“Moonlight” Tatum becoming a star for Diamond Dawgs

Sometimes the stories are hard to find. In other instances, the top performances are a bit more obvious.

“The star of the show tonight is Tatum,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said as soon as he walked up to the gathered reporters Sunday evening.

SHYNOISNUKVJVNI.20150302011443Vance “Moonlight” Tatum, to be more specific, was the subject of conversation, the burgeoning star of MSU’s pitching staff. The sophomore left-hander has been impressive each outing early on in the season, but his destructive display of force on the mound Sunday was as impressive as any of the best performances over recent years for the Bulldogs.

Tatum began the season in the bullpen, but after a strong first outing, he earned a role as a starter. Doing so Sunday, he struck out eight of the first 10 batters he faced. During one stretch, he retired 13-straight batters. He got his team to the ninth inning having only allowed one hit, and his pace of setting down batter-after-batter helped the game reach that point in barely two hours.

By the end of the night, MSU beat Samford 6-2 and Tatum had 12 strikeouts, two hits and two runs in eight-plus innings of work.

“I really had a good feeling at the beginning of the game,” Tatum said. “The last couple starts I’ve built up the endurance a little bit and finally had a good feel for all three of my pitches.”

Those three pitches: fastball, slider and the change-up he began using later in the game when Samford batters started thinking they had him figured out. More impressive than the assortment of pitches, according to Cohen, was how he used them. Sure, each is good, but even better is the placement. Part of what makes Tatum’s fastball so consistently hard to hit is that he can throw just about anywhere on the plate.

As Cohen told reporters after the game, a lefty who can get a fastball inside on right-handed batters is quite the weapon.

“When you can throw that fastball in on right handers and freeze right handers the way he was, I think that’s a difference maker. We’re really impressed with what he’s done and the progress he’s made.”

11000285_1047448391936997_8026747193529409957_nOver the course of the first three weeks, Tatum has pitched 18.2 innings, giving up only five hits and two runs, while tallying 25 strikeouts and holding batters to a dismal .085 batting average.

The question now is what to do with him. Put him on the mound, obviously, but as a starter or out of the bullpen? Tatum has had two starts in his three appearances, but that’s also been with MSU playing four games in a weekend.

Cohen conceded he’s got some difficult decisions to make, as the rest of the staff has been great, too, but he says it’s a good problem to have. Oddly enough, while Cohen didn’t expect it, it’s an issue Tatum had hoped he would be able to give coaches.

Back in the fall, each player was told to write down their goal for the 2015 season. Tatum’s? He wanted to be the Friday night starter for Mississippi State baseball.

Said Cohen, “We essentially told him before the year we wanted to start him in the bullpen and see what happens, and he has just made a statement. We love it when our players don’t make statements with their mouths, they make it with their performance, and he has certainly shown us in a starting role that he is up to that challenge.”

Whatever his role is, Tatum said he’ll be happy. He just wants to pitch. However, Friday night would be an appropriate time slot for the pitcher nicknamed “Moonlight.”

He earned the moniker back in high school, and in fact, it was one of his current teammates who gave it to him.

The week before joining Team Mississippi as a sophomore in high school, Tatum had one of the worst outings of his young career.

“I might have gotten out of the first inning,” he jokingly remembers.

The game in question began at 9 a.m., so the young pitcher decided it must have been the early time slot that messed with his game. When he got to Oklahoma to play for Mississippi in the Junior Sunbelt Classic, he told the team’s pitching coach that he only wanted to pitch at night.

“Whatever you do,” Tatum told his coach, “please don’t pitch me in the morning time.”

COEQKHTVLYMOBLT.20140308070042Shortly after arrival, Team Mississippi had one of those morning games Tatum was so eager to avoid. Taking Tatum’s request into account, the coaches put someone else on the mound, a right-handed junior named Myles Gentry – the same right-handed pitcher who is now a junior at MSU with Tatum.

It was that day when Gentry came up with the nickname he still hears almost every day.

“It was a real early game, 8 or 9 o’clock, and I ended up having to pitch,” Gentry said, “and I guess I was kind of salty about it because it was so early.”

“They didn’t really like me,” Tatum jokes now.

“Typical left-handed guy,” Gentry cracked about high school Tatum.

But the combination of creativity and bitterness turned into inspiration for Gentry.

“The nickname just came to me: Moonlight. He pitched that night and did real well, so we stuck with it,” Gentry recalls. “I started calling him that, and then everybody else went with it.”

At the same time, Twitter had just started to become a thing. Needing a handle for the new form of social media, Tatum went with his new nickname and styled himself @Moonlight_Tatum on Twitter, the name he still has today.

Of course, as Cohen has learned, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is now. Moonlight can pitch.

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Bulldog Bites: Catfish and eggplant at Little Dooey, Mullen’s contract extension and notes from around MSU athletics

Food Stuff

This will eventually circle back to food, I promise, but let’s talk about Lent for a moment. It’s a Christian observance, though its principles are solid for anyone, and the intent is to make sacrifices in the name of penitence, as well as to build good habits and learn new disciplines for the betterment of one’s life and soul. For some, it’s giving up a bad habit. For others, it’s walking to work instead of driving. Some give up coffee (a terrifying proposition) and others pledge time to community service.

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Whichever of the limitless directions one goes, the idea of making a determined effort to help the greater good tends to be a common endgame, and a nice one, at that. It applies to all parts of life, really, be it spiritual, physical or somewhere in between.

In this world of athletics, we see it all the time. Just this week, many of Mississippi State’s baseball players took it upon themselves to go work on their game during their down time Wednesday. School was canceled because of the weather, so they had a surprise day with no responsibilities, and instead of playing in the snow like all their fellow students (and me), they went indoors at the Palmeiro Center to put in some extra work. Their head coach John Cohen only knew it happened because he saw all their cars lined up in the parking lot when he walked out of the office.

The same happened for MSU’s football team this summer, when team leaders Dak Prescott and Benardrick McKinney led voluntary sessions that amounted to nearly being full practices. The whole team showed up, no coach telling them to do so, and we have since seen the results.

The football players could have relaxed by the pool and the baseball players could have spent the day riding sleds and building snowmen. Countless other athletes in all kinds of sports have had similar opportunities and made the same decisions. It can be difficult to be a student-athlete, but they know how many people are depending on them. Sacrifices are often easier to make when you have something to believe in and someone to fight for bigger than yourself.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to pontificate on philosophy and religion, so I’ll get to the point: food. Many who observe the Lenten season also follow the rule dictating that meat is not to be eaten on Fridays, an oftentimes difficult challenge in the south. No chicken, no beef, no pork. No ox, lamb, goat or any associated creatures of the land.

However, fish is perfectly acceptable, and tends to be a top alternative. And that brings us to one of my favorite meals in Starkville: fried catfish po-boys at The Little Dooey.

Dooey’s is famous for their barbecue, and rightfully so, but judge me not when I say that the pulled pork covered in the family-recipe sauce is not my top dish at Little Dooey. It’s worth the price (and then some), to be sure, but man, that crispy, hot, fried catfish filet stuffed between a couple pieces of warm bread with all the fixins is difficult to beat. Me personally, I like to add some of the mild and sweet barbecue sauce the Wood family has been making for generations.

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Now, this particular plate is great on its own, but to make it a full meal, we need a side, and once again we’re going to pick an underrated but altogether delicious item from the menu: fried eggplant. It’s a Lent-friendly choice, as there is no meat of any sort, and if you’re someone who doesn’t really like vegetables, well, this doesn’t exactly taste like a vegetable by the time the cooks in the kitchen deep fry it and you at the table dip it in ranch dressing. (I never promised we’d be healthy, just that we’d follow the rules.)

Waffle fries, baked beans, coleslaw or potato salad – good choices, each of them. But if I’m going all out, there is no side I’d rather have than the fried eggplant, a homemade, southern and more tasty relative of the Bloomin’ Onion.

So, should you find yourself looking for a Friday lunch or dinner in Starkville over the next few weeks (or anytime, really), you could do far worse and would have trouble doing much better than catfish and eggplant at Little Dooey’s. Sacrifice is meant to create good, but it can taste good, too.


Sports Stuff

FOOTBALL: Let’s the start with the biggest news of the last couple days. Dan Mullen and Mississippi State announced a contract extension through the 2018 season, extending Mullen’s deal back out to the maximum allowable by state law in Mississippi. Mullen will make $4 million this season and the full financial package escalates over its life and averages out to $4.275 million per year.

WFBQUHQFOMPLUWA.20150226192708The numbers represent both a big raise for Mullen and huge investment by MSU in the man who led the football program to No. 1 in the country for five weeks in 2014. The agreement was made official last night at the annual Night in Maroon event held in Jackson where Mullen was welcomed to the stage as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ played. According to pictures, Mullen then grabbed a guitar and air-played the lead.

Also of note: MSU announced this week that it’s on-campus NFL Pro Day will be open to the media (not public) next Wednesday. It’s the first year under Mullen the event has been open and I’m told NFL Network will be in attendance.

BASEBALL: Depending how soon you see this, John Cohen’s club might already be playing. Because of the weather, game time was moved up to 4 p.m. today and tomorrow’s doubleheader will now begin at 11 a.m. MSU has Arizona and Samford in town, probably the two toughest teams its played in the 9-0 start to the season.

Pitching news: Cohen expects Preston Brown to start tonight, and believes the Saturday doubleheader will be a combination of Austin Sexton and Lucas Laster, though who pitches against which team has yet to be decided. Sunday is more up in the air, though Cohen said Vance Tatum could be the guy there if he isn’t used out of the bullpen on Friday or Saturday.

Injury news: Cohen told reporters there is “a very good chance” that first baseman Wes Rea is back this weekend, a return that could possibly send John Holland to third base after the emergence of freshman Ryan Gridley at second base. Cohen also hopes to have outfielder Michael Smith back this weekend or next. Catcher Gavin Collins caught a full bullpen session with no pain on Thursday, according to Cohen, and now it’s just a matter of getting him ready to hit. He may be back before his target date of SEC play. Then, on the mound, Cohen said pitchers Myles Gentry and Paul Young – two of the more talented arms on the staff – are close to returning, as well.

This team could look a lot different in a few weeks, which says a lot as they’re currently undefeated at No. 13 in the country.

SOFTBALL: While we’re still waiting on snow to melt here in Starkville, Vann Stuedeman’s team spent yesterday visiting Hogwarts at Universal Studios in Orlando. Her 13-2 Bulldogs are in Florida for the Citrus Classic where they’ll be playing some big-name teams in Minnesota, Georgetown, Maryland, Notre Dame and Indiana. MSU opens conference play next week when they host Georgia in Starkville.

MEN’S BASKETBALL: Talking to Rick Ray and his team after Wednesday’s loss to Kentucky, they seemed optimistic about the rest of the season, and perhaps they should be. They frustrated and stayed with the No. 1 Wildcats (probably the best non-NBA team I’ve ever seen in person) for the first 30 minutes of the game, leading UK coach John Calipari to concede the Bulldogs stopped every game plan they had and he eventually had to tell his team to try something new. That something new worked, of course, but there were good things for MSU to take from it.

Now, MSU has a three-game stretch to finish the season in which they can end on a good note, starting tomorrow in South Carolina. That game will be on SEC Network at 5 p.m. Saturday evening.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Speaking of playing big-time conference foes, Vic Schaefer’s team ran into a tough night at South Carolina Thursday, dropping the contest to the nation’s second-ranked team. MSU returns to Starkville Sunday for its last game of the regular season when it hosts Ole Miss. That game will be on FSN at 1 p.m. for those watching from elsewhere, but State is already expecting a big crowd at The Hump, as they probably should.

Looking ahead, last night’s loss didn’t help, but MSU is in position to possibly host in the women’s NCAA Tournament in a couple weeks. Scott Stricklin mentioned in his weekly column (an idea he almost certainly stole from me) that MSU will be hosting a watch party for the Selection Show, and it’s then that they will find out if they host or not.

TRACK AND FIELD: This weekend, the indoor season wraps up for the women’s squad as they’re already in Lexington for the SEC Championships. They’ve spent most of the year in the Top 20, and both the men’s and women’s team have put up big numbers both as individuals and as teams.

A reminder that MSU is hosting the outdoor SEC Championships later this spring, an event MSU has been making preparations to host for months on end now.

GOLF: The new-look men’s team finished in the Top 10 in its first event of the year earlier this week in Mobile, and they’ll be back on the course on Monday in the Louisiana Classics in Lafayette.

As for the 3rd-ranked women’s club (golf pun!) they’re off this week, but next week they play in something called the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Don’t know how all these teams are traveling to islands and theme parks and I got left out of the fold. Earlier this week, Ginger Brown-Lemm’s team pulled a second-straight Top-10 finish to start the year.

TENNIS: Both the men’s and women’s tennis teams begin SEC play this weekend after fairly successful non-conference slates. The men, at 8-3, head to Alabama later this afternoon to play the Tide, then they host Ole Miss next Thursday for their home SEC opener.

The women, who are on a roll under coach Daryl Greenan, take their 9-1 record to Vanderbilt today and Kentucky Sunday, before hosting Missouri and Arkansas next Friday and Sunday.

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Freshman Ryan Gridley stepping up for Diamond Dogs early on

Sitting at an undefeated 7-0 but staring straight at a tied game and a possible first defeat, Mississippi State needed someone to step up on a frigid Sunday night against Alabama A&M. A veteran player, a team leader, someone.

BHOXOWKTJJQANEO.20150215222631In the bottom of the eighth inning, MSU got the performance it needed, but from a seemingly unlikely spot. True freshman Ryan Gridley stepped to the plate with a runner on base and calmly delivered the game-winning hit, an RBI single to knock in the go-ahead run, putting the Bulldogs up 2-1, the eventual final score.

To hear his coach talk, though, that wasn’t even the most impressive thing Gridley did. His defensive play at second base to end the top of that inning was even better.

“I didn’t think the play of the game was the hit he got,” John Cohen said. “I thought it was the line-drive laser he just sat on and let hit him right in the chest, calmly picks it up and throws it right to first base. I thought that was the play of the ball game. A lot of people don’t notice those things, but if you don’t get in front of that ball and it gets to the outfield somehow, it’s gonna change the nature of the ball game.”

Whichever is the play of the game, Gridley made them both and MSU emerged from its second week of play with an unblemished 8-0 record. Plenty has gone into that, but Gridley’s hot start has a lot to do with it. Having started six games and played in seven, the freshman infielder is batting .529, with a .640 on-base percentage. He’s got 10 runs, nine hits, eight RBI and seven walks to his name, as well.

And the thing of it is, he wasn’t even supposed to be playing. But after senior captain Wes Rea went down with an injury, the lineup had to be shuffled and Gridley stepped up at second base.

“Every time one door closes, another one opens,” Cohen said. “A lot of people have flown through those doors, and Gridley is one of them. He has taken advantage of that opportunity.”

He’s taken such an advantage that it might be hard to keep he and his skills out of the lineup down the road. As Cohen described him, he talked about a player who is able to slow down the big moments, slow his heart rate and focus on exactly what is happening and what he needs to do. Along with the mental focus comes a great deal of natural talent, too. Arm strength, speed, awareness – Cohen rattled off the highlights.

The most important thing, Cohen went on to say, is Gridley’s ability to take coaching and “not try to do to much,” which coaches observed is a rare quality in a freshman.

Perhaps his most exciting play of the weekend, Gridley’s inside-the-park home run on Saturday is a good example. When it happened, he really wasn’t aware of what was going on until he was already halfway to third base and saw the signal from assistant coach Nick Mingione that he better keep going.

Gridley walked reporters through the play on Sunday evening.

“Honestly, it was a bad swing by me to begin with,” he said. “No strikes, first pitch of the at-bat and I swung at a slider out of the zone. The coaches teach us to run everything out of the box, so I figured I’d better bust it. I was running and I never heard anyone say ‘out,’ so I was like, I might as well just keep running. Then I saw Coach Mingione pointing me home and I thought, it must be safe. I got really lucky.”

Both lucky and safe. Impressive, to boot. One of many impressive things he and his teammates have done early on, putting up big numbers at the plate. As a team, MSU leads the SEC in runs and on-base percentage, while tallying the second-highest number of hits, steals and RBI.

Those around the program expected the offensive to deliver in 2015, and so far, their predictions were right.

“We knew it,” Gridley said. “In the fall, you could see the hitters. There are so many different pieces of our offense. There’s speed, there’s power, there’s guys who can do it situationally. Every single piece you need is in our lineup.”

XFIHCCVFLOJAKZU.20150214213807Gridley and teammates Seth Heck and Jacob Robson make up three of the top four hitters in the SEC through two weeks, both in batting average and on-base percentage. The hot bats have been coming top to bottom in the lineup, and MSU has done most of it without three of their best hitters. Rea, sophomore catcher Gavin Collins and junior outfielder Michael Smith are all on the mend from minor injuries. Add those three back into what’s already a potent offense…

“When those three guys come back,” Cohen said, “I think it changes the dynamics of our lineup.”

Then add to those hitters a slew of talented pitchers and big performances by many of them (including record numbers of strikeouts by some, and two saves in one day by senior Trevor Fitts) and Cohen has both a confident and dangerous group. Dangerous for the other teams, of course.

The ceiling? Gridley thought Sunday’s close win in below-freezing temperatures gave the answer.

“No untested team is gonna go out there and win the whole thing,” he said. “You’ve gotta battle to the very end. Those are the games that you know you have a tough team, you know you have a team that can take it all the way.”

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Bulldog Bites: On Starkville native Gavin Ware, track records and multiple awards for Bulldogs

Being local doesn’t necessarily make something better, but it does make that something special. It makes that something mean, well, something. Sports, food, whatever it is, those on the outside may have more resources, higher ratings and more name recognition, but they are, very clearly, “they.” Those on the inside, whatever is for or against them, are firmly considered “we.” A local product is something to be proud of, something a community can embrace and claim as their own.

LJYYHAEIZFLBTGG.20150109162325In Starkville, Gavin Ware is a We, he is an Us, and he is something the locals are proud of, because he’s a local himself. A junior forward for Mississippi State’s basketball team, Gavin grew up in Starkville as a country boy riding horses and bloomed into a star on the basketball court for Starkville High School. When his talents became obvious and his name spread across the country, the biggest question facing him was the obvious one: would Starkville’s young star stay at home or skip town to play somewhere else?

There may have been pressure from classmates or other people around him, but those close to Gavin assured him, the choice was his, and he could leave if he wanted.

As you know by now, Gavin made the choice to stay at home, representing his school and city at the same time.

“Got everything I need right here at home,” he says. “I love that it’s like a small town atmosphere even though it’s a college town. I like that. The big city, there’s a lot of traffic, crime, stuff like that. Here, it’s suitable for living for a family. It’s just great.”

Great, of course, so long as he doesn’t mind being recognized. He stands out a bit anyway, pushing 6’10” and weighing somewhere in the range of 270 pounds, besides the fact that he’s been here his whole life.

“I try to wear glasses sometimes, but people still recognize me.”

Clark Kent he is not.

Gavin still remembers his first game at MSU, his first time in front of the home crowd (both school and city) as a Bulldog in Maroon and White, no longer a Yellow Jacket at SHS.

“I was very anxious,” he admitted. “I was scared that I might mess up. But after I got my feet wet a little bit, I looked up in the stands and saw my dad and it motivated me like, ‘OK, now I got my feet wet, just play.’”

By the end of that year, he was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team.

Now, Gavin isn’t good because he’s from Starkville. He’d be good no matter where he was born or raised. But he’s special because of his roots, and even moreso because he chose to trust his future to his hometown, rather than try something elsewhere.

His loyalty, and what he means to the people he grew up around, is an example of any business in Starkville. It’s not the biggest city in the world. It might not even be one of the five biggest in its own state. But that’s how Gavin likes it, and that’s how the business owners who invest their livelihoods and products in the town like it, too.

Thinking of a chef preparing a meal at a restaurant, it would be far less intimidating to cook for a stranger than for family, friends and colleagues – people who know you. Gavin understands that. You want to be great for the people who care about and support you. And just as it was for Gavin, it can be reassuring, as well.

Being a local restaurant doesn’t necessarily make the food taste better (though it often does in Starkville), but it does give it that same something.

BWKVRVXZIBTSFVC.20141107030009For Gavin, who weighed near 300 pounds on arrival and has made an effort to lose weight and keep it off, that local food can occasionally be a bit of danger, in a good way. Barbecue is his guilty pleasure in the offseason (“Starkville has great barbecue spots, as everyone should know,” he says), and his No. 1 comfort food is his grandmother’s homemade spaghetti.

Of course, after MSU coach Rick Ray said the best thing Gavin could do during the offseason was avoid grandma’s kitchen table, he’s not able to indulge quite as often as he would like. He’s got basketball to play.

Tonight, Gavin takes the stage on his home court for the biggest game of every season in his hometown – Ole Miss. He spent most of his childhood outdoors, not concerned with basketball, “but as I began to grow, I began to realize either it was Mississippi State or it was Ole Miss.”

Said Ray, “A [local] guy comes in with that previous knowledge and he cares about the rivalries … This game is important because he remember games like this from when he was nine years old.”

Home games for Gavin really are at home, and tonight is as big as any for him.

“If you aren’t ready for this game,” he said, “you need to have your heart checked.”

You may also want a check-up if you’ve been indulging too much in barbecue or spaghetti. But we’re not here to judge.


Sports Stuff

MEN’S BASKETBALL: As mentioned above, MSU hosts Ole Miss tonight at 8 in The Hump, broadcast on ESPN2. For those making plans to attend, they’re giving out MSU glasses (while supplies last), which is a nice little bonus.

As for the game itself, we talked to Rick Ray earlier this week a bit about Ole Miss. The biggest thing, he said, is keeping Ole Miss off the foul line. That’s where they’ve won a lot of their games, including MSU’s loss in Oxford a while back. And it’s that game more than any other that Ray said his staff has been studying as they prepared for tonight’s match-up.

BASEBALL: You’re aware by now that MSU went 4-0 on opening weekend, scoring 48 runs along the way, and you’ve likely also heard that Jacob Robson was named a National Player of the Week. If you hadn’t, now you have, and that honor comes after he reached base in 16 of 17 appearances over opening weekend.

This weekend, MSU hosts Marshall and Alabama A&M for four more games, and it should be noted the times have all been moved up on account of the cold. State plays Marshall at 4 p.m. Friday (on SEC Network+, which is now available to DirecTV customers). The doubleheader Saturday, one game against both teams, begins at noon, and the weekend finale against Alabama A&M on Sunday begins at 3 p.m., that game also on SEC Network+.

Victoria Vivians

Victoria Vivians

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Domination update: Bulldogs are now 24-4, ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25. MSU beat Florida at home on Sunday, though they lost a wildly entertaining double-overtime game to Kentucky last Thursday evening. As a result of her performances over those games, Victoria Vivians was named both the SEC and National Freshman of the Week. She set an MSU freshman record against Kentucky by scoring 39 points.

Next up: Vic Schaefer’s team travels to Alabama this weekend, playing at 2 p.m. Sunday with an SEC Network+ broadcast.

Continuing to rack up wins, MSU is putting itself in good position to possibly host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

WOMEN’S GOLF: This is going to surprise you: they’re still really good. Playing against an extremely competitive field last weekend, MSU finished No. 2 in the Seminole Classic (ahead of No. 1-ranked South Carolina, to name just one opponent). Starting Sunday, Ginger Brown-Lemm’s team will be competing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate in New Orleans.

TRACK AND FIELD: Speaking of continued success… the women’s team has moved all the way up to No. 17 in the latest rankings as their rise and impressive indoor season continues. On the men’s side, National Champion Brandon McBride broke both a personal and school record in the 800-meter run last weekend. McBride’s time of 1:46.80 is currently tops in the country, a very fast half-mile.

This weekend, MSU is in South Bend for competition.

TENNIS: I might sound like I’m pumping sunshine as I move down this list, but it just kinda happens that MSU’s spring sports are really good. On the women’s side, junior Georgiana Patrasc, the 77th-ranked player in the country, was named the SEC Player of the Week after her performance over the weekend. At 6-1 and No. 71 in the country, MSU hosts Samford today at 2 p.m.

On the men’s side, MSU was off last weekend, but they’re back in action this weekend at the prestigious Blue Gray National Classic in Montgomery, with competition beginning on Friday against Princeton. Ranked No. 30 in the country, this is the 58th-straight week MSU has been in the Top 30 of the ITA poll.

MEN’S GOLF: I had a chance to talk with head coach Clay Homan earlier this week, so I’ll have more on that soon, but the Bulldogs begin their spring season on Monday at the Mobile Sports Authority Intercollegiate in Alabama. MSU lost a lot of productive seniors from last year’s squad, and it looks like junior Ben Wood is stepping into the role of team leader.

SOFTBALL: Mark down yet another team that’s had to move up game times due to the weather. MSU plays today at 2 p.m., hosting Southeastern Louisiana with the broadcast on SEC Network+.

The Bulldogs went 4-1 last weekend, playing a couple particularly entertaining games over a four day stretch. At 9-1 overall, Vann Stuedeman’s team is scheduled to play five more games between now and Tuesday, including a doubleheader on Saturday against Penn State when the weather, I’m told, is supposed to actually be pretty nice.

At this point, it’s worth discussing the incredible tear sophomore catcher Katie Anne Bailey is on. She’s started all 10 games and in 31 plate appearances, she’s batting an impressive .581, with a .871 slugging percentage. Bailey has 18 hits, 13 RBI, three triples and 10 runs scored in only two weekends of work.

FOOTBALL: As usual, despite the team being completely out of season, there is still football news. The NFL Scouting Combine began this week, with former Bulldogs Benardrick McKinney, Josh Robinson, Justin Cox and Preston Smith all in attendance. None have begun workouts yet, with those starting up tomorrow, but all four will have opportunities for interviews and to make impressions over the course of the extended weekend.

Projections are more difficult to track later in the draft, but it appears McKinney and Smith are both likely to be off the board in the first two days of the draft, while some projections have had both being selected in the first round.

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MSU dominant at the plate, impressive on the mound in opening weekend wins

By a score of 48-15, Mississippi State baseball went 4-0 on opening weekend at Dudy Noble, which included the biggest opening day crowd of John Cohen’s tenure on Friday afternoon.

Picking out one star, or one part of the game to be praised, is a bit difficult. Throughout the lineup and both at the plate and on the mound, MSU performed well.

RUIQZQZZGTYQQMF.20150214024509For example, State’s bullpen pitched 22 out of 24 scoreless innings over the weekend. Worthy of remark, to be sure. Then, on their own plate, MSU’s 48 runs were the most in a four game stretch in eight years when the 2007 College World Series team had 53.

Said Cohen, “We scored a lot of runs this weekend, and in this ballpark, that’s not an easy thing to do. Hopefully that’s a trend that continues for us.”

There are a lot of reasons for that production, many players who had big games and bigger weekends. Perhaps none were hotter than sophomore outfielder Jacob Robson, one of only three Bulldogs to start every game. The speedster from Canada reached base safely in 16 of his 17 plate appearances. That’s kind of good.

“I’ve just taken a little bit of effort out of my swing,” Robson said. “There’s a better chance of me hitting the ball. As a speed player, putting the ball in play is essential, even if it’s not the hardest ball.”

It’s worked for him, and it’s been equally advantageous for Wes Rea, the senior behind him in the order. In three games this weekend (he sat out Sunday as a precaution after being hit in the knee by a pitch Saturday), Rea hit .375 and racked up a team-high seven RBI. Perhaps most exciting was his grand slam on Saturday, one of several times over the weekend MSU batters produced with the bases loaded.

“That’s the swing I’ve been working on,” Rea said.

Said Cohen, “I felt so confident at the end of the fall and the beginning of the spring, just because I’d never seen [Wes] in the rhythm he was in going into the season. If guys are on base, there’s no doubt he’s going to have a great year.”

It wasn’t just those two, of course. Freshman Ryan Gridley went 4-for-6 is in his first action as a Bulldog this weekend and scored four runs in the process. Junior infielder John Holland broke through Sunday with three hits and four RBI in the weekend finale. Sophomore outfielder Reid Humphreys started the weekend 0-for-6, but then rallied to finish the weekend on a hot streak of 6-for-10, including a home run and five RBI. Then, of course, there’s senior shortstop Seth Heck who extended his on-base streak to 34-straight games. That, naturally, dates back to last season.

On the mound, MSU had a host of big performances from veterans and newcomers alike. It seems, however, the most impressive one might be that of sophomore Vance ‘Moonlight’ Tatum. Appearing in relief Saturday, Tatum pitched 4.2 scoreless innings and earned the win for the Bulldogs.

Senior captain Trevor Fitts said last week he believes Tatum has the talent to keep MSU from having any dropoff with the loss of Jacob Lindgren, and judging by the way Cohen talked afterward, we might need to expect an increased role for the impressive sophomore.

“We knew he was going to be important to us,” Cohen said. “We really felt like he was going to be more of an end of the game guy, but we had to bring him in a little early. His role might evolve, because he’s that good. He can throw three different pitches in the strike zone and he’s highly competitive.”

Tatum joined Fitts, Ross Mitchell, Daniel Brown and Zac Houston as State pitchers who threw at least three innings without giving up a single run this weekend.

MSU’s performance in those four games made a statement for a team the polls couldn’t seem to decide on or trust in the preseason. Whether or not those on the outside expected it, those in the locker room had full confidence it would happen, and they don’t believe it will stop any time soon.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise,” Robson told reporters afterward.

Their key now is to keep it up.

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Bulldog Valentines: MSU catchers Cody and Katie Anne found love on the diamond

Sometimes, opposites attract. In other instances, similarities are what create a bond. For a couple celebrating Valentine’s Day in Starkville this weekend, it’s more of the latter.

unnamed-2Cody Walker is a catcher for the Mississippi State baseball team. Katie Anne Bailey is a catcher for the Bulldog softball team. There are plenty of other reasons the two have been together for nearly a year and a half now, having met and started dating shortly after both arrived on campus to play their sports and position, but that common interest may have been the spark.

“When she said she was a catcher,” Cody recalls from their first meeting, “I was like, you know what, that’s awesome. It’s two different sports, but I thought it was awesome.”

‘Course, they probably shouldn’t have been talking at the time. In fact, they were supposed to be studying, fulfilling their required hours of study hall as student-athletes.

Then-freshman pitcher Vance Tatum (always looking out for his catcher) was in a study hall room with Cody, and being friends with Katie Anne, he told her to come their study spot and meet the baseball catcher. She did, of course, and returned to study with them (Cody, specifically) for the next several nights.

“I like to call it our first week of dating,” Katie Anne jokes now. “Just two hours of study hall sitting in there chatting and getting to know each other.”

As for the actual studying they were supposed to have been doing?

“It worked out, we’re still making good grades,” Cody said with a laugh.

It is a unique thing, though. It’s one thing when two athletes get together, a common occurrence, but it’s a bit more rare for them to play the same position on their teams at the same school. And while it’s a cool thing, it’s not the only thing. Not even the main thing. More than anything, Katie Anne says, it helped in the beginning when they met each other to have an easy conversation topic.

unnamedThey still talk about it plenty, of course, sometimes discussing game situations, Katie Anne often picking Cody’s brain, and Cody will even occasionally volunteer as her pitcher in the batting cage when she wants to get some work in. Catching was their excuse for introductions, but it was interest in each other that made the meeting blossom into love.

“She’s got personality for days,” Cody says. “She lights up the room when she walks in.”

He was able to put his feelings into a few words. She needed a few more.

“One thing that really attracts me to him is just the way he thinks in general,” Katie Anne said. “I like the way he pieces things together and thinks about things before he does them … He has such a big heart and mind for his future plans and the family he wants to have that it makes me excited every single day.”

Aren’t they the sweetest?

The biggest struggle for the couple is, in a way, the same thing that brought them together. With each playing their sport and putting in the requisite practice time, study time, weightlifting time and sleeping time, it’s sometimes hard for them to see each other.

Their first real out-on-the-town date didn’t even come until they’d been talking to each other for a month, and not knowing when his next good chance would be, it was that night that Cody asked Katie Anne to be his girlfriend.

Because their seasons run at the same time, they don’t often get to see each other play, though they make a point to catch up as soon as they can at the end of gamedays. First, Katie Anne says, they ask each other how they did behind the plate as a catcher. Second, they ask how the other did at the plate as a batter.

Because they park in the same lots, it’s not a surprise for either of them to find a note on their car on gamedays

“Good luck, babe, hope you have a great game. Ball out,” one of them reads.

But, when time allows, they do make an effort to get away from the world of hitting and catching.

Said Katie Anne, “Every chance I get, I say, ‘Hey, let’s go on a date tonight. Let’s throw on some real clothes instead of our athletic maroon and white gear and let’s go out and have a night about us.’”

unnamed-1This Valentine’s Day, with both softball and baseball hosting doubleheaders, they may not have that chance, though at least they’re both in Starkville. Last year, Katie Anne was in Florida with softball, nixing any possible Valentine celebrations. So, when their games end Saturday night, they’ll each ask how the other did, and if the game ends early enough, they may even be able to sneak in a late dinner or a movie.

But the lack of celebration is fine with them. This is what they do. Baseball was his first love, anyway, and softball was hers. In that regard, they understand each other. But it doesn’t mean the day will be completely lacking in the romance department.

Win or lose, Katie Anne says she’s got a little surprise planned either way.

“Just something that says ‘I love you.’ That’s what Valentine’s is all about. It doesn’t have to be a big Christmas present. Just something sweet and simple that says ‘I love you.’”

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Bulldog Bites: Gumbalaya nachos at Stagger In, Preston Brown on the mound and notes from around MSU athletics

“Isn’t there supposed to be queso on this?”

“Yeah, salsa, too. I don’t see very much of either.”

It seemed as if our blonde-haired, blue-eyed, college-girl server had messed up the order. Or someone in the kitchen, perhaps, but she was easier to blame. She was right there.

unnamedBut whatever, these were the Gumbalaya Nachos, a mashing together of words for a joining of most every greasy and delicious item on the menu at Stagger In, one of my favorite spots in Starkville. You’re not gettin’ anything fancy at Stagger, and certainly nothing likely to be served at a Presidential dinner, but it’s just really good enjoyable bar food. Deep fried cheeseburgers, cheese fries and cheese sticks. Some of the town’s best chicken wings, onion rings and sandwiches. Really good blue plates. Plus, a ton of TVs.

It’s nice.

But about these nachos, THE GREAT GUMBALAYA NACHOS, as the menu lists in all-caps, consist of seasoned tortilla chips, queso, salsa, jalapenos and fried crawfish, all topped with gumbalaya, a Mississippi mix of gumbo and jambalaya. It’s exactly as dangerous, mouth-watering and satisfied-groan-inducing as it sounds.

So we got our nachos, topped with the advertised crawfish and gumbalaya, even if we didn’t see a lot of the hot white queso every chip I’ve ever known desires to be crunched and eaten with. That was our problem, though. Not Stagger’s, not the nachos’, not our server’s. However, it was a problem solved a few chips in. As we deconstructed the mountain from the top, more and more ingredients started to appear.

“Oh, there’s the queso.”

“Yep, found the salsa, too.”

Each chip was like a new page of the same cheesy book. New tastes, colors and salty-textures emerged with each bite.

It appeared we owed unspoken apologies to our server who, in addition to getting our order exactly right, has a lot in common with the nachos. She looks like any other college girl waiting tables to get through school, but she doesn’t sound like one. She speaks perfect English, but with a distinct, if not light, accent.

“Where are you from?” we ask.

Russia, it turns out. She was born in Moscow, where she lived until she was adopted at the age of 11 by an American family in Memphis. Natalia moved to the states, blended right in by looks and grew up to be a big Mississippi State fan, necessitating the move to go to school in Starkville.

Over Christmas, she had a blast in Atlanta watching TCU take down Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl as she attended with her Ole Miss-fan boyfriend (who also likes TCU. Tough spot to be in). It’s been recommended, apparently, that she find a more suitable man dressed in Maroon and White, but she insists the one she has is quite nice, thank you very much.

They say not to judge a book by its cover. Perhaps we should also say not to judge an appetizer by its top chip. Or a blonde by her ponytail. We take away from the work of The Artist (be they of the culinary or heavenly variety) when we make assumptions before discovering the creation as it was meant to be.

Anyway, I recommend the Great Gumbalaya Nachos at Stagger In. Tell them Bob sent you.


Sports Stuff

BASEBALL: As you know, Mississippi State baseball gets started this weekend, the Bulldogs playing four games in three days. The Friday (4 p.m.) and Saturday (noon and 4) games have been moved up to make things a bit more enjoyable weather-wise, though the 1:30 Sunday contest remains in the same spot.

JKDBMSZRESIEKNU.20141109025414On Friday, it appears we can expect junior pitcher Preston Brown to get the Opening Day start on the mound. Beyond that? Little tougher to tell, but from what John Cohen has said, senior Lucas Laster is likely to start a game, as well, and would seem a good candidate for the next one after Brown, being a senior with several wins and starts under his belt. After those, Cohen mentioned two other names as possible starters: freshman Jesse McCord and sophomore Austin Sexton. With four games, it’s possible those are the four starters right there.

Ross Mitchell has moved to the bullpen, though it’s not crazy to think he could end up starting games here and there over the course of the season depending on what happens with the rest of the staff. Former starter Trevor Fitts has moved to the bullpen, too, but that seems a bit more permanent. Really, I’m as interested to see the relievers as I am the starters.

Elsewhere, you’ve likely seen already, but sophomore catcher Gavin Collins is out the first few weeks of the season with a hand injury. It looks like MSU will replace him with a combination of junior Josh Lovelady and senior Cody Walker.

Speaking of Collins, he was picked first-team All-SEC by league coaches, who also picked MSU to finish fifth in the SEC West.

Also, if you’re out grilling, we’re doing Taste of the Lounge again this year! I’ll be roaming the outfield with a camera and a microphone every home weekend, so feel free to let me know if you’re cooking up anything fun.

SOFTBALL: Every year I’m somehow still amazed at how many games they play in a short period of time. After opening the season with five games last weekend, Vann Stuedeman’s team is hosting SIX games this weekend. That’s a lot of softball. They play Thursday and Friday afternoons, then have doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday. I’d tell you the times, but chances are that any time want to go watch softball this weekend, MSU is playing.

Also worth noting, the Bulldogs are climbing up the receiving votes section of the Top 25 after the 5-0 start last week.

MEN’S BASKETBALL: After a 4-2 run in SEC play, Rick Ray’s team has had a rough week, losing its last two games. The loss to Alabama Tuesday night in The Hump was a particularly close one, and an odd one statistically. As Ray pointed out after, MSU out-rebounded Bama, shot a higher percentage, took more free throws and had the home crowd. Yet, Alabama won. The main reason, Ray said, was turnovers. MSU committed too many and it led to a lot of Bama buckets and the Tide winning by four.

The Bulldogs are on the road Saturday, playing at Missouri at 3 p.m. on ESPNU.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Hey, they play tonight! Vic Schaefer’s team is up to 13th or 15th in the country, depending which poll you prefer, and they’re playing at also-top-15 Kentucky on the SEC Network at 6 central tonight. I recommend watching.

Most recently, they got a huge win on Sunday by beating Texas A&M (also top-15! The SEC is good.) in overtime at home. It was big for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which that the coach Schaefer beat is his best friend in the business and the guy who helped make him who he is now.

I mentioned last week that MSU could be in position to host in the NCAA Tournament, and that win went a long way in making that more likely.

Oh, and point guard Morgan William was named the SEC Freshman of the Week.

WOMEN’S GOLF: Hey, look, another really good team. The No. 3 Bulldogs are in Tallahassee to open their spring season this weekend. I wrote more about them here, if you like reading or golf: https://hailstatebeat.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/msu-womens-golf-setting-sights-on-ncaa-championships/

FOOTBALL: Nothing huge, but a couple things worth mentioning here. 1. MSU had 20 players named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll yesterday, highlighted by a 3.8 GPA by linebacker Richie Brown, who is majoring in industrial technology. I understand that to be a difficult major.

  1. Dan Mullen, Dak Prescott, Curtis Virges and Jay Hughes all visited with about 2,000 high school kids at a college fair in Jackson on Wednesday, talking to them about the importance of education. Very cool deal. See the video below.

TRACK AND FIELD: The men’s and women’s squads are split this weekend with the men heading to Birmingham and the women all the way off to Ohio for indoor competition.

TENNIS: The men are off for the weekend, but the women are headed to Winthrop and beautiful Rock Hill, South Carolina, for a match against the Eagles on Friday and a tilt against East Tennessee State on Saturday. The men beat both Samford and New Orleans at home last week, while the women (who are up to No. 74 in the ITA rankings) had the weekend off.

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MSU women’s golf setting sights on NCAA Championships

You won’t often hear the words come out of their mouths, but those watching them play will say them plenty.

“National Championship.”

OQWUARMUKUIAQNH.20141022214956They’ll talk around the idea in public, and surely think about it often in private, but that’s the goal for Mississippi State’s women’s golf team. One of them, anyway. They’re No. 3 in the country, finished fourth at the NCAA Championships last year and are even better this year as the spring season begins this weekend.

It’s dangerous to use those words when talking about any team in any sport before a season has even begun, but MSU is alright with it.

“Honestly,” head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm told reporters, “I can tell you I expected to be here.”

Said senior star Ally McDonald, “That’s why I came to Mississippi State.”

As for the middle area between now and the championships at the end of the spring – a period called, well, the season – MSU will be aware of their goal, but won’t focus on it. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but it’s one day at a time for the Bulldogs. And really, even that might be too broad a thought if their minds are to remain healthy.

In golf, the only safe way to go about it is one stroke at a time. One swing, one fluid movement, unaffected by the last one or the next one.

Ernest Hemingway once said that when writing, his goal was always to write one great sentence. Focus on that sentence and make it perfect. And then after that, write one more great sentence. Do that enough, and he had a full novel of great sentences adding up to a great literary work.

The same idea applies in golf, perhaps more there than in any sport. In such a mental game, where frustrations, distractions, superstitions and the like have such an easy time creeping into minds, having a clear head is a pretty big deal. That’s why Brown-Lemm requires her team to devote one hour every week, one of the 20 they’re allowed by NCAA guidelines, to mental conditioning.

“It’s more about training yourself mentally for shot recovery,” she said. “You’re gonna hit bad shots … Minimize damage. Don’t make double. … Battle yourself.

“How do you prepare yourself to mess up? Because you’re gonna.

“Then, how do you get yourself in a peak performance state? We dedicate an hour of our 20 to that very thing.”

XGGJGXWHXCNINXU.20130522003608Whatever tricks of the mind they’re learning, it seems to be working. MSU’s women’s golf team has risen quickly the last several years from pushover, to surprise competitor to national contender. National Championship contender, one might say.

As they’ve ascended the ranks, so have several other programs at MSU, creating a combination of rivalry and inspiration among themselves. Brown-Lemm, watching MSU’s 13th-ranked women’s basketball team, is pushed to be just as good, and better if she can pull it off.

“I promise that coaches are as competitive or more competitive than the players we coach,” she said. “I want to make sure I do my part.”

Watching MSU’s football team rise to No. 1 in the country, boast a Heisman contender and be selected for the Orange Bowl, the golfers were able to take lessons they’ll put into use this spring.

“I feed off Dan Mullen’s notoriety,” Brown-Lemm said. “All the coverage that he gets maroon on that television, I use to inspire myself and these young ladies.

“I want to make sure that women’s golf is always there representing Mississippi State athletics.”

The last few years, they have been. Now, the race continues: who will be the first to win a team National Championship at MSU? Many have been close, none have yet accomplished the feat. Several Maroon and White contenders will go for it this spring, and women’s golf will be right in the middle of it, one stroke at a time.

“We’re not gonna be scared of it,” McDonald said. “A lot of people shy away from pressure … Day-to-day we work to get where we want to be when the National Championship comes around.”

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Highlights on newcomers, pitchers and hitters as MSU baseball preps for first pitch

Mississippi State’s baseball team had its Media Day over the weekend, less than one week out from the beginning of the regular season, and the news and thoughts were bountiful. MSU has a mix of youth, talent and experience that the coaches seem to like, which ought to make for an interesting season following them along.

DWJARNIOPWFCQWM.20150202000055There is much to review from the weekend and recent days, so we’ll break it down here into a few categories. Before we begin, we should mention that seniors Seth Heck, Wes Rea and Trevor Fitts were voted team captains this year.


Let’s start with the new guys. There are plenty of younger players who we haven’t seen much, too, but we’ll save them for other areas. This about the guys fresh to campus and Dudy Noble. Cohen, when asked about impact new guys, singled out three junior college transfers who could make an immediate impact both defensively and at the plate.

I might not write it in Sharpie just yet, but John Holland can easily be penciled in as the starter at second base after the graduation of Brett Pirtle. Cohen called Holland “a very exciting player,” and Holland’s teammates, from talking to them, have a great deal of confidence in his ability to step in both defensively and with his bat.

Said Seth Heck, “if you have to replace someone like [Pirtle], you are not going to find a better guy than Holland. I think he has been really impressive. I am excited to see what he can do.”

Cohen also mentioned Luke Reynolds, a lefty third baseman from Hinds Community College, as candidate to make a quick impact.

“Hinds had a phenomenal year last year,” Cohen said. “That is not by accident. You win with guys who are winners – guys who are really good players, and certainly, he’s one of those guys.”

Last but far from least, Cohen singled out Michael Smith as an impact newcomer. An outfielder coming in from junior college, Smith has had one of the hottest bats in the lineup throughout the preseason and is a speedy weapon in the outfield.

“[He] can really run and has power,” Cohen said. “I think the fans are really going to fall in love with the dynamic athleticism that he brings to the table.”

Beyond those three, Cohen also mentioned Josh Lovelady, a junior college catcher who is likely to see significant time early in the season after news came out that sophomore catcher Gavin Collins is out 3-5 weeks after hand surgery. Cohen praised Lovelady both for his leadership and defensive skills.


For the first time in a while, MSU won’t have stalwarts like Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren in the bullpen. While some big names are gone, several more return, and the depth is as good as it’s ever been.

Some notable notes: senior Trevor Fitts, after conferring with pitching coach Butch Thompson, has moved to the role of closer, a change he and the coaches think will suit his talents well. Ross Mitchell went so far as to say that Fitts could step in for Holder as a dominating closer.

“Trevor has really gravitated toward his role well,” Cohen said. “He has a power breaking ball. His fastball really plays into a sprinter type of role for 10, 15, 20 pitches. I just think he is made for it. He is a really tough kid, likes to compete, and likes to have the baseball when it matters most. That is usually the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He has been incredible in the fall and now in the early parts of the spring, so we’re excited about that transition.”

As for another name to remember in relief on the mound, Fitts himself singled out Vance Tatum, the promising sophomore pitcher who earned the win against Ole Miss last year. In particular, Fitts thinks the youngster has the ability to replace Lindgren.

“He is a power lefty with a great breaking ball,” Fitts said of Tatum. “I think he is going to step into that role and dominate.”

Cohen and players also hinted at the possibility or even likelihood of moving Mitchell back into the bullpen, where he spent the first two years of his career. He’s done well no matter where coaches use him, but having his flexibility for long relief out of the pen is a great luxury, if MSU can afford it.

To that end, Cohen mentioned four specific pitchers who he thinks can be starters for MSU. Preston Brown and Lucas Laster are the obvious ones, both having started and won plenty in their careers already. Brown could easily end up the Friday night starter. Beyond those two (and Mitchell), sophomore Austin Sexton and freshman Jesse McCord are both prime candidates for starting roles. Cohen said Sexton has “pitched extremely well” in the preseason, and said McCord has “pitched lights out,” impressing coaches more than freshmen often do.


This may seem like a broad topic, and it is, but it’s worth getting into just how much better MSU expects to be at the dish in 2015. When it comes to hitting, who better to ask than the guy who has to pitch to them? Fitts offered a breakdown of the lineup.

“Our hitters have been tearing the cover off the ball every day,” Fitts said. “In the past we have been more of a singles team. We would have to string three or four hits together to score any runs. This team has a great mix of on base guys and power guys. We have a lot of speed and power, and I think we are going to score more runs than we traditionally have.”

Newcomers like Smith and Holland have already been impressive at the plate, and it’s a near certainty that the bat of sophomore Reid Humphreys (who has switched to the outfield) will have a place in the lineup, be it as outfielder or designated hitter.

Said Cohen, “we have to get Reid in there because he’s such a dynamic hitter.”

Add in a now-healthy Jacob Robson, a soon-to-be healthy Gavin Collins, the consistent Seth Heck, an improved Matthew Britton and a number of newcomers and youngsters, and Wes Rea says “There are guys all over the place that have gotten bigger and stronger.”

Oh, and about Rea. Besides reports from practice that he’s improved significantly, the full lineup ought to benefit the senior first baseman, as well.

“I was kind of pressing last year, and I think that is one of the things that hurt me,” Rea said. “Two years ago I had [Hunter] Renfroe, [Adam] Frazier and [Brett] Pirtle all hitting in front of me. I felt a huge amount of pressure to fill their role last year.”

Going into this season, with the combo of power and speed in the lineup, Rea said getting extra-base hits is one of their top goals. It seems they’ll be able to accomplish that.

All this conversation comes without even mentioning pitchers like Dakota Hudson, Paul Young and Myles Gentry, newcomers like Ryan Gridley, Cole Gordon and Matt Spruill, or veterans like Jake Vickerson, Brent Rooker, Cody Brown and Cody Walker. The 2015 club will be a very different one from years past, but the level of talent is obvious. Ought to be fun to watch.

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Bulldog Bites: Cappe’s Steakhouse, Signing Day, strikeout records and more

Pick one: chicken and dressing, country fried steak, or pot roast.

Now pick two: broccoli and rice casserole, purple hull peas, cabbage, sweet potato casserole, turnip greens, or green beans.

Blue plates are a nightmare of single-serving proportions for the indecisive, while serving as growl-inducing daydreams for those whose bellies have pushed breakfast into the realm of forgotten memories.

1379582_180928072094434_1294264511_nIt was, somehow, my first lunch-time trip to Cappe’s Steakhouse. I’d been plenty for steak dinners. It’s one of my dad’s favorite places to celebrate life’s victories. But I had never made it for the blue plate I’d heard so much about.

Side note: why is it called a blue plate? Meat and three and I understand. Not subtle, but accurate. But why blue plate? It’s not as if the color of the plate affects the food.

Anyway, finally, I went, and I sat down, and I looked at the menu, and my mind started to melt with the Thursday options. If I had to guess, they make a mean country fried steak. But I was also eyeing the sweet potato casserole, and that seems like it would go better with chicken and dressing. The broccoli and rice casserole sounds good, too, but that’s a really casserole-y meal and this isn’t Thanksgiving.

“Are you ready to order or do you need a minute?”

“I definitely need a minute. Maybe two.”

We’re sitting here so close to National Signing Day and I can kind of relate to the teenagers who have to decide where they’re going to college to play football. I mean, it seems easy to those who support a specific school, but that’s a huge, life-changing decision. Not totally dissimilar from picking vegetables for a blue plate.

It’s true, though. I’d have been happy with any of those sides (I went with green beans and sweet potato casserole and was quite pleased), just like college football’s future stars would be happy at any number of schools.

But it’s a decision that has a great deal of impact on the rest of your life (college, not cabbage). Our choices decide how the future plays out. Life is a journey through wilderness, not a maze to be solved. When we pick a direction, we don’t often get to retrace our steps and start over. Especially not in the tight window allowed for college athletes to figure out their futures.

What will you get your degree in? What position will you play? Will you make it to the NFL? Who will your friends be? Who will you marry? What will your kids be like?

Truthfully, in some moments, it’s easy to wonder, will anyone remember you were there?

When your life and legacy are hidden in the fog of the future, it’s easier to think solely about the present, focus on the now. But decisions have to be made. And while my green beans aren’t yelling at me to eat them or tweeting at me angrily when I pick the peas, the young men making those all-important decisions are being pulled in every direction by many who claim to care about them, and some who really do.

In making those decisions, it seems the wisest course is to decide what’s important to you.

What you hear most often, the advice most regularly given, is the same thing I like so much about Cappe’s at lunch: go somewhere that feels like home. Wooden walls surround wooden tables covered in checkered plastic tablecloths that you’re led to by people who refer to your group as y’all and bring you plates full of starches, carbs and surprisingly flavorful bowls of veggies. That blue plate is grandma’s house at Sunday lunch. It’s warmth is more than a temperature.

So, the question becomes, what feels right? Home is something different to everyone. Each person is as unique as any option on the menu. I can’t tell anyone where to go to school or what side dish to choose (though I do recommend the sweet potato casserole). The best advice I can give to the young men making decisions like this is to go with what feels right to you, what you like and what you’re looking for.

My favorite professor once said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

After making my final decisions and placing my order, our server asked if I wanted a cornbread or a roll. Turns out, not all choices are hard.

“Cornbread, please.”


Sports Stuff

AZZIRMAJUMYDNNY.20150206025559BASEBALL: Of note this weekend is the inaugural Fan Day John Cohen’s club is hosting. It runs 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Palmeiro Center and will be followed immediately by the Maroon-White scrimmage. A week out from the season-opener, MSU is aiming to make the intra-squad scrimmage as much like a real game as possible for fans, players and coaches. Call it a dress rehearsal.

Oh, I almost forgot. The second annual Baseball Cowbell Yell is on Tuesday night at 6:30. Myself and Bart Gregory are hosting, but don’t let that stop you from coming. The captains of the team will speak and we’ve got several other things planned for the event. The first 2,000 students get free T-shirts, too.

FOOTBALL: Hey, did you hear Signing Day was Wednesday? Yeah, you probably did. Anyway, MSU signed 22 new players and it’s easily the best class of Dan Mullen’s time at MSU, at least according to rankings (which he advises against trusting just yet). There are a good dozen links I could share, but this is a good starting point and has a link to more coverage of MSU’s big day. Included here is video of Mullen’s press conference, bios of the signees, a breakdown of the class and a few other tidbits: http://www.hailstate.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=16800&ATCLID=209866189

MEN’S BASKETBALL: This weekend, Rick Ray’s team is on the road at Arkansas (on SEC Network tomorrow afternoon) and is coming off an impressive stretch the last couple weeks. MSU is 4-2 the last six games, which includes two road conference wins after going nearly two years without any. Most recently, State went on the road Tuesday and beat Tennessee, an impressive performance. Several in the SEC have called MSU the most improved team in the conference and it’s showing, especially now that I.J. Ready and Craig Sword are [mostly] healthy. They’ll be back in Starkville on Tuesday night against Alabama.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Speaking of good basketball teams… Vic Schaefer’s team is holding steady in the Top 20 and is now 22-3 on the season. The Women’s NCAA Tournament begins at host sites this year, and while MSU likely wouldn’t be a host if the season ended now, a strong finish could potentially get the Bulldogs in position to host in the NCAA Tourney just one year removed from hosting in the WNIT.

They play next on Sunday in The Hump at 2 p.m. on SEC Network, hosting Schaefer’s old school: Texas A&M.

WOMEN’S GOLF: Ginger Brown-Lemm’s team was featured on the Golf Channel’s website this week, which is kind of a big deal. Check out the link here (http://www.golfchannel.com/media/college-central-top-ncaa-womens-storylines/ ) and watch the video as MSU is considered one of the top storylines in college golf this year. As they should be. If you’ve ever wondered which MSU team would be the first to win a National Championship, the women’s golf team might be a good bet. As many strong teams as MSU has playing in the spring, this one might be the best.

SOFTBALL: The ball is soft, the team is not. MSU opened its season last night, run-ruling Mississippi Valley for the 8-0 victory. More impressive than anything was the performance of sophomore pitcher Alexis Silkwood. She faced 19 batters and struck out 15 of them, a career high in Ks for her, while she only allowed one hit. Alison Owen smashed a lot of records the last two years, but they may not last longer than the time Silkwood has left on campus.

TRACK AND FIELD: I have a feeling I’ll be repeating this a lot from week-to-week, but Steve Dudley’s teams continue to dominate. The women’s squad won the New Balance Invitational over the weekend, which is a really big deal. It’s a prestigious competition and they owned it. Noteworthy for the women: Ste’yce McNeil won the 60-meter hurdles at the invitational in 8.25 seconds, the third-fastest time in school history.

The men’s team finished fourth, which would be a headline in itself had the women not done so well and stole their thunder. MSU hosts the SEC Championships later this spring and it seems like it’ll be an event worth putting on your calendar.

TENNIS: If you haven’t picked up on the theme, MSU’s spring sports are pretty good. For the 57th-straight week of poll releases, the men’s tennis team is in the Top 30, checking in at No. 28. Considering the rankings go all the way to 75, that’s quite an accomplishment. Currently at 5-2, the men host Samford at noon and New Orleans at 5 p.m. on Saturday in doubleheader action.

The women’s team moved to 4-1 last weekend with a win over UAB, making head coach Daryl Greenan already the third-winningest coach in school history. The ladies are off this weekend and head to Rock Hill, S.C., for two matches next weekend, but they’ll be back in Starkville on Feb. 19th against Samford.

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