“Where are you taking him?”
“To set him free!”
Olivia Golden, a sophomore infielder for Mississippi State’s softball team, is sitting out this year after surgery sidelined her before the season began. Still a part of the team, of course, she travels with her coaches and teammates everywhere they go. However, when the rest of the team is warming up before games and getting ready to play, she has some time to kill.
On the road, she often ends up using that time to wander, look around and let her curiosity guide her while her teammates run through batting practice or fielding drills.
Last Sunday afternoon, waiting on MSU’s game against Georgia Southern in Statesboro to begin, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and found Golden and teammate Loryn Nichols holding a tiny frog on one of their mitts.
“This is Chester,” Golden announced.
Someone more versed in amphibious biology could tell us if Chester actually is a boy frog or not, but the concern was less for his gender and more for his well-being. Upon petting his back, it was discovered that Chester was pretty dried out having spent the day baking in the hot Georgia sun. Golden, the happy humanitarian she is, decided he needed to be returned to his home.
After Chester hopped around the dugout and scared a few members of the team, Golden scooped him up and took him to a wet, grassy area in the trees behind the stadium to, perhaps, save his life and set him free.
The Southeastern Conference has an annual quirk in softball scheduling as only 13 of the 14 schools participate in the sport, Vanderbilt being the one university without a softball program. Because of this, teams will have a random weekend in the middle of conference play without an SEC foe to face. MSU could easily host an in-state non-conference school in Starkville on these weekends, but head coach Vann Stuedeman saw an opportunity in the odd scheduling situation.
Why sit at home for a weekend when you could go somewhere fun? Her players have the chance, for four years, to travel the country for free and see things they might never otherwise be able to. So, with only two weeks left in the regular season, Stuedeman took her team to historic (and lovely) Savannah, Georgia for the weekend, a short hour-ish drive from Statesboro where they played and won two games against GSU.
On arrival Friday, the buses of players, coaches, support staff and myself skipped straight past check-in at the hotel and went to the beach on Tybee Island. The Bulldogs had a “workout” on the same sand frequented by Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan and John Mellencamp, and where Robert De Niro and Zac Efron are filming for a movie just this week. From there they went to dinner at The Crab Shack for fresh-out-of-the-ocean seafood.
Over the course of the weekend, they went on a haunted trolley tour (“I screamed!” Golden admitted), walked around the country’s first planned city lined with live oaks and Spanish moss and ate at least a few good meals each day, though Stuedeman eagerly skipped dinner for the haunted trolley tour.
“I can eat anywhere,” she said. “I can only do this here. Most haunted city in America, this is the place to do it.”
The whole point of it all was to have fun, to let everyone enjoy themselves and give them an experience they’ll remember and may never be able to have under other circumstances. The other benefit is giving an opportunity for players’ families to see them play, as many of the current Bulldogs are from or have familial ties to the state of Georgia. In fact, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday were, at the very least, 50-50 MSU-GSU.
It’s not the first time it’s happened, though. Stuedeman makes a point to go on fun road trips every year, and sometimes more than once. Earlier this season, they played in Orlando where most of the team went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, though a small Stuedeman-led contingent visited Disney World. It was the second such trip to Orlando since she took over.
In her first year, Stuedeman took the team to Mobile during Mardi Gras, a more family-friendly version than the celebrations just west in New Orleans. Last year they went to Boca Raton, Florida and visited South Beach. On the schedule next season is a trip to California beginning in San Diego and ending in Long Beach, a trip partially planned for the California-native Nichols who will be a senior in 2016.
Even on unplanned trips, they make sure to have fun. One of my favorite travel experiences I’ve been on through MSU athletics was a swamp tour with the softball team in last year’s Lafayette Regional.
Of course, they’ve got the softball to attend to, as well. They certainly take the games themselves very seriously, and they had quite the match-up going Sunday afternoon in the shade-free and 90 degree GSU stadium.
MSU had to come from behind to even tie it, then it went all the way into the ninth inning (two longer then the seven regulation innings in softball) at a 5-5 tie.
In the top of the ninth, desperate to get the win, senior Katie Gentle walked up to the on-deck area and spoke to designated player MacKenzie Toler as she was about to step to the plate with one runner on base.
“End this right now,” Gentle told Toler, staring right in her eyes.
Next swing – Toler rocked a fastball out of the infield, past the outfield and straight over the fence for a two-run bomb, giving MSU a 7-5 lead they never lost.
When Toler crossed home plate, she pointed straight at Gentle, a huge smile on both their faces.
So MSU got the wins, plus they had a little fun as the postseason and a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament approaches. It worked out exactly as Stuedeman hoped.