment when he not only realized how tough SEC play would be, but discovered that he was good enough and prepared enough to play at that level. A change came, as well, when he continued to show such a natural ability to get rebounds that Howland, who had previously prohibited the guard from crashing the boards, set him loose to go after missed shots on both ends.

“He will never not rebound the rest of his career here, even if he is the two,” Howland said days after Weatherspoon’s 14-rebound performance at Missouri. “He does a great job. He has a nose for the ball … He’s doing everything tougher. He’s our best screener right now. That’s saying something. That’s all toughness. He’s tough. That’s why he’s improving and getting better.”

For Newman, the ability was there from day one, but the comfort – and health – has come with time. Though it’s not as if he were a slouch before this recent outbreak. In fact, the 52 three-pointers he’s made this season are currently the fourth-most all time by a freshman at MSU. Those numbers have been aided greatly by his recent hot streak, going 16-of-26 from three in his last three games.

With a favorable stretch to close out the regular season – six of their final 10 games are at home – the rolling Bulldogs appear set up to continue what they’ve been doing, riding the tails of comfort and confidence. Even if wins haven’t come as often as losses at times, they feel like they’re turning – and have already turned – a corner in the first year of this new regime.

“We’ve been right there in every game,” Howland said. “We’re probably a little better than our record, at least in my mind.”

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Notes and highlights from the first weekend of baseball scrimmages

In a surprisingly-spring-like setting, Mississippi State baseball began preseason scrimmages over the weekend, just a couple weeks away from the consensus top-20 Bulldogs beginning the 2016 season. Several notes and observations will follow, along with more in-depth stories as the preseason moves along.

KJIJEPCLOSHUZYX.20160130002749Head coach John Cohen spoke Friday after the first of the three scrimmages and we expect to talk to him again this week, though several of his thoughts are included below. As for my big picture take-in: this looks like an almost brand new club. Or if not new, like someone doused the locker room with fertilizer every day through the offseason.

There is more size than we’ve seen in some time and a lot of talent to go with it. With so many open roster spots following the 2015 season, the influx of freshman and junior college talent, combined with the development of the players from the previous two signing classes, has made for a very different feel.

The rocks of the team will be the core of talented juniors, led by the three team captains, and makes for a comfortable dynamic of leadership and talent, as Cohen will discuss a bit further.

One final thought before going into some positional battles and scrimmage standouts: with the depth of talent on this roster, almost no position won’t be challenged for by multiple people. If I tried to predict the starters now, I would surely be more wrong than right. But early on, at least, there are a few standouts.

For individual scrimmage recaps and box scores, check out the baseball page on HailState.com

PITCHING

IHWFSJNINNGRYNC.20160130002749MSU’s pitching staff hasn’t been lacking for talent the last five or so years, but the combination of juniors Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton has potential to be the best 1-2 punch they’ve had in a while. The two went head-to-head Friday, with Sexton getting the better of his teammate this time around. In a five-inning scrimmage, Sexton threw a shutout in his three innings of work, only allowing one hit.

Sexton has worked with new pitching coach Wes Johnson to add another pitch to his repertoire, something Cohen believes will be a big asset.

Hudson, a preseason All-American, struck out four in two innings, but got into a bit of a jam after some location issues, ultimately allowing two runs on three hits.

“Dakota’s really matured so much,” Cohen said, later adding, “He deserves to be confident after what he did this summer and this fall.”

One more note on pitching came as Cohen was talking about Sexton when he shared that just about every pitcher on the roster has added velocity under Johnson. The new pitching coach seems to have been a natural fit, as Cohen said they work comfortably and naturally together already.

“We spent so much time together over the last two months,” Cohen said. “Yesterday, as an example, we’re at the office at 6:30 a.m. and he left for the house last night at 8:30 p.m. It’s almost like our entire staff has known Wes for the last 30 years. So, it really hasn’t been that much of a transition.”

And all of that is without even mentioning junior Vance Tatum, who was his usual impressive self, throwing three scoreless innings on Saturday, notching three strikeouts and only giving up one hit.

FIRST BASE

One of the most noticeable differences on this team will be at first base, where Wes Rea was a stalwart and tremendous defensive presence for so many years. There are a handful of candidates to replace him, even including transfer catcher Jack Kruger and junior standout Reid Humphreys (who could also see some time on the mound).

Two likely candidates are Cole Gordon and Nathaniel Lowe, and it was Lowe who had perhaps the most impressive first weekend of scrimmages. Amassing three hits on Sunday, Lowe finished the scrimmage 3 for 4 with three RBIs and a pair of doubles, completing the weekend of three scrimmages 5 for 7 with four RBIs, three doubles, two walks and a run scored, checking in with an impressive .714 batting average.

“Really impressed with Lowe today,” Cohen said after Friday’s opener. “I thought he had a great plan, the ball came off his bat really well.”

CATCHER

IQZOYBGZLLZKDQU.20160130002749Another position with a great deal of competition, catcher will be fun to watch as the dust settles. Junior Gavin Collins has moved to third base, where his big arm and strong fielding ability seem like a natural fit, leaving the competition to several others to work out. There’s a long way to go here, but freshman Elih Marrero, the son of a former big-leaguer, showed off impressive athleticism and natural ability in the weekend of scrimmages.

“He’s just a fast-twitch athlete,” Cohen said. “He’s really competitive. Arm strength. He’s been in a big league clubhouse and has a parent who played in the big leagues. He understands the game. I think he’s got a bright future at Mississippi State.”

LEADERSHIP

This is another place where development will likely shine in 2016. Not that others won’t be respected or have moments of leadership, too, but Cohen has a really strong core of juniors who naturally take on leadership roles, guys like Collins, Hudson, Brent Rooker and Jacob Robson among the forefront.

What Cohen likes the most about the leadership is the combination of mental approach and on-field success.

“I think we have much more leadership,” Cohen said. “I think when guys are healthy, it adds to their leadership. Because it’s not just what you say and how you act, it’s also your production level on the field, and those guys are pretty productive for us.”

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Newman, Bulldogs break through in breakout win

It finally happened.

“I needed it more than anything,” he said afterward.

NYZWTUDICDFZURS.20160123224251Finally, Malik Newman had the breakout game he’d been waiting on, the show Mississippi State fans had been expecting him to put on, the performance his coaches and teammates knew was eventually coming. They just didn’t know when.

On Saturday, against rival Ole Miss, it finally came. That was the Malik Newman everyone expected Malik Newman to be, especially Newman himself.

“It feels great,” Newman said of his performance that night, later adding, “It was a confidence booster.”

The freshman point guard’s 25 points were the highlight, especially the six three-pointers he drilled in the second half as the Bulldogs pulled away from the Rebels (“Once they’re going in shot after shot after shot, the bucket does feel bigger,” he said.), but the performance was more than just hitting big shots.

Newman was passing with a sharp eye, dribbling and driving with purpose, taking on the role of leader and aggressor on the offensive end while playing the best game of his career on the defensive side. As head coach Ben Howland saw it, Newman was playing comfortably and naturally, instead of trying to force things like he had in the past.

“I thought he had his best game of the year,” Howland said. “I thought he played with a lot of swag and confidence. He let things come to him. He didn’t force the issue, didn’t force things offensively. He’s getting better and better defensively, which is exciting. I thought he made some really good plays distributing the ball and making the extra pass to his teammates.”

XDLERVGLQCUNVSU.20160123224250The immediate result of the performance was a win over the rival for MSU and the first SEC win of the season, both good things. However, it’s what will come from the big game that will have the larger impact. Howland called it a shot in the arm for his star freshman. Newman said he thinks it will open up doors in his game. Senior forward Gavin Ware said the whole thing was a quite sizable confidence boost for the entire team.

MSU has been achingly close to breaking through, which is part of why Saturday’s win felt so good and meant so much to them. They’ve lost games in the final minutes, by a minimal number of points or by means of some specific outstanding performance by an opponent. Since adjusting the starting lineup to include freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon, and since switching to a man-to-man defense, the signs of growth have been clear.

The pieces were there, even if the results were not. With Saturday’s win, the result finally came, too, and in a manner that feels as if it were a launching point for nearly everyone involved – for Newman, who anticipates building on his breakthrough; for Weatherspoon, who has finally found his role; for Ware, who will become one of the biggest benefactors of the freshmen’s success; for Howland, who is in the very earliest stages of building a contender; and most importantly for MSU, a program trying to earn back respect and return to what they consider their rightful place in the hierarchy of SEC and college basketball.

WLKVBDRHLLIWUTW.20160123224250The result of it all is a team that looks it’s coming together. As they described it – and as their smiles on Saturday showed – they’re having fun. Well before the outcome of the game had been decided, MSU’s players were clearly having a ball. Smiling, clapping, jumping and celebrating in front of the biggest crowd they’d had all season, they were genuinely enjoying themselves as, for maybe the first time, everything clicked.

“I think the crowd is really what triggered it,” Newman said. “They were just great. We were just all out there having fun, and when you’re having fun, you smile.”

Realistically, the homegrown star isn’t likely to score 25 points per outing from here on, but whatever dam was blocking the waters of his game has seemingly been broken, an event that will benefit all involved, Newman, Howland and the entire team.

MSU will lose more games, you have to assume. They’ll win plenty more, too, you’d also guess. One great performance doesn’t mean the season won’t still have its ups and downs, but one thing is obvious: Mississippi State basketball just got a lot more interesting and entertaining.

“We were just out there having fun, playing for one another,” Newman said. “We were playing for what was across our chest.”

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Q&As: Sirmon, Buckley join MSU’s defensive staff

With the announced hires of Peter Sirmon and Terrell Buckley, Dan Mullen has taken a pair of big steps in determining the look of Mississippi State’s future on defense, tabbing MSU’s new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, with Buckley coaching in the secondary and serving as recruiting coordinator. Additionally, defensive line coach David Turner was named the assistant head coach in addition to his current role..

unnamed-1Between Sirmon and Buckley, MSU’s defensive staff has a combined 21 years of NFL experience, not to mention the extensive list of current NFL defensive linemen who have been tutored under Turner.

I caught up with Sirmon and Buckley back on their respective first days on campus, both of them finding time between paperwork and meetings for a quick question and answer session. Short intros and the Q&As for each are below, starting with Sirmon.

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Peter Sirmon, a father of four, looks every bit the part of a former NFL linebacker, standing tall with broad shoulders and hands the size of a power forward’s. Originally from Washington, Sirmon played college football at Oregon before being drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the 2000 NFL Draft. He spent all seven years of his career in Nashville, taking only one year off between his playing days and coaching career, which he began at Central Washington as a linebackers coach in 2008.

In the years since, Sirmon’s stock has been on a steady rise, leading him eventually to Southern Cal where he was the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator for the Trojans for the previous two seasons before being hired by Mullen at MSU this week.

Communication and execution are two of the main things for Sirmon as defensive coordinator as he takes the approach of first putting the burden of teaching and creating understanding on himself and the staff, then expecting championship-level performance and attention to detail from his players.

His prowess as a recruiter has grown steadily over the years, owed in part to strong delivery and extensive experience as both a college and NFL athlete.

Between your playing and coaching career, you’ve been all over the country and know the world of football well. What made you want to join Mississippi State?

I thought it was a great opportunity to get back in, I think, the premier conference in America. It was great to get a chance to meet Coach Mullen. I know he and the entire university have done a great job of establishing a culture of winning here. It’s a great opportunity.

Once you started talking to Coach Mullen, what were your first impressions of him and first impressions of the program, so much as you can tell from day one?

In general, it’s a program that’s had a lot of success, especially the last several years. Being No. 1 last year was a big accomplishment and we’re continuing to build off that. Meeting Coach Mullen, the first impression you get is that I was really impressed how sharp he is. He’s a very intelligent guy. He’s a got a great plan in place and he did a really fantastic job of communicating that plan and sharing the vision he has here.

As far as what you’ll do in practice and in games, what’s your style as a coach?

First and foremost, I want to be a really good teacher. I want to put guys in a position that they understand what we’re asking them to do so they can go out and play at the level which, ultimately, is why we recruited them. I want them to be able to play up to their capability. To do that, you have to do a great job of communicating, a great job of painting a picture in their head of what we want it to look like, and then just play with toughness and great effort. Attention to detail and execution is something that will be demanded.

You briefly mentioned recruiting, which I imagine is your immediate priority. What impact does your NFL career have on your ability in that area?

I think any time that you’re talking with somebody that has those aspirations, it’s always good to be able to say, hey, I’ve been through this. It’s something that makes them comfortable, that you can give them some guidance and that you personally have gone through the high school recruiting to college to the Combine to the draft and all those different steps. I think it gives some added perspective and some credibility.

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unnamedBeginning work around 10 days ago and immediately hitting the recruiting trail, Terrell Buckley had been at Louisville under head coach Bobby Petrino before taking this opportunity to return to his home state. A Mississippi native, Buckley played collegiate football at Florida State, where he set the school record for interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award as a junior, eventually having his No. 27 jersey retired. Buckley went on to a 14-year career in the NFL, being drafted No, 5 overall in 1992 by the Green Bay Packers and ultimately winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots.

Buckley arrives at MSU with a reputation both as an accomplished athlete and an intelligent coach. His philosophies in recruiting, including an eye for underrated talents, ought to serve him well as he recruits in Mississippi.

From talking to him, his approach as a coach goes well beyond just telling players how he used to do things. A naturally intelligent person, Buckley takes the approach of a tactician, breaking things down to their most base form and building them all back up into something impressive. That ability is evident even in his children, two of his daughters currently in college on academic scholarships to study engineering– although, as if they could escape athletics with a father who played three sports at FSU, they’re both college golfers, too.

First off, you must be excited to get back to your home state of Mississippi.

I am. Very, very excited. Ever since I’ve gotten into coaching, I wanted to be able to recruit the state of Mississippi. I never imagined that I would have an opportunity to come and work at a fine institution like this. It never really crossed my mind until the opportunity presented itself.

Now that you’re on board, I know you’ll be on the road recruiting and getting ready for signing day. How important is your experience as a Super Bowl champion and having your college jersey number retired as you go through that process?

It’s like any business. If you run into somebody that’s done it already, been there, that can navigate and eliminate some of the issues that you have through their experiences, you kind of gravitate toward that. I think that’s what I bring. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. All the stuff that you haven’t even thought about. I tell them, I can help you navigate through that process and at the end of the day put them in a situation where it can be a win-win for both parties.

Obviously, that transitions into coaching on the field. What is your style as a coach and what you do bring in that role?

Prepared. Fundamentals. Relentless effort. Competitive attitude. If you don’t compete, it doesn’t matter. I think attitude is probably at the top of my list. All of those other things fall under that.

Once you started talking with Dan Mullen, what were your impressions of him and Mississippi State and what made you want to join the staff?

The initial conversation, the energy and the passion that Coach Mullen had on the phone was awesome. Then meeting him blew me away. It was one of those things where Louisville is a great place and when you leave something like that, you have to be going somewhere where you feel like the energy, the atmosphere and everything that’s presented is a little better and you want to be a part of that. Coach Mullen was a big reason for that.

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Schaefer, Bulldogs demonstrate special connection with fans

To get inside Humphrey Coliseum and find a seat on gameday for Mississippi State women’s basketball, one has to navigate and constantly moving (and laughing, eating and playing) maze of children and families. Middle schoolers sprint by on the steps into the arena, elementary students pop out of every possible door or crevice in the concourse, looking for their parents or their friends or where exactly the smell of popcorn is coming from. The seats themselves are filled with toddlers to high schoolers, parents and grandparents surrounding them.

PZUHGXWSAJYKAWF.20160110223637They’re among the most enthusiastic during the games – both the kids and adults – and within moments of the game ending (typically a win for the Bulldogs here lately) the kids are swarming all the players on the team who have stepped over the understood boundaries of the court and climbed into the stands to take pictures, sign autographs and just talk with their fans.

“I look up there and I’ve got [6’7” freshman forward] Teaira McCowan up there usually holding a kid with each arm,” head coach Vic Schaefer said.

His team is in the news now daily, ranked in the Top 10 and quickly becoming recognized as one of the SEC’s great powers in women’s college basketball. They’re getting attention outside of the fanbase for winning, but it’s those moments in the stands that the program wasn’t just built on, but built specifically for.

MSU’s team isn’t just important to the community: they’re part of it. The games serve as practically a citywide event, a bi-weekly carnival of games (including the Kidz Court play area for children in the practice facility before each contest) and interaction.

“When you talk about building a program, it’s more than just wins and losses,” the head coach explained. “It’s more than just who the coach is, who the staff is.”

Schaefer’s face broke into a wide, bright smile when he was asked about the particularly strong connection between his team and their fans. Even away home, the relationship is evident.

TFVITLRDJIDDCGS.20160119025246There are often a few of the more devoted fans on the team plane when the Bulldogs travel, there are regularly organized buses of supporters for away games, and anywhere MSU goes there seems to be at least a small cluster of people nearby who find their way to see the team. Whether it’s a dozen people on the road, the 7,100 who were at MSU’s last home game or the 10,000-plus they’re hoping to have when they host No. 2 South Carolina Sunday, Schaefer and his group treat them like family.

“When we played at Florida, we had 15-20 fans there,” he recalled. “We went into the stands and saw the 15 or 20 from Florida who happened to be Mississippi State Bulldogs.”

The attitude of the team bleeds into the entire atmosphere of the events surrounding games. Toralyn Knox, wife of MSU running backs and special teams coordinator Greg Knox, has seen her little kids become fixtures of games, always finding their way onto the video board and roaming The Hump confidently and fearlessly with their friends.

“They love it,” she said. “They look forward to it. They always tell me what time we need to leave so they can get here on time to plays at Kidz Court.”

“It’s just a good activity for the kids to do,” agreed MSU professor Dr. Adam Love, whose three-year-old daughter Elaina is a regular at Kidz Court. “It’s fun for them to come out and see their friends.”

OLNHUDJBZXWQRZU.20160108040812For the Knox family, it’s a welcome comfort. They’ve been to six different schools through Greg’s career, including three different programs in the SEC. None have been quite like what they have at MSU, where appropriately enough, their cousin Ketara Chapel is a junior forward on Schaefer’s team.

“It is probably the best family atmosphere that I’ve been around in college sports,” Toralyn said.

Of course, hosting events for kids hasn’t been the only reason for the surge in attendance and the growing following Schaefer’s team has. Dominating on the court has played a significant role, too. From day one, just over three years ago, MSU fans could see the difference Schaefer was making. They saw that things were quickly projecting in the right direction. Then, two years ago, the Bulldogs made a not-entirely-surprising and extremely entertaining run in the WNIT, ending the season on a particularly high note, expectations quickly rising. Last year, Schaefer’s third, his team took the next step. They cracked the top 15, they made the NCAA Tournament (very nearly hosting) and advanced to the second round.

JUGAXOSKWIMAFAN.20160108040813Now, in year four, MSU is among not just the SEC’s, but the nation’s elite. The crowds had been coming as it was, but now they’re really showing up, evidenced by the second-largest crowd in program history for a Monday night game against an unranked opponent this week.

“I think our kids have earned the respect of anyone who has ever come in The Hump and watched us play, by how they play the game, how they honor the game and with their effort,” Schaefer said this week. “I think parents want their daughters and sons to see how hard our kids play and how they play the game.”

There are a great number of things Vic Schaefer loves about being a coach, about being at Mississippi State and about his players. The bond between team and fans may be his greatest joy.

“The personalities that our kids have,” he said, “I think that’s the infectious piece. Our kids go into the stands after a game. You get to know our kids. They all have beautiful smiles. They have great personalities.

“Now,” he continued, “it’s not just kids wanting their pictures with my players. It’s parents, it’s moms and dads, it’s students. That’s part of the program. That’s part of building the program. Not what we do, but how we do it. A lot of people don’t do that.

“It warms my heart after a ballgame,” Schaefer shared as his reflections came to an end. “It’s what I really enjoy most, to see our kids, how they interact and their personalities, and the relationships that they’ve built with our fanbase. I think our fans like it, too.”

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Gavin Ware pacing SEC forwards in stellar senior campaign

Gavin Ware, most who have followed his career have remarked, has been ready to take on a starring role in the SEC for some time. A central piece at Mississippi State since arriving as a freshman, Ware has spent the last few years not as a sleeping giant necessarily, but maybe as one who had just got up from a nap and was perhaps a little groggy.

AQARCXVNHZAGXOX.20160107042624As a senior, Ware has shaken out whatever cobwebs and weariness had seemingly attached themselves to his game the last few years (“I don’t know what was going through my head.”) and now he’s becoming a dominant force for the Bulldogs. First year head coach Ben Howland, along with new director of basketball performance David Deets, saw the potential in Ware as soon as he got to campus. He just needed to figure out how to flip whatever switch it was inside of the 6’9” forward that would get his game to its highest potential.

“I thought, when I looked at him, ‘Wow, this kid has a chance to be a good player, especially at the offensive end,’” Howland recalled before praising Ware’s commitment to getting his body into shape. “I think Coach Deets has really helped him there. Sometimes, as a senior, the light goes on. This is it.”

16 games into the year and four games into the conference slate, Ware is having the kind of season that seems likely to end with All-SEC honors by the time it’s over. He’s scored in double figures every game this season, averaging 17.1 points per game, tied for seventh overall in the SEC and second behind only LSU star Ben Simmons among pure forwards.

Ware is sixth in the league at 8.0 rebounds per game, tied for third with 55 of them on the offensive end. He’s got five double-doubles. His 32.48 player efficiency rating is 5th in the country, second in the SEC behind, again, Simmons, the likely No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft.

Just as importantly, he’s doing the most with the opportunities given to him, leading the entire conference with a 63.6 field goal percentage. He’s the only player in the league shooting over 60 percent, the next closest checking in at 56.7, and one of only five in the SEC shooting over 50 percent.

WNWUSRUMDQUMPIG.20160107042623Of all his impressive numbers, that may be the one he’s the most excited to claim. In practice, from which anecdotes of his shooting performances regularly emerge, coaches call Ware “Mr. Consistency” for the way he always performs and always performs well.

“I take pride in that, just being consistent with my passing, with my scoring, with my defense,” Ware said. “Everything I can do to help out my team.”

The talent for that consistency was always there, but the physical ability to perform game in and game out was not. Ware hadn’t been in bad shape, necessarily, but he was a good ways farther from great shape than he wanted to be.

When the reality hit him prior to the season that this was his last chance, Ware set out to change that. Over the course of the summer, he nearly spent more time in the gym than at home, coming in on his own to train, losing weight and working on his game every chance he had.

Fellow senior Craig Sword was at the facility daily for treatments for an injury during the offseason and can hardly recall a day he didn’t see Ware.

“When I was injured, I would always be here, and I would see him here shooting, running,” Sword remembered. “It shows.”

Sword and Howland aren’t the only ones to notice, as coaches around the league have drawn attention to Ware’s breakout senior campaign.

Said Florida head coach Mike White ahead of his Gators hosting MSU tonight, “Gavin Ware is playing as well as any big guy in our league.”

The success wouldn’t be possible, Ware and Howland say, had it not been for getting in such good shape. With a lack of depth in the post, MSU needs Ware to play as many minutes as anyone else on the team, and they can’t settle for him only playing hard on one side. For the Bulldogs to be good, Ware has to get up and down the court constantly, has to be at his best both on offense and defense.

To this point, he’s done it, particular on the offensive end, where his success in the post has helped open things up for the rest of his team.

As good as he’s been so far, Ware expects to do even more as the thick of SEC play continues. Howland is all for it.

“We can’t get him enough touches, in my opinion,” Howland said.

And Ware is excited to do it. As much pressure as there is on him, it doesn’t bother him a bit. He is, very clearly, in the best shape of his life, and he’s playing like it.

“I don’t get jitters or butterflies when I walk on the floor to tip the ball off,” he said. “It’s like ‘OK, Gavin, you know what you’re supposed to do. Let’s get it done.’”

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Schaefer, Bulldogs dominating with depth and star power

The Arkansas women’s basketball team got to Starkville last weekend fresh off an upset of the No. 10 team in the country, riding a wave of strong play and growing momentum. In their game against Mississippi State, they practically shut down Bulldog star Victoria Vivians after the first quarter, relegating her to only 23 minutes of action on the court. Similarly, electric sophomore point guard Morgan William (who has been dealing with an injury) had only two total points in just 26 minutes of game play.

Razorbacks head coach Jimmy Dykes was asked after the game, if he had been told all of that beforehand, what kind of result would he have predicted? Surely, he would have picked his team to win knowing he held one of the country’s best players in check for the majority of the game.

“They’ve got more than just her,” Dykes quickly retorted, speaking about Vivians. ““I know she leads them in scoring. They’ve got other players than her. They stepped up today.”

IKDIVLYXJQHEBSU.20160110223637And that’s why, despite what could have been good signs, MSU won in blowout fashion, taking down Arkansas 80-55.

Sunday’s performance was the perfect example of why Vic Schaefer’s Bulldogs are No. 6 in the country with a 16-1 record. It took some time to recruit and develop the talent, but MSU is far more than just one or two players now. Even as the season has gone along, that’s become more evident.

In fact, following that big win over Arkansas, Schaefer expressed a wish to play Texas again, the undefeated No. 4 team in the nation who gave MSU its only loss on December 2.

“I’d love to have that one back and do it again, because I think, right now, we certainly aren’t one or two-dimensional,” he said Sunday night. “I think we’re multi-dimensional and that’s what makes us so hard to defend.”

Of course, when those first and second dimensions are working well, MSU is hard to beat then, too. The Bulldogs need Vivians and William to play at their best if they want to beat the best, but Schaefer and the team have come to count on getting big performances from all over the roster.

On Sunday, it was juniors Ketara Chapel and Dominique Dillingham, with 19 and 16 points respectively, who stepped up. It was freshman point guard Jazzmun Holmes, too, who has stepped in for William when needed and has an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of just over 3:1 this season.

“It really takes some pressure off of Victoria and some of those others,” Schaefer said of the production he gets from his depth. “I don’t think there’s any question, we’re dependent on it … A lot of it has to do with how fearless they play. They’re confident. If we’re going to be as good as everybody thinks we are right now, this isn’t about one player.”

When Chapel had her big game against Arkansas, it was important for so many reasons. Not just because Vivians and William weren’t able to play as much, but because junior forward and typical starter Breanna Richardson was out with a concussion. When Chapel’s time came, when her production was needed, she delivered.

“I had to step up,” she said. “It shows that we have a lot of depth. People step up every night so we don’t have to depend on Victoria, even though we know she’s a great player.”

RYLKMNSGPABYVBB.20160110223637Chapel is very right, of course, that Vivians is a great player. Despite limited action, Sunday was still her 16th-straight game to score in double figures, tallying 13 total points. Her 16 points per game in SEC play leads MSU and is fourth overall in the conference.

Tonight, MSU is on the road against No. 24 Missouri, where the Bulldogs will once again depend on their stars as well as their depth. The target is on their back this year, but Schaefer feels comfortable with his team’s ability to handle the pressure.

“I’ve said it 100 times in here. You can go play bad on the road and if you get beat, you’re going to be embarrassed,” he said. “I think our kids understand that. I think for us it’s just one game at a time. You can’t look too far ahead. You just have to focus on one game at a time.”

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No. 6 Bulldogs at their best as SEC play begins

Maybe it happened kind of fast, but ahead of hosting it’s first conference home game of the season, Mississippi State women’s basketball is ranked No. 6 in the country. Vic Schaefer is only in his fourth year as the head coach, and most of his players have barely been around half as long as that.

ALJKSPZNNKJQQHD.20151217035130But it doesn’t matter – they’re good. In fact, they’re pushing for great, sitting at 14-1 and suddenly among the nation’s elite, a ride that began when Schaefer was hired, continued in MSU’s NIT run two years ago and took another big step in advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015.

MSU dominated the non-conference portion of their schedule this year, winning the Puerto Rico Classic, taking down a talented South Florida team in the AAC-SEC Challenge and seeing its only loss come in a low-scoring defensive battle on the road against one of the nation’s top teams in Texas.

“It helped us get ready for the SEC,” junior guard Dominique Dillingham said.

And entering SEC play, the Bulldogs appear to be among the best in the conference. They’re second in the league in scoring at 81.3 points per game, one of two teams in the 80s, and in fact they just beat the No. 1 scoring team (Florida) on the road Sunday. Defensively, despite the high volume of scoring, MSU is third in the SEC, only allowing opponents 52.5 points per game.

Sophomore star Victoria Vivians is second in the league in scoring at 17.9 points per game, and sophomore point guard Morgan William’s 78 total assists are also second in the conference.

Those two being sophomores underscores the challenge for Schaefer, as he’s coaching an extremely young team, obviously talented though they may be. The relative inexperience does worry him, he admits, but so far, it’s worked out just fine.

“That’s very difficult,” Schaefer said of the youth on the team. “I think if you ask any coach in this league, it doesn’t matter what sport, there’s a discipline that it takes to win in this league consistently, and you have to win play by play, possession by possession.”

NEHFMCUFKSBTHKR.20151217035130Luckily, Schaefer has a few veterans like Dillingham to provide an example and leadership for the younger players. It only takes two or three players going hard in practice to elevate the habits and work ethic of others on the team, and he’s got those individuals, whether in the starting lineup or off the bench.

He sees it himself every day in practice, but Schaefer was particularly proud when others noticed it in games. Watching the television replay of MSU’s win at Florida, Schaefer heard the announcers praising 6’7” freshman forward Teaira McCowan not just for height, size or strength, but for diving on the floor after loose balls.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Schaefer said. “That speaks volumes to that kid and her selflessness and her willingness to help the team any way she can. And I think we’ve got a whole team full of that.”

It would have been easy for this team, he knows, to come into this season with a high ranking and high expectations and just rest on their past successes and enjoy the praise. He knew things would be different now that MSU has the target on their back, rather than his ladies being the underdogs in every game.

How his team handled the expectations, the people coming after them and the youth on the team was, and to a degree still is, a concern. At the moment, hoever, it appears he needn’t have worried.

“I’ve been proud of our team the last two ballgames in that we’ve been the team who came ready to play,” Schaefer said of the road wins at USF and UF. “I think our kids realize the level you have to play at to have some success, and I was extremely proud of how business-like our kids took these last two ballgames. Their approach was outstanding. Their preparation was good. Their work ethic, the focus, was really, really good.”

There is certainly a long way to go, and the road in the SEC is a tough one. The journey started on the road, and it comes back home tonight, MSU hosting Auburn in The Hump at 7:30. Schaefer is looking for more of the same thing that got his Bulldogs here to begin with.

“It’s our home opener,” he said. “I would hope like the dickens that we’re gonna be jacked up and ready to go.”

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Basketball Bulldogs hitting groove as SEC slate begins

Happy New Year and happy new season, too, as Ben Howland put it. Mississippi State basketball starts SEC play tonight, hosting Texas A&M in The Hump, the start of the second “season within a season” for Howland and the Bulldogs.

While so many of us were away Belking and Christmasing the last few weeks, MSU quietly went on a nice run to end the non-conference slate, going 6-2 in the last eight games and winning the last three in a row.

IVPDLEKEPHXGMPP.20151230165138With a few weeks of news to catch up on and a big game tonight, we’ll run this as more of a notebook-style approach, reviewing some of the newsy nuggets of the day for MSU basketball.

Start of Conference Play

Obvious thing is obvious, but as SEC play begins, the level of competition rises significantly. Of 18 conference games, 12 of them are against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. That provides both an opportunity to boost the resume and a challenge in facing some good teams.

“The level of play with our opponents is really, really ramped up,” Howland said Tuesday. “It’s a great conference. You look around this league and the quality of the institutions and basketball programs and the history of everything … It’s exciting to be part of such a great league, which is part of why I was so excited to be coaching Mississippi State.”

Bulldogs Coming Together

As the start to SEC play approaches, it comes at a time when MSU is playing its best basketball of the season, so far. With several new players, a new style of play and a new coaching staff, it took some time for players to start getting comfortable. But now, it seems something has clicked. Much of it has to do with health, plus the time together and the emergence of Gavin Ware as one of the best forwards in the SEC, perhaps even in the country, based on the early numbers.

“Everybody has come together a lot better here in the last few weeks,” Howland said of the recent 6-2 run. “It’s a combination of the above. I think we’re getting a better feel for how we have to play and kind of giving ourselves a better chance at success.”

Ware Breaking Out, Newman Getting into Groove

Two of the biggest reasons for that success are Ware and freshman Malik Newman. Starting with Ware, the senior is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game (both team highs) and is also tied for the team lead with 16 blocks.

His production is helping MSU score, of course, and State is actually second in the SEC in field goal efficiency, largely due to Ware’s shot selection and goal-scoring in the post as he’s shooting 70.4 percent from the field. Additionally, his success around the rim has opened things up in the rest of the court for teammates, including Newman. I plan to have a more length story on Ware in the near future, but for now, some quick thoughts from Howland.

“We can’t get him enough touches. Part of that is he’s got to keep working hard to seal,” Howland said. “I think he’s getting better at sealing and really demanding the ball inside. People are going to cover down. People are going to try to double him and that opens it up when he kicks the ball back out.”

KVLVXOXERSWSUFC.20151228173139As for Newman, he is second on the team averaging 13.3 points per game. In his last five games, however, he’s scored in double figures every time, averaging 16 points per outing. Since becoming healthy, his game has improved significantly, something Howland has seen very clearly.

“I think he’s shooting the ball real well right now and really getting in a groove where he’s waiting and letting the offense come to him,” Howland said. “He’s creating well for others. He passed the ball well. Part of it is just the experience of getting used to playing at a different level and playing with new teammates.”

Rick Stansbury Returns to The Hump

With Texas A&M coming to town, tonight is the first time back in The Hump for Rick Stansbury, the A&M assistant coach who, as you know, is the former MSU head coach and the winningest head coach in school history. If anyone thought it was going to be awkward at all, it appears MSU has squashed that possibility. The program and the entire department has made a point in the lead-up to this game to show how happy they are to welcome to Stansbury back to the place where he helped build MSU basketball into what it’s known as today.

In fact, as Howland told reporters, there is an addition to the Mize Pavilion honoring three former coaches, and Stansbury is among them, as well as Babe McCarthy and Richard Williams.

“I think I made it really clear how much respect I have for Rick Stansbury and all that he’s given to Mississippi State University and the basketball program,” Howland said. “I’m excited for Rick. He gave his heart and soul to this place and I hope the fans that are at the game will come early and be there to honor him.”

The ceremony honoring Stansbury is expected to take place roughly 15 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. tip.

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