Standing in an aisle of the grandstands behind the home dugout, a young woman was crying as she watched the team on the field gather around for a picture shortly before the first pitch.
A former player herself, she wasn’t sad about anything. Not exactly, anyway. She was one of dozens of alumni there for opening day, among hundreds more not present, who had helped build the metaphoric foundation for the very literal structure in which those tears were now silently flowing.
Thursday night, February 11th, 2016, marked the opening of Nusz Park, the new Mississippi State softball stadium. It was everything players both former and current had dreamed of. It was the realization of a vision by coaches and the follow-through of a promise by administration to boost the program’s rise in the world of college softball.
While Vann Stuedeman, MSU’s head coach, was on the field with her team getting them ready to start her fifth season at MSU, a crowd was gathered at the entrance to the newly-christened park for the ribbon cutting ceremony. As Stuedeman’s players listened to her, MSU’s fans listened to their President, Dr. Mark Keenum, as he shared how much faith he has in his softball coach and how deserving she and the program are of the country’s nicest new park.
“If you could win a National Championship based purely off enthusiasm, Vann Stuedeman would have MSU’s first championship,” Keenum half-joked.
Scott Stricklin, MSU’s athletic director, spoke too about the promise he had made to Stuedeman, the determination each of them had to upgrade from metal-bleachered stands to a brick-covered, concrete-supported, amenity-filled, chairbacked stadium. Thursday night was the result of that plan, thanks in very large part to Tommy and Terri Nusz, the former of whom had the honors of cutting the ribbon for the park bearing his family’s name.
Stricklin shared the story of how it began, one Sunday morning in Starkville as he and Nusz met for breakfast the day after an MSU home football game. The Bulldogs had lost that particular pigskin battle, and in an effort to distract his friend from the loss, he brought up the softball team and their need for a new facility. The more Stricklin talked, the more earnest he became, telling Nusz, who had already met Stuedeman before, that if he got to know the girls on the team, he would be sold on helping them out immediately.
As if on cue, the door to the patio opened and out walked Katie Anne Bailey, a star young catcher on Stuedeman’s team.
“Hi, Mr. Stricklin,” she enthusiastically called as she walked over to his table.
Stricklin smiled in return and said, “Good morning, Katie Anne. I’d like you to meet Tommy Nusz.”
Two years later, there they all were again, opening Nusz Park together, thanks to the dedication and quite significant generosity of the Nusz family.
“At least he bought my breakfast,” Nusz joked as he spoke to the crowd outside of the $6 million facility.
Inside the park as first pitch approached, the crowd had a unique feel. Largely because it was the first time nearly all of those in attendance had been inside the new stadium. The mixture of nostalgia and excitement from former players was quite obvious as they huddled together in small groups throughout the stadium, many of them wearing gear they earned through their years on the team in college.
Out in right field, smoke billowed off the grills spaced along the deck lining the outfield wall. Bully the mascot was dancing on top of the home dugout as fans cheered for the T-shirts being thrown into the crowd. One woman, presumably a mother of a player, had FaceTime open on her iPhone as she gave someone a tour of the stadium as best she could. Volleyball coaches, baseball players, football graduates and the like all came to see their fellow Bulldogs. They, more than anyone, know how much something like the new park means to those who get to play inside its walls.
Usually occupied with giving each other high fives during team introductions, players were distracted by the big new video board standing over the left field wall that showed each of their faces and boomed out their voices. Everyone was enthralled, in fact, as members of the booster club standing on the new balcony jutting out over the left field foul line were all turned to see what the bright lights were all about. No one involved in the program had ever had anything like this before, and it’s hard not to get swept up in that current of excitement over something new, something big, something ours.
The crowd itself, nearly filling all of the 1,000 chairbacks, along with standing room only areas and the outfield deck, was far greater than the usual non-conference attendance, a host of Bulldogs filling a stadium designed by Bulldogs in the firm of Wier Boerner Allin. For many, it may be the only game they can make all year. But given the importance of this one, the first of the new era, they couldn’t miss it.
Even those who live nearby likely won’t make it to every game, but they’ll try for as many as they can. They knew, as everyone in the stadium could feel as the moments to the first pitch climbed, that opening day was something special, a statement being made in the form of multiple tons of concrete, bricks and rebar. It was the opening of a season, of a park and a new age of Mississippi State softball.
As one fan said on his way into the game, “I had to be here for the first one!”