The Season That Never Should Have Been Finds A Finish In Omaha

These are not my words to write. It is not my story to tell.

This epic eventually became one that those around the country became enthralled with, and that Mississippi State fans committed themselves to wholly. Here, at its finish, it remains that way – an incredible journey and an unbelievable tale of which thousands just witnessed the finale.

But that’s not where this story I started. I wasn’t there when this saga began, when this roller coaster ride first started clicking and clacking down the tracks. Only a few dozen of the tens of thousands of us watching the final moments were there for its genesis.

This is not our story to tell. It’s theirs.

Star player miraculously comes back from injury, team rallies in their presence and pulls off fairy tale victory. I’ve written that story. We’ve seen that story. And it’s a good one, don’t get me wrong.

But this isn’t that kind of story. There are chapters within this tale along those lines, certainly. But neither its final word nor its last offer that same magical ending. In fact, there is very little positive to be said about the off-putting beginning or the heartbreaking tail end of this story, even if there was a great deal of inspiration in between.

This team had a whiff of destiny to it, a feeling that fate was finally on their side after very nearly everything went wrong at the start. It seemed fitting, as well, that this Mississippi State baseball team, of all the great teams this historic program has fielded, would be the one to finally break through and win a National Championship. The underdogs fighting through adversity to become MSU’s first National Champions!

It would have been a nice story. But that’s not the one that belongs to this group.

“The ride started in August,” junior outfielder Jake Mangum said. “The group of guys that don’t even have a baseball field to practice on. You’re inside every day, rain or shine, you’re inside. All the 6:00 a.m. lifts.”

And the season began: 0-3, swept by Southern Miss. Then the head coach resigns. Then you hit the road for a three-week road trip with an interim head coach, an interim staff, and no clue at all what you’re supposed to do. That’s when Gary Henderson, interim head coach, sat the team down and discussed exactly what it was they would do next.

“123 days ago we started on a journey with these guys,” he said. “It was an unbelievable time in my life for a guy who coached as long as I have, never been close to being something we were a part of.

“I asked them to create an identity. I asked them to buy into my vision. I asked the kids the same exact thing. Honesty, integrity, competitiveness. Act like men, not boys. And they did it.

“I was so proud of them. Obviously, humiliating time for the program, for the assistant coaches, for me, to be a part of something like that, total nonsense. And the players as well and their families. Nobody bought into that.

“But they bought into us and these kids bought into me, [assistant coaches] Mike Brown, A.J. Gaura, Jake Gautreau, and they did everything we asked. And it was awesome, what a great experience. Great experience for the coaches but great experience for the players.

“They learned it’s a higher education. We’re in college, and they learned fthat rom the most humble, most brutal beginnings, you can turn something into an overwhelmingly positive experience. And that’s what we’ve done. We didn’t get to the final two. We got to the final four. And I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of Mississippi State baseball.

“We had support obviously early on from Dr. Keenum, Coach Cohen and the administrative staff, all those people, our managers, they’re the best but really what you had was each other by each other. The players had the players and the coaches had the coaches and the coaches and players had each other and that was kind of it, and it was kind of rough those first three weeks on the road as you might imagine. That’s just the nature of it.

“But driving home from Baton Rouge on March 31st, 2-7 [SEC] and 14-15 [overall] and I remember talking to Jake saying we’re getting better but we’re not winning. I know we’re getting better. I was positive. So was he. We were positive that we’re getting better.

“But all you had really was faith in your own evaluation of what was going on. And then the next weekend it started to click. L.A. [Luke Alexander] turned things on Sunday with a walk-off. The next thing you know you’re beating somebody good, you won a series finally.

“Then we got on a roll. And then we just thought we were good. And then we were good.”

And that’s when much of the rest of the baseball world came in. To say that MSU had been overwhelmingly written off would be a tremendous understatement in a season built for over-exaggeration.

The Bulldogs took down the Rebels at Dudy Noble thanks to Alexander’s walk-off, and from that moment, the spell was cast. The magic was unleashed. State went on to beat three top-three teams before the regular season was even over, sweeping the No. 1 club in the country to put an exclamation point on its postseason credentials. Once selected, MSU took down a National Seed on its homefield, won five-straight elimination games, made walk-offs and come-from-behind wins seem like the norm and raced all the way to the national semifinals in the College World Series in Omaha, all while putting bananas on their heads.

It’s way too cheesy to consider saying it out loud, but it’s far too true not to express in words: this team captured the hearts of its fans. And they didn’t do it because they were good, not because they were the best or the highest-ranked or the most talented. They were loved for being the Bad News Bulldogs – for being the underdogs, not the top dogs.

Does anybody think Mangum is popular for his batting average or on-base percentage over his personality and exuberance? Who on Earth will say a grand slam defined Jordan Westburg’s season and not a slightly under-ripe piece of fruit set on top of his hat and holstered in his belt?

This story isn’t about baseball. Baseball is simply the vehicle through which it was able to be told.

The 2018 Mississippi State baseball team is unlikely to be discussed in any great detail when those in the future talk about the best teams of MSU’s past. Best is not a superlative this group ever tried to lay claim to. They just wanted to win. They wanted to compete, to enjoy a game together, to prove doubters wrong, and to prove that all their work was worth it. They wanted to make the statement that playing an entire season in an active construction site was more than just a footnote in the history of MSU baseball and its facilities.

This team will be remembered for rally bananas and bleached hair, rain delays and black uniforms. It will be remembered for reaching the Promised Land when every prognosticator in the game expected it to spend the year wandering through the desert.

Who knows what the future holds? Coaches, roster, stadium – they all get the same warning: under construction. Please pardon our progress.

But pardon me, pardon this team, if it wasn’t willing to be swept away like the dust from saws and drills covering the New Dude every day as construction continues.

No one would have faulted this team for giving up when things looked impossible. No one could have blamed them. No one except for themselves, that is. Whatever potential they saw in themselves that so many others did not, they fought for it. They fought with it, and eventually they saw it realized.

This was a team that only reached the peak because it went to the depths of the valley first. That this story ended with a loss seems only appropriate for a team that showed victory can be built on despair.

The final words have been written, the last out recorded on a season that most thought should never have been. This tale was theirs to write, and now it’s one that all will remember.

“It’s a story that’s unbelievable,” Mangum said.

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23 hours, Six Bus Rides And One Big Win In Omaha

3:30 p.m. Monday, Omaha Doubletree

Mississippi State’s baseball team walks through a tunnel of fans as it loads the bus to head to TD Ameritrade Park for its second game of the College World Series, a winner’s bracket matchup with North Carolina.

3:50 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

The Bulldogs arrive at the stadium and discover the first game of the day – the loser’s bracket matchup between Oregon State and Washington – is in a rain delay.

4:45 p.m., in transit

After an hour of sitting in a holding room, MSU decides to bus back to the team hotel and wait out the rain delay in comfort.

7:50 p.m., in transit

Still unsure if the weather will cooperate, the team returns to the stadium for batting practice and warm-ups after the NCAA announces play will resume between OSU and UW, with the MSU-UNC game set to begin 65 minutes after its conclusion.

9:15 p.m., in transit

The NCAA announces that MSU’s game will in fact not be played until the following morning at 10 a.m. After a quick chat in the locker room going over the new itinerary, the bus is loaded for the fourth time of the day and the team returns to the Doubletree for the night.

“We came together and we were like, we don’t care when we play,” freshman All-American Tanner Allen says. “If you asked us two weeks ago, do you want to play at six in the morning in Omaha? We’d have been like, heck yes. We really didn’t care.”

6:40 a.m. Tuesday, Omaha Doubletree

The wake-up call comes for MSU players, including a reminder to be at team breakfast by 7 a.m.

7:30 a.m., Omaha Doubletree

As rain falls yet again, MSU loads the bus for the fifth time to play UNC in the College World Series.

“Everybody’s double-fisting coffee,” catcher Dustin Skelton says. “They’re obnoxious. We’re playing music in the back of the bus. I mean, we’re going nuts.”

7:50 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Junior outfielder Jake Mangum, iced coffee in one hand and hot coffee in the other, strides across the locker room and yells, “I’m beaned up, baby!”

“Beaned up,” he later says with a laugh. “We were beaned up. Lot of coffee running through our veins.”

9:15 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

While MSU is taking batting practice in cages underneath the stadium, the NCAA announces another rain delay, this one relatively short, and MSU’s game is rescheduled for a 10:15 a.m. start.

10:00 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

The stadium PA announces the starting lineups for each team. When Mangum is announced, senior pitcher Zach Neff steps to the top of the dugout, takes off his cap and waves to the crowd.

“Thank you!” he yells as MSU fans applaud.

10:15 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Mangum steps to the plate and the game begins.

10:49 a.m., TD Ameritrade Park

With MSU down 1-0 in the top of the second, freshman Jordan Westburg hits a grand slam to put the Bulldogs up 4-1.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “It’s a moment every ball player wants to go through, and I was lucky enough to go through that.”

“I gave up one in the first,” starting pitcher Konnor Pilkington says, “then he comes back in the second and says, ‘Hey, I got your back.’”

1:05 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Six innings after scoring MSU’s first four runs of the game, Westburg drives in State’s final three by hitting a three-RBI double to put the Bulldogs up 12-2 in the top of the eighth inning. With seven RBI, Westburg ties the College World Series record for RBI in one game.

“A day he and his family are going to remember forever,” interim MSU head coach Gary Henderson says.

1:32 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

Clocking in at three hours and 17 minutes, the game comes to an end with MSU beating North Carolina 12-2 to advance in the winner’s bracket, one win away from the Championship Series.

“We just knew it was gonna happen,” Westburg says, “the way this season has been going.”

2:17 p.m., TD Ameritrade Park

For the sixth and final time for this game, MSU loads the team bus, victory in hand, the coffee long since dispensed and consumed.

2:30 p.m., Omaha Doubletree

23 hours after they walked out of a cheering crowd to leave for their second game in Omaha, the Bulldogs walk back into another cheering crowd after finally finishing that second game in Omaha.

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At this point, after all these hours, after nearly a month on the road between the SEC Tournament, the Tallahassee Regional, the Nashville Super Regional and the early arrival to the College World Series last Wednesday, MSU should be absolutely, completely and totally exhausted.

“We’re not,” Mangum said. “We’re not exhausted. We’re one win away from the Championship Series, and we get two off days before that.”

It must be like he said: the Bulldogs are beaned up. They’ve got their rally banana. They’re dancing to the Yodel Kid Remix. They’re pretending to be each other in team introductions.

“It’s just a bunch of rednecks having fun and playing ball,” Pilkington said.

But beneath that fun, they’re also playing with tremendous energy, with contagious passion and with apparently-unending grit.

It takes a special team, a special person, to go from making phone calls on a banana in the dugout to hitting grand slams in the College World Series in a matter of seconds.

“You’ve gotta be able to do those things,” Henderson said of the shenanigans his team gets into in the dugout, “then you’ve gotta be able to become someone else inside the box.”

And it takes a special team to follow what amounted to a 16-hour and 15-minute delay with beating a national seed by 10 runs, showing no signs of weariness for all the energy needlessly spent.

“Coach Henderson always tells us we’re going to handle everything like men, not boys,” Allen said. “Coming back and forth to the park yesterday got pretty tiring, but we were able to handle it with maturity, get in our rooms, get some rest and get ready to play this morning, and it showed.”

“I just think it’s the environment,” Skelton added. “That’s what you grew up as a little kid dreaming about. You dreamed about coming to the College World Series and playing in front of 25,000 people. You just have to go out there and you’ve got to compete. It’s all mental. Who cares how you feel? You’ve got to go out there and put it all on the line for your brothers.”

If the game is, indeed, all mental, then that may be a good sign for these Bulldogs who had every reason to doubt that they would be here and every reason to give up in the process. The hurdles they’ve faced have been well-documented, a team that was once just one loss away from not even making a Regional and is now one win away from the Championship Series.

At a school that has never won a National Championship in any team sport, this team is nearing uncharted waters. But when it comes to sink-or-swim, it’s hard to pick against the group that has 20 come-from-behind wins, six dramatic walk-offs, and one incredible story.

“The mind is a powerful thing,” Mangum said. “You can tell yourself to do anything. I’m a strong believer in the law of attraction. If you believe something is going to happen – hard enough – it’ll happen.”

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Why Not Another Walk-Off? Bulldogs Advance In Omaha

A walk-off is the most dominance-asserting move you can pull in baseball.

In one pitch, one hit, one play, you just ended the game and there is not a single thing the other team can do about it. In a sport with no clocks, it’s the equivalent of a buzzer-beater, a last-second Hail Mary, a match won on the very last penalty kick.

Hey, strikeouts or double plays are nice ways to end a game, too. But there’s nothing in baseball like a walk-off. It is, at once, the most soul-crushing and spirit-lifting way a game can possibly end. It is euphoria and elation, or tragedy and defeat, depending which side you’re on.

For the victor, the walk-off is confirmation that you, your team, your fans behind you, all somehow have that magical Stuff, that phantom It that all the greats seem to keep somewhere deep inside their chests, a secret store of confidence and clutch that can be called upon when the stakes are highest and the occasions most momentous.

And Mississippi State is completely used to it.

They’re used to the hits. They’re used to the celebrations. They’re used to the questions from reporters that follow, and even the reporters themselves are used to asking the questions by now.

The Bulldogs have seven walk-off wins this year. In fact, of the seven postseason wins that have them currently in the winner’s bracket of the College World Series, three of them are walk-offs.

It’s absolutely ridiculous. And at this point, it’s absolutely normal.

For eight-and-a-half innings Saturday night, no one scored.

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The game turned to the bottom of the ninth at a 0-0 tie, the Washington Huskies and the Mississippi State Bulldogs seemingly ready to take one of the greatest pitching duels Omaha has seen into extra innings. It was the longest a game had gone scoreless at the College World Series since 1985.

But anyone who had been watching MSU in 2018 knew what was coming. It’s what they’ve been doing all year. Just when you think nothing is going to happen, well, things happen.

Senior pitcher Jacob Billingsley, one of the stars of the last two postseasons for his program, has watched all seven walk-offs from the same spot this year: the dugout. Thanks to his position, he’s had a front row seat complete with all the stress that comes with the situation, but without any of the opportunity to actually do something about it.

“Our games are too close for comfort for me right now,” he joked. “I’ve got anxiety through the roof watching our games.”

However, he’s quick to point out, the presence of anxiety does not mean there is a lack of belief. In fact, he was so confident as the bottom of ninth began that he was already planning his celebration for when his team inevitably had its next great moment in a long string of great moments.

But back to the game for a minute. They still had to play it, even if everyone in the third base dugout – as well as thousands of people in the stands wearing maroon and three wearing bananas – knew what was going to happen.

Junior Hunter Stovall was at the plate, which seems to happen to him a lot in these situations. Call it Fate. Call it Coincidence. Or maybe just call it a well-designed batting order.

“Seeing that happen,” Billingsley said, “it’s almost like you expect to have a lead-off knock.”

Here, of course, is where Stovall did, indeed, have a lead-off knock, a single to put a man on base with no outs. It’s important to note that, at the time, the game had not yet technically been won. But Billingsley knew what was coming, anyway.

“You get it and it’s like, yeah, it’s over with,” Billingsley said. “Then, of course, Mac gets a knock right after that.”

That would be the second batter of the inning, junior Elijah MacNamee. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

So the Bulldogs had runners on first and second with no outs. Perfect situation. And then a bad thing happened because, clearly, perfect situations just aren’t what this team is about. An attempted bunt went up instead of down, an out given to the Huskies without a runner advancing, without an advantage being gained. In a game where opportunity had been so hard to come by, it was the kind of moment that could have deflated an MSU team swelled up with confidence.

“You never lose hope,” Billingsley said, explaining that the thought of losing – or worse, not winning – had never crossed their minds. “I hadn’t even thought about it.”

He was already on to watching the next batter, Luke Alexander, yet another Bulldog that the Gods of Well-Designed Batting Orders have seen fit to bless with opportunities for grandeur.

Billingsley continued: “I was in the dugout thinking already, if we get a knock, they’re sending Stovy no matter where it is, if it gets through the infield. And I’m just thinking, I can’t go jump up and down anymore.”

Yes. In Omaha, at the College World Series, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, here is a team that is literally so experienced in celebrating it has started to consider the toll it might take on, say, one’s knees, one’s joints, one’s blood pressure.

Which is all well and nice to think in the quiet moments before the loud moment comes, of course. But when reality hits, all thoughts of energy conversation quickly disappear.

Anyway, two on, one out, 0-0 game, regular-wielder of It at the plate.

Then, in two pitches, Alexander was already down 0-2 in the count. Because why on Earth would he ever go ahead and do it on the first pitch? No, not this team’s style. Too easy.

“We’re one of those teams that gets to two strikes and it’s almost like we’re better at putting it into play with two strikes than the first pitch,” Billingsley said.

The outfielders drew in closer to the infield, hoping to avoid a sacrifice fly ending the game. Billingsley stood in the dugout expecting a walk-off. Alexander stood at the plate expecting an outside slider.

And so the outside slider came. The bat leapt out to meet it. The reach was just enough as contact came, the ball cut through the wind, and the missile sailed just over the outstretched glove of the rightfielder desperately and pointlessly sprinting back from his post in shallow right.

Stovall bolted down the basepath, thousands of maroon-clad and three in bananas arose, and when the final moment came, that euphoria-inducing last second passed, Billingsley couldn’t help himself. He jumped.

“Of course I jumped up and down,” he said. “I was jumping up and down in the dugout trying to get up the steps. Everybody’s trying to get up the steps, jumping the fence. It’s almost like we shouldn’t be surprised. I was thinking about it before it even happened, and of course everybody else was. It ended up happening and it’s like, welp, might as well. We’ve done it so many times already.”

The sport’s ultimate style of victory, baseball’s most dramatic possible ending, boiled down to “might as well.” Already done it six times, what’s one more? For a team that didn’t even think it would make the SEC Tournament a few months ago, for a team with five elimination game wins in the postseason, for a team with 20 come-from behind wins, why not keep the drama going?

1-0, Dogs win.

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“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Stovall said. “When situations like that come up, we as a team have complete confidence in whoever is at the plate that it’s going to happen just because Coach Henderson has made us be dogs, be grinders. So we get in the box and we have absolutely full confidence that we’re going to get it done.”

“We’re starting to get to a spot where I’m not even worried about the popped up bunt, that kind of moment,” interim head coach Gary Henderson said. “Coaches know that it can take the air out of you or get you sidetracked, you can feel sorry, self-pity, all those things. But we just don’t go there at this point. It makes you feel really good to be with a group of people that are like that.”

“I don’t know,” starting pitcher Ethan Small said with a shake of his head. “I’ve never been on a team like this. We just don’t quit. There’s never anybody who’s like, oh man we might lose. It’s always just, we’re gonna win. It’s very special.”

“It’s just a lot of dogs,” Alexander concluded. “That’s really what it is.”

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Underdog Bulldogs Back In College World Series

Of course I’m sitting in a hotel room at 2 a.m. writing this story.

What else should I have expected? What other result than the one we witnessed should any of us have expected from this Mississippi State baseball team? What different road could anyone have possibly expected them to take except the absolute most difficult one possible?

Of course that’s what happened. 11 innings. An early lead. Then an early deficit. Then a tie game mid-way through, followed by another lead late, naturally replaced by yet another tie in the bottom of the ninth.

Nothing has ever been easy for this team, so why should the game – the entire weekend, really – that sent Mississippi State to the College World Series for the 10th time be any different?

This is the team that didn’t even have a field to practice on in the fall and had to drive two hours away to Jackson just to have some actual scrimmages. This is the team that went through the preseason practices on an active construction site, that got swept on opening weekend, that lost its head coach days later and that then started a two week road trip, ultimate playing a record-low 23 games at home in 2018.

Baffling non-conference losses were followed by a 2-7 start to SEC play.

And then the Bulldogs beat three top-five teams, including a sweep of the No. 1 team in the country to finish the regular season. They won four-straight elimination games in Tallahassee – because just advancing through the winner’s bracket would have been far too easy – to win a Regional and move on to a Super against Vanderbilt in Nashville.

So of course I’m sitting here at 2 a.m. after a game that was supposed to start at 5 p.m. and didn’t end until well after midnight.

I probably should’ve been writing this at, say, the reasonable hour of 12:30 a.m. But a three-run lead for State in the ninth quickly turned into a tie game that went into extras. Like everything else this year, MSU just had to do things in the most difficult way possible. It wasn’t their choice, of course. It just seems that the gods of baseball have fated this team to dramatics, have cursed it with a path of adversity and have blessed it with a flair for theatrics.

So how else would they have punched their ticket to Omaha?

“I was thinking about that in the 10th inning,” junior outfielder Jake Mangum said. “Why wouldn’t we blow a lead in the ninth and win it in extra innings? This year has been a roller coaster. It speaks volumes about this team’s character.”

Gary Henderson, the interim head coach who used to be the pitching coach and was never supposed to be the head coach, shared the sentiment.

“We gave up three in the ninth and we won,” he said with a mix of exasperation and pride. “That speaks to character, that speaks to belief, to single-mindedness, to toughness and to sticking with it.”

What did he expect? That was the most appropriate way possible for this team to get to the College World Series, and he’s been there the whole way through to vouch for it.

Even the opposing head coach couldn’t help but be in awe of what he saw from the opposite dugout. Tim Corbin is one of the great coaches in college baseball, and he also is acutely aware of the season the Bulldogs have had. After all, it was his Commodores of Vanderbilt that swept MSU in Starkville on the opening weekend of SEC play, only to see those lost-in-the-desert Bulldogs come back to bite when the sport’s ultimate destination was on the line.

“They rose above it,” Corbin said of the adversity MSU has faced. “Maybe because of it. They’re a tough team. There’s just no give-in to them whatsoever.

“You have to credit their kids. They came to our place, were the visiting team two games in a row, and they won, fair and square.

“It’s unbelievable, when you think about it,” he finished. “They don’t give in. They do not give in. They make you work.”

They make themselves work, too. And their fans. Their coaches. Their umpires. Their scoreboard operators. All of them. All of the people. There’s no easy way to be around this team. But there’s no lack of entertainment, either. No lack of excitement. No lack of whoops and yells, of screams and howls, of runs and wins, of fist-pumps and walk-offs.

This team does it the hard way, but they do it the best way. They do it with flair, with personality, with drama. They write their season the way a playwright pens a Shakespearean tragedy, but in this case, the good guys emerge victorious. The home team is also the winning team, even when they’re technically the visiting team.

This team has something special. Something ineffable. Something unseen, something untouched, and something altogether clear and obvious all the same. They’ve got It, capital I, whatever It is.

They’ve got Jake Mangum and Elijah MacNamee. They’ve got Gary Henderson and Jake Gautreau. They’ve got no-names and big names. Xs and Os, Joes and Schmoes. They’ve got clutch pitching and hitting, just enough of both to make up for a lack of either on any given night. When things go wrong, they find a way to make them right.

20 come-from-behind wins. Five-straight elimination games gone by without a loss. From SEC afterthought to nationwide juggernaut. 10-1 against Top 10 teams.

To say this team shouldn’t be here is unfair. They were supposed to occupy this spot from the start. It’s not their fault no one else saw it coming.

It’s 4 a.m., and of course I’m writing this. Of course I’m writing it now. Of course I’m writing it today.

Of course this team, of all the teams across the country, is headed to Omaha.

What else did you expect?

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Walk-Off Part II: Return Of The Mac

Easton. Easton. Easton.

Repeat the word in your head.

Easton. Easton. Easton.

Stare at the name on the bat, take a deep breath, and repeat the word in your head until your heart rate falls to a steady pace.

This is not a commercial for Easton bats. Nor is it an exercise at some kind of strange baseball-themed yoga retreat.

Deep breath.

Easton. Easton. Easton.

Read the word, repeat the word, breathe, step back to the plate, then absolutely crush an off-speed pitch over the left field wall and go on to sprint and jump and dance and yell around the bases before plunging into a pile of your screaming teammates at home plate because sweet mother you just won the game on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.

Easton. Easton. Easton…

Boom.

I’ve written this story before. You’ve read this story before. Heck, it was only six days ago; half of us are still watching the replay of the last one every few hours because we can’t still can’t get over it. And now we’re watching basically the same replay again, with just a few minor changes. The teams are different. Last week it was Florida State in a Regional. This time it’s Vanderbilt in a Super Regional. Saturday was a three-run bomb to come from behind and take the lead. Friday was a two-run shot to break a tie.

And they were both hit by Elijah MacNamee, two-strike dingers in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. Upon reaching strike two in each situation, the junior-outfielder-turned-bomb-factory held his right hand up to the ump at home plate, asking for a timeout. He then stepped away from the box, leaned back a little and let his weight roll to his heels. On each occasion, he looked from the plate down the foul line and up to the top of the foul pole, then he spun his bat so that he could clearly see and read the name of the bat manufacturer – Easton.

“I stepped out and just slowed everything down,” MacNamee explained just minutes after his second walk-off in a week. “When I look at my bat, I honestly read the emblem that says Easton. I read it over and over until my mind is just thinking that and I get my mind off of everything else so I can regroup and get back in and focus and not be so sped up. It’s just a slowing my heart rate down kind of thing.”

Makes sense, especially in high pressure situations like those. Add in the fact that MacNamee is an excitable dude – his animated celebrations aren’t limited to walk-offs, even if those tend be the best ones – and it’s easy to see how the heart rate of a 21-year-old SEC baseball player in the prime of his life could get a little high.

The calming trick seems to be working, though, and not just because it helps give him a smooth follow-through or anything like that. It’s helping him focus and think. In both situations, MacNamee’s eyes were intensely focused on the pitcher’s hands, observations quickly being analyzed as synapses fire and in the split second allowed for thinking before the ball comes a realization is made and a conclusion determined, a course of action settled upon that will ultimately decide the outcome of the game.

The slight calm is enough to bring the storm.

“I saw the pitcher wiggle his glove. It was the first time he’d wiggled his glove in three at-bats,” MacNamee said. “I knew he wasn’t coming with the fastball so I just kept my hands back as long as I could and got a pitch I could handle.”

So the pitch came, and we all watched the moment we witnessed last week unfold again. A low breaking ball, a changeup MacNamee saw coming as he waited as long as he could before turning his hands, throwing his arms forward and twisting his body as he sent the ball back where it came from, out of the park and out of his way as he first pointed to his teammates in the dugout as he approached first, pointed to the MSU fans in the stadium as he rounded the base, danced with his arms wide as he ran through the second, and the moment he turned at third and saw his teammates waiting on him at home he started stamping his cleated feet, threw his helmet into the air with no regard for where it landed and elatedly took those final steps back to the plate where the home run first began.

Bulldogs win – Mississippi State in a walk-off.

I’ve written this story before. You’ve read this story before. But in the best stories, you find something new the second time around you didn’t notice at first.

Deep breath.

Easton. Easton. Easton…

Boom.

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Around The Stadium For MacNamee’s Walk-Off Winner

Becky Mock was working off some nervous energy as she walked around Dick Howser Stadium. A dedicated Mississippi State baseball fan who has been something like a second mother to dozens of players over the years, she was waiting out a fairly stressful two-and-a-half hour rain delay. Her Bulldogs were down 2-0 to Florida State, and whenever play resumed, there was only one inning left. FSU would bat first, then MSU would have one last shot in the bottom of the ninth. The winner advanced in the Tallahassee Regional. The loser would see their season end right there.

Becky’s path took her near the area where many of MSU’s players were gathered shortly before the delay ended. She heard shouts of confidence from the group, cheers and yells as the guys encouraged each other. All of the sudden she was grabbed and spun around by one of the yelling voices. Konnor Pilkington, a star junior pitcher for MSU, was as filled with “excitement and energy” as Becky had ever seen him.

“We got this!” Pilkington reassured her. “We only need one inning. All we need is one!”

————————————

Mason Ramsey is the yodel kid.

Don’t worry, this is going somewhere.

Mason Ramsey is the yodel kid who unexpectedly gained fame for a video of his yodeling, and not long after it came out, someone made an electronic dance remix of the tune. MSU’s athletic marketing department decided to play the remix one day at a baseball game, turning the tune on while MSU was trailing and Ole Miss had a pitcher warming up in the ninth. A few minutes later, State’s Luke Alexander hit a walk-off home run to win the game and the series.

Since then, MSU has only played the song during opposing pitcher warmups when the Bulldogs are trailing in the ninth. And it’s resulted in a win every time, leading to the team embracing the yodel as its rally cry.

Naturally, during the rain delay in Tallahassee while MSU’s team was gathered in a weight room hanging out and watching the exceedingly average film Grown Ups, someone started playing the yodel kid remix.

“It was really relaxed and laid back,” junior Jake Mangum said of the moment. “Even though we were three outs away from our season ending, we were watching Grown Ups in the weight room.”

“And listening to that yodel remix,” junior Elijah MacNamee interrupted to remind his teammate.

“Yes, Mason Ramsey, thank you,” Mangum amended. “Thank you, Mason Ramsey.”

A few minutes later when MSU returned to the dugout, Mangum was seen standing at the front singing his own cover of the song.

———————————–

Jim Ellis is MSU’s long-time radio announcer, and he doesn’t believe in that stuff, as he quickly exclaimed when told the story of the lucky yodel song. He believes in baseball players playing baseball.

He also, however, believes in precedent.

During the rain delay, Ellis was talking with Jason Walker from MSU’s ticketing office. They were remembering a similar such situation the Bulldogs had been in before, back in 2011 when MSU was trailing in the ninth inning and facing elimination against the Florida Gators in game two of a Super Regional. As loyal Bulldogs know, Nick Vickerson hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat UF and keep State’s season alive that day.

“Well,” Walker mused, “maybe we can do it again.”

————————–

Gary Henderson is MSU’s interim head coach, a unique position he found himself in less than one week into the 2018 season back in February. Now, it’s early June, and any game could potentially be his last as the head coach.

After the delay, he first watched as his sophomore reliever Riley Self got through the top of the inning with relatively little trouble, giving up zero runs and keeping the deficit at two runs.

Then, in the bottom of the inning, the last chance for his team, for his season, two of his batters were walked and two went down as outs. Mangum was on second base as a result of a walk. Junior Hunter Stovall was on first for the same reason. And MacNamee was at the plate with two outs, two strikes, two on, and a chance to do everything from win the game outright to end the season right there.

“I nudged [assistant coach Jake] Gautreau,” Henderson recalled, “and I said, ‘Hey man, Mac can run it up the scoreboard right here’. We say those things in the dugout all the time, but that happened. I’m not calling the shot, but I’m saying there’s belief. I wasn’t going to go down the other path.”

—————————–

Stacy Mangum is Jake Mangum’s mother. She was on her feet in the stands when MacNamee was at the plate. She was standing next to MSU’s associate athletic director Rhett Hobart, clutching a decorative ladybug pinned to her shirt, eyes darting back and forth between her son at second, the pitcher on the mound and MacNamee at home.

Down at second base. The younger Mangum was switching his gaze back and forth between the pitcher and his teammate at home.

“I’m standing on second with a 1-2 count,” Mangum said. “Mac steps out. I kinda took a deep breath like, ‘Oh gosh, Mac, get this done for us, I don’t want to go home.’”

————————

Elijah MacNamee is the hero of this story. Standing at home plate where a fastball had just sped past him, he heard the swell of the crowd around him, the noise growing into an echoing din around the stadium. Leaving his left hand on the bat as it hung in the air over his shoulder, MacNamee removed his right hand and held it out, palm facing the umpire, signaling that he wanted a brief timeout from the battle between he and the pitcher.

“He had a rhythm going,” MacNamee said. “With all their fans standing up and going crazy, just out of anyone’s instincts, your emotions start going everywhere, so I stepped out of the box and took a breather. Then I got back in the box and said ‘keep fighting.’”

————————–

Jake Mangum saw the next pitch was coming before it even happened.

“I saw the change up in his glove,” Mangum said. “I wanted to scream at him that a change up is coming.”

———————–

“That pitch was there all day,” MacNamee confirmed. “Change up. I just told myself to scoot up far as I could in the box and see it out. I knew after the fastball before that he was coming with something. He was all over the change up.”

————————

Mike Martin is a legend in college baseball, the decades-long coach of Florida State baseball who built the Seminoles into the power they are today.

He saw that pitch coming, too. And it’s exactly what he wanted. Low and outside, the change up that had been working all day for the pitcher who had thrown every pitch of the game.

“He knows he made the right pitch to the right spot,” Martin said. “For a guy to hit that ball… It was a great pitch. Best you’re gonna get out of that is a ground ball, usually.”

———————————–

And it was a great pitch. But it was a great pitch that MacNamee knew was coming. It was a great pitch that MacNamee knew he was going to put over the outfield wall before he even made contact. That’s when the ball came his way.

——————————-

Ethan Small is a junior pitcher and typical Saturday starter for MSU. Small pitched a stellar six innings against FSU and was watching from the dugout when MacNamee’s bat cut through the air toward the 1-2 pitch.

“I blacked out,” Small said.

——————————

Ellis watched the pitch and the swing from his seat in the radio booth as he made the call on the final play of the game.

“And the pitch… and here’s a ball in the air. Deep in the outfield. Got a chance, got a chance…”

—————————

Meanwhile, MacNamee was finishing the swing he knew would win the game.

“To be completely honest, it was one of those things,” MacNamee said. “Out of his hand, I knew … At the plate it just looked like it was right there. I hit it and I knew it was gone. I blacked out and didn’t even know what just happened. I felt like I was running down the third base line. Then I realized: I’m rounding first and I just won the game.”

————————-

“Gone!” Ellis roared into the microphone. “Three-run homer! MacNamee! MacNamee, leaping around the bases. Mississippi State has shocked Florida State and will stay alive and play some more in 2018.”

—————————

“The ball went off and I just turned to Rhett like, “We won!” Stacy Mangum said. “And we just jumped and jumped and jumped.”

—————————

The ball had flown over the left field wall in front of the scoreboard, scoring the three runs MSU needed to beat FSU, to stay alive and to fulfill the destiny they so fervently believed was theirs.

“It’s just one of those things where you believe in yourself and your team that good things are gonna happen,” MacNamee said.

———————-

After the game, as players and fans mixed together outside MSU’s dugout, Konnor Pilkington saw Becky Mock nearby. With a big smile on his face, he yelled a reminder of what he had so confidently stated during the rain delay.

“I told you all we needed was one!”

————————–

“This year’s been a crazy one,” Mangum mused as he tried to make sense of the finish. “This team fights … This team’s an emotional roller coaster … We’re bulldogs. It’s nothing you can really explain. This team has been a lot of fun to watch in big games.

“We’re not done yet.”

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Unlikely Bulldogs Begin Postseason In Tallahassee Regional

It’s hot in Florida.

That’s no revelation, but man, standing on the turf outside the dugout, wrapped in the humidity of inland Florida, the sun bearing down on neck and arms with no barrier save the occasional wisp of cloud – it’s pretty hot. Some might say miserable.

But out on the field – around the base paths, behind home plate, on the mound and in the outfield – players and coaches alike are running, jumping and swinging around like a bunch of kids playing in an air-conditioned McDonald’s Playplace. They’re pumped to be out there in the middle of a hot day, pumped to be sweating out water faster than they can replenish it from the coolers in the dugout, and most of all, they’re pumped to still be playing baseball.

Mississippi State’s players had every reason to mail it in. They spent their whole preseason practicing indoors with their stadium under construction. Forget the fact that they only had somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 home games during the season as they traveled across the country for the non-conference schedule. MSU might be the only team in the country that had to go on the road for their own intra-squad scrimmages, driving two hours away from Starkville to finish their fall practices in Jackson, Mississippi.

Then the Bulldogs got swept on opening weekend, lost their head coach days later and started a two-week bus and plane trip through Texas with no clue what their future held as hard non-conference losses were followed by three-straight series losses to start SEC play.

Now, inconceivably, MSU is in Tallahassee as the No. 2 seed in Florida State’s NCAA Regional as one of the hottest teams in the country.

Time after time, State’s players could have given up, especially the seniors and draft-eligible juniors who may be gone by the end of the year anyway. It wouldn’t have been fun to watch, but few could have blamed this team if they took the “interim” tag of their head coach seriously and just tried to get to the end of the year as quickly and painlessly as they could.

So what happened? How did a team that looked like it wouldn’t even make the SEC Tournament turn it around to become the most dangerous two-seed in the NCAA Tournament? What changed? Why are they here in the hot Tallahassee sun, with all possibilities still in front of them, absolutely thrilled to be on the field?

“I mean, I could give you the stereotypical ‘freshmen evolved and people bought in’ line,” junior outfielder Jake Mangum said. “But to be honest with you, we just kept going. Honestly, just kept going. In the fall, we had every excuse to say we weren’t ready. Only three practices on a baseball field. We were inside every day. No one in the country does that. We were on the road all year. Only had, what, 20 home games? That’s an all-time low for Mississippi State. We’re a young team with an interim head coach.

“[Interim head coach Gary Henderson] has done an amazing job,” Mangum continued “Our coaching staff never allowed us to give up. They stayed positive and they stayed on us the whole time and just never gave up. I think the most important thing is that every time we put on this uniform, we treat it with the utmost respect. Whether we’re 2-7 in the SEC, or 15-15 going into the tournament. Whether we’re 0-3 and our head coach is gone, we just never gave up.”

Keeping it up ended up working out for MSU when it followed up the 2-7 SEC start with a 13-8 run that included three series wins over top-three teams. In the span of a few weeks, the Bulldogs went from bottom-of-the-conference afterthought to the last team any host school wanted to see coming to their Regional in June.

Junior infielder Hunter Stovall shared a similar sentiment to his outfield teammate. Cheesy or clichéd as it may sound, they’re playing for pride, he said, for the game, for the name on the front of their jersey that represents one of the most storied baseball programs the country has known. It’s not just that it’s embarrassing to give up – it’s embarrassing to give up in a Mississippi State uniform.

“We look at it, as a team, that we’re here to carry on a legacy that was made previous to us even being here,” Stovall said. “It’s the game. We’re not out here to just mess around and lose. We’re out here to win. That’s what we go about every single day. We try to instill in the minds of every player that hey, we’re here to win. We’re not here to mess around. It doesn’t matter the circumstances – it’s still the game of baseball.”

The critical moment in the season came after that 2-7 start to SEC play that Mangum has often mentioned, that his teammates have often mentioned and that Henderson has often mentioned. The number of times those inside the dugout have brought up that stretch of bad baseball makes it clear how strong the stench of loss truly was. That wasn’t good baseball. It wasn’t winning baseball. As they well know, it wasn’t Mississippi State baseball.

At a point when it seemed they would never escape the rut, the No. 3 team in the country came to town, bitter in-state rival Ole Miss. If MSU didn’t pull it together then, they might never, and they knew it. When they took the field for game one, they were mad. Not at the name “Ole Miss” on the jerseys in the opposite dugout. Not just that, anyway.

MSU’s players were mad at themselves. They were frustrated that the season seemed to be slipping away. And they didn’t direct that ire at outside people or circumstances. They didn’t take advantage of the many excuses available to them. They took on the failures as their personal responsibility to correct and the process had to start then.

Call it serendipity that the Rebels were on the receiving end of the fire.

“Sitting there at 2-7 with one of the top teams in the country coming in – who we don’t like at all,” Mangum began as a preface. “We jumped on them game one kind of out of frustration from the bad start [to the season]. Game two they came back and punched us in the mouth. Game three was just an all-out dog fight.”

Ultimately, MSU took the series, the pride and all the confidence that came with it. It wasn’t their first non-loss of the season, but it was the first thing that felt like a real win for the team, and it sparked plenty more as the season went along, including another series win against another No. 3 team and a sweep of No. 1 Florida to finish the regular season.

“We know we can beat anybody in the country,” Mangum said, “and that weekend was the first weekend of that.”

“It just gave us confidence,” Stovall added. “It just let us know that we are good enough to win against teams that are supposed to be good. We can fight with the best of the best. We swept Florida. We’re an unbelievable baseball team. The sky is the limit for us, we just have to go into every game with the right mindset, pitch by pitch, and control the things we can control and not worry about all the other outside stuff.”

Coaches and players alike knew from the start of the year that they had a talented team, and the fact that they could beat anybody in the country was one they knew before the season even began, even if it didn’t feel that way for a little while.

But now, MSU is playing like the team it always knew it could be, excuses be darned. While so many other teams around the country are sitting at home watching baseball on TV, the Bulldogs are still alive, starting Regional play with the confidence and belief that they can beat anybody they face. No one expected it back in the days of 2-7, but State’s season is far from over.

“I’m really proud of this team,” Mangum said in summation. “It’s been a crazy, crazy, crazy year.”

If the final act is anything like the rest of the show, an entertaining finish awaits.

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100 Things To Look Forward To About Football Season

In exactly 100 days, according to the experts down the hall who I still have not deemed completely innocent in the Case of the Missing Leftover Pizza, Mississippi State football will kick off the 2018 season. In dedication of such a momentous occasion, I’ve skipped the libation, gone right past beration and landed square on expectation in this list of 100 Things To Look Forward To For The 2018 Football Season. (It’s a working title.)

This list is completely of my own devising, and though it comes from years of experience with football seasons as both a fan and a working media member contributing to society, it does not necessarily reflect the views of Mississippi State University. Retweets are not endorsements, et cetera, et cetera.

With a new head coach, high preseason expectations, and an ever-growing restaurant and retail scene in Starkville, there are a great many things to be excited about as the football season quickly approaches at a snails pace. Here are 100 of them, in an organized but not-quite-particular order.

  1. The debut of new head coach Joe Moorhead, obviously
  2. And the explosive passing game he promised day one and then exhibited in the spring game
  3. Nick Fitzgerald passing touchdowns
  4. Nick Fitzgerald rushing touchdowns
  5. Nick Fitzgerald receiving touchdowns, maybe?
  6. Nick Fitzgerald breaking the all-time SEC record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
  7. I think we’re all just excited to see Nick Fitzgerald back in a game, are we agreed on that?
  8. But it’ll also be cool to see Keytoan Thompson after the great bowl performance he had
  9. Maybe both quarterbacks at the same time?
  10. The Dawg Walk
  11. The renovations to the club level on the east side
  12. Jeffery Simmons sackin’ dudes
  13. Montez Sweat sackin’ dudes
  14. The debut of Chauncey Rivers sackin’ dudes
  15. Really just the whole defense in general
  16. But I should specifically mention Errol Thompson getting to follow up on his breakout performance last year
  17. And Gerri Green coming off the edge is gonna be pretty cool, too
  18. Cam Dantzler, Jamal Peters, yeah, should probably mention those guys
  19. MSU cheese!
  20. Don’t forget Mark McLaurin, he’s really good
  21. Cory Thomas, Braxton Hoyett, Leo Lewis, Johnathan Abram, Willie Gay
  22. Man, there are a lot of these dudes
  23. Brian Cole and Aaron Odom get to make their debuts
  24. MSU ice cream!
  25. Fletcher Adams, Marquiss Spencer, Kobe Jones, Chris Rayford, seriously this defense is loaded
  26. MSU peanut butter! Did you know MSU makes peanut butter? Because they do and it’s great
  27. Halftime performances by the Famous Maroon Band
  28. The train whistle after big runs by Aeris “A-Train” Williams
  29. The cannon blast after touchdowns
  30. The fireworks after touchdowns
  31. The fight song after touchdowns
  32. Being confident the extra point will be made after touchdowns
  33. Not even caring when the person next to you spills their drink all over your polo because who’s worried about stains right now, Nick Fitzgerald just trucked the mess outta that guy at the goal line
  34. Cowbell Yell
  35. The Maroon-White cheer
  36. The State spell out
  37. Watching the numbers next to “Mississippi State” get better and better every time a new poll comes out
  38. The debut of Austin Williams at receiver
  39. The debut of Stephen Guidry at receiver
  40. The debut of Devonta Jason at receiver
  41. Pretty excited about these new receivers, y’all
  42. Oh and Malik Dear is gonna be back from injury
  43. Keith Mixon, too
  44. Health is important, take care of your body, friends
  45. The land rush in The Junction on Friday afternoon
  46. The Junction on Saturday morning, afternoon and night
  47. Cornhole
  48. It’s not called “bags,” northerners
  49. Bulldog Bash
  50. The new recruiting lounge, for those lucky enough to spend time in it
  51. Did I mention how nice it will be for MSU to have Jace Christmann back at kicker?
  52. And basically the entire offensive line?
  53. And it’s entire stable of running backs?
  54. I’m legit pumped to see what Moorhead does with Kylin Hill out of the backfield
  55. I’m writing this at Bin 612 and they asked me to give them a shoutout
  56. Tell them about our tacos and pizzas
  57. Nah, let’s go with our salmon sliders and salmon salad, salmon is super trendy this year
  58. Bin 612 does have a great patio, I should add
  59. Ooh and so does Bulldog Burger Company with the shade for hot days and fire pits for cold days
  60. Being outside is great, especially for the inevitable and unexpected late October suntan you get during that 2:30 CBS kickoff
  61. The energy in Davis Wade Stadium before kickoff
  62. The team singing the alma mater with the student section after the game
  63. Getting to act like you’re a student again, because gameday
  64. Actually being a student on gameday
  65. Walking through the Cotton District on Fridays and Saturdays when the sun is out and the people are all around and everyone is wearing maroon and white and life is just grand
  66. Ringing cowbells
  67. Bob, can we specifically mention to Ring Responsibly? Thanks, John Cohen
  68. Seeing all your old friends
  69. Making a bunch of new friends
  70. Celebrating touchdowns with strangers
  71. Singing along for the “Go State!” cheer
  72. Getting mad at the students for going too fast on the “Go State!” cheer
  73. Yelling “Hail State!” after MSU first downs
  74. Stuffing yourself on food all weekend because calories don’t count on gameday
  75. The crawfish dip at Restaurant Tyler comes to mind
  76. So does their BBQ okra, and fried chicken, and pepperjack mac and cheese, and smoked pork chop
  77. Mmmm, and cheese logs at The Veranda
  78. That deep fried cheeseburger at Stagger Inn would be real good right about now
  79. I’m gonna need a little Strange Brew after I eat all this
  80. Seriously, what’s going on in there, I ordered this pizza like 20 minutes ago
  81. And maybe some dessert shooters from The Grill?
  82. Or be healthy and get vegetables, they’ve got those fried broccoli bites at Harvey’s
  83. Deddrick Thomas juking people
  84. That feeling when you walk out of the concourse and see Scott Field as you step off the ramp
  85. Checking Twitter after big wins to see what everyone is saying
  86. That pulled pork grilled cheese sandwich at Two Brothers, though
  87. SEC Nation and/or College Gameday coming to town
  88. Jamal Couch, Reggie Todd and Farrod Green coming down with big catches
  89. Y’all keep an eye on Dontea Jones, too, he’s about to have a big year at tight end
  90. The new taco place the Eat Local crew is opening up
  91. Oh and the new Mugshots location over by The Mill should be really cool
  92. Jesse Jackson, MSU’s leading receiver last year, is back for more
  93. Wait how did I forget about deep dish pizza at Dave’s, I love that place, the calzones are great, too, and the chili pizza cheese sticks, man those hit the spot
  94. Did y’all realize Mark McLaurin had six interceptions last year?
  95. And that he also led the team in tackles? He had quite the junior campaign
  96. Wrapping wins in Maroon and White
  97. Speaking of wraps, Sweet Peppers Deli sounds good
  98. Finally! My pizza is here, pepperoni and jalapenos on top of hot, stringy cheese and golden dough and OW IT’S HOT okay let’s let that cool off for a second
  99. And saving the most important thing for last because it’s so big it deserves two spots

100. Getting the Egg Bowl trophy back.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Starkville

Emmanuel Lauwers had been to the United States before, but only on brief trips to San Francisco and New York City. They were great cities, certainly, but he didn’t feel like he’d really had the full American experience. So for his next trip, Lauwers flew from his home in Liege, Belgium to the starting point of his American adventure in Dallas, Texas. The plan was straightforward: hitchhike through the country all the way to Chicago where he would take a bus to Toronto and fly home out of Canada.

The journey was going smoothly for a while. From Dallas he made his way to Houston, and after his visit there he managed to get to New Orleans with little trouble. From New Orleans, Lauwers was headed to Memphis. The rides he was able to catch took him through Jackson, Mississippi and got him onto I-55, leaving him with a straight shot to Memphis.

And then his last ride dropped him off at a tiny gas station on a stretch of 55 between Jackson and Winona that was surely the inspiration for the term middle of nowhere. That’s when Lauwers’s always-present optimism began to wane. It’s not that he was worried people wouldn’t want to pick him up. He was worried there wouldn’t be any people to pick him up.

Meanwhile, Mississippi native Hays Stephens was on his way from Yazoo City back to Starkville, Mississippi. A Mississippi State fan his whole life, he was trying to get to town in time to catch the baseball game between his Bulldogs and the Florida Gators, the opening game of the last home series of the season. Somewhere in the empty stretch of highway between Jackson and Winona, Stephens pulled over at a tiny gas station to grab a few things from the convenience store.

That’s when he saw Lauwers.

“He had a sign that said, ‘I’m from Belgium. I’m hitchhiking across America,’” Stephens later recalled. “I said, ‘Man, c’mon. Get in the car and let’s go.’”

The two young men picked up a steady conversation as they drove along, and it didn’t take long for Stephens to feel sure he was safe. He hadn’t picked up a dangerous man – just a curious one.

Lauwers went on to tell him that his goal was to see the real America, not just the big cities “where all the people go and the tourists take pictures.” Halfway through the ride, Stephens had an idea.

“Man, if you really want to see real America,” Stephens said to Lauwers, “come with me to Starkville and we’ll go to this baseball game. If you’re not in a big hurry to get to Memphis, just stay with me in Starkville tonight and I’ll take you to Memphis in the morning.”

An hour later, Emmanuel Lauwers was hanging out in the Left Field Lounge eating sausage, making friends and watching a school he’d never even heard of beat the No. 1 team in the country, helped by a home run that landed just a few feet away from Lauwers himself.

Unsurprisingly, Lauwers was surrounded the entire night once people started hearing his story. At one point Stephens even apologized for introducing him to so many people.

“No,” Lauwers said, “I just went from a homeless guy to a famous guy. No one even wanted to pick me up. This is great.”

Wherever he went, Lauwers was being given food and drinks or getting offers to arrange rides and places to stay along the way. Everyone wanted to meet him and hear his story first hand, while nearly all of the new friends he made tried to convince him to stay another couple days for the rest of the series. If you think this is fun, he was constantly told, you should see what it’s going to be like on Saturday.

“People here,” someone said to Lauwers when he remarked on the kindness he’d been shown in Starkville, “people in the south, regardless of any perceptions, care about people.”

“It’s so unexpected,” Lauwers said. “It is definitely a community which makes it more easy to talk to everyone and meet everyone. It’s been really fun.”

Starkville was never the plan, though Thursday night at Dudy Noble Field was, in a certain way, always the goal. He got to see a piece of the country that most certainly was not on his itinerary and have an American experience he was quite thrilled to stumble on, a surprise look into a classic college town.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “It’s really the picture you make yourself of an American campus. There’s this stadium and all of these people running by the water and people waving their colors. It’s very cool.”

Plus, he got to see a good baseball game.

“I don’t know much about the rules,” he confessed, “but I got that we won. So that’s good.”

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Road Dawgs: A Day On The Bus With Joe Moorhead

While most of us were in the back end of the tour bus watching Beverly Hills Cop and re-runs of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Joe Moorhead sat at a table in the front of the bus right next to a window, behind the driver, and underneath a 32-inch TV screen. I don’t know if they were recruits, signees or current players he was on the phone with, but after getting into his spot, Moorhead made a round of phone calls to multiple someones to congratulate them on their good grades and offer encouragement as he reminded them of their GPA goals for the upcoming semesters.

Then he settled in to watch the History Channel. Hours and hours of the History Channel. From Starkville to Tupelo, from Tupelo to Memphis, and during the full afternoon layover in Memphis before his final Road Dawgs event of the day, Moorhead’s TV never changed.

The first time I met Moorhead, he told me one of his family’s favorite pastimes is watching the History Channel, so I shouldn’t have been surprised as the front of the bus rotated through re-runs of American Pickers and a bevy of other popular shows, as well as a few programs of the actually-historic variety. I also shouldn’t have been surprised that Moorhead’s speech at each stop of Mississippi State’s annual tour of Mississippi and the southeast included quotes from famous men of history.

Moorhead managed to quote both JFK (“The best time to build a roof is when the sun is shining.”) and Ben Franklin (“Better well-done than well-said.”) in a short speech about MSU football. Between that and his cable TV loyalties, it seemed clear that MSU’s new football coach had an appreciation for the past.

“I’m starting to get the impression you’re a history buff,” I mentioned to him on the bus to Memphis.

“I wouldn’t say ‘buff,’” he replied. “But if I had time to cultivate a hobby, that’s what it would be.

“Well,” he amended, “that and more fishing. And by that I mean doing any fishing at all.”

But even without more time to dedicate to his interests – the Civil War and the Knights Templar are two of the subjects he’d like to delve deeper into – history has found a way to wind itself into Moorhead’s daily life. Those who follow him on Twitter will regularly see him tweet pictures with a quote included, often coming from a famous leader of the past or present.

That’s nothing unusual for a football coach, of course. What makes it unique in Moorhead’s case is that is wasn’t a quote picked at random by someone on his recruiting or graphic design staff. It wasn’t a nice saying he found by Googling “quotes about leadership” or Asking Jeeves for something inspirational.

The quotes are handpicked, literally, by Moorhead himself. Sitting on a shelf in his office right now, there is a binder full of catalogued quotes that he has been assembling for years, adding to it whenever he reads or comes across a quote he likes. The binder is nearly encyclopedic in its organization, sorted by categories so he can flip right to something relevant whenever he needs it.

A picture of the notebook he showed me included the heading at the top of the page, “Little Things.” Presumably, quotes in that section are about getting the details right. Precision, Moorhead has often said, is the difference between good and great.

“My dad always said, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’”

In a day on the road with him, witnessing three variations of the same general speech, I learned Moorhead doesn’t just appreciate history’s great leaders; he emulates them.

People don’t follow leaders because they’re told to; or if they do, there’s little loyalty involved. The best leaders, the ones people will follow anywhere on their own volition, engage, then inspire.

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Joe Moorhead took an interesting tact in speaking to Mississippi State alumni across the southeast this week. He told the truth.

“Let’s be honest here,” he said. “Let’s get some things out in the open. I know y’all had some questions about me. You were worried a guy from the north wasn’t prepared for the SEC. Hey, I know y’all said it, but don’t worry, it’s OK.”

At this point he typically received a few relieved laughs.

“We’re family now. We can talk about this stuff.”

From there, Moorhead’s speech went on to outline his beliefs that good football coaches are just that – good football coaches. Good recruiters are good recruiters. And likewise, bad coaches and bad recruiters are going to be bad, no matter where they are or aren’t from.

Moorhead also opened up about the transition to the south on a personal level, joking about the “language barrier” as he’s learned the difference between “you guys” and “y’all,” “going to” and “fixin’ to,” and the more subtle difference of having a picture “made” instead of “taken.”

“Y’all are going to be proud of me,” he told the crowd. “I managed to use all three at once when I was meeting some people before one of these stops. I sound like a real southerner now.

“I asked them, ‘Y’all fixin’ to get your picture made?””

Laughter and applause tended to ensue after that one.

And truly, Moorhead said, the welcome he and his family have received has been overwhelming in its kindness.

“The term southern hospitality isn’t a concept,” he said. “It’s a reality.”

Of course, there was more to discuss with MSU fans than his personal transition. More than anything, Moorhead knew, they wanted to hear about the football team. Perhaps no question is more frequent than, “How we lookin’, Coach?

So MSU’s head coach shared his timeline for how he’s building the team ahead of his first season. The approach, he said, is much like a building a house.

Phase I is laying the foundation, and that came January through March under strength coach Anthony Piroli. It involved building strength, obviously, but with an emphasis on functional football movements. More importantly, that was the time when the culture of toughness was established.

Phase II: putting the walls up. This phase was spring football practice when an identity was developed, confidence was built, competitiveness was cultivated and the drive to dominate situational football was learned.

Phase III begins in a couple weeks – putting the roof on. From the beginning of June to the end of July, the players are on their own for summer workouts. This is when team leadership steps up. Championship teams, Moorhead has learned, must have strong leadership in the locker room.

Phase IV may seem unimportant, but to Moorhead it’s the difference between a good team and a great one: interior decorating. In preseason camp in August, the pictures will be hung. The furniture will be arranged. Fall camp is all about getting the details right and mastering the precision required to win SEC football games.

Phase V is simple: the season itself. Move-in day. Once the season begins, you live in the house you built, and that’s why preparation is so important.

And such was Moorhead’s build-up to the final point of his speech, the last annual goal he set for the team: win the Southeastern Conference. Take home the conference championship.

Certainly, that’s the goal of all 14 SEC football teams when the season begins. But how many truly think they can do it? According to Moorhead, MSU does.

“I know we have the requisite talent,” he said.

The key will be culture and belief, he said, and to emphasize that, he asked the audience to repeat after him.

“We can win the SEC,” he said.

“We can win the SEC,” they repeated back to him.

“Not good enough,” he replied. “I need you louder. I need you to believe it. Let’s try it again: we can win the SEC!”

“We can win the SEC!” the crowd roared, followed by raucous applause and cheering.

“There we go, that’s it!” Moorhead encouraged them.

“I hope y’all believe that, because I do,” Moorhead continued as his voice began to rise. “We can and we will win the SEC here. It’s gonna happen. We are no longer the Little Engine That Could. We’re past moral victories. Moral victories are for losers.”

A behind-the-scenes note illustrates Moorhead’s dedication to the idea of expecting the best. A minor hiccup in the Road Dawgs Tour came as a result of the table set up at each stop where a few trophies from the world of MSU athletics were displayed – the Governor’s Cup from the baseball team’s victory over Ole Miss, the SEC Championship trophy won by the women’s basketball team, and the Taxslayer Bowl trophy from the football team’s bowl win back in December.

That last one is what gave Moorhead pause. He doesn’t like showcasing that trophy. It’s not that he isn’t proud of the players who won it, and he certainly harbors no animosity or ill will toward those who coached the team. He just thinks the program should have its expectations higher than bowl wins. He wants to win championships. He expects to win the SEC.

“Don’t be scared to talk about it,” he said. “We talk about it with our team every day. Attitude reflects leadership. If we want them to believe it, we have to believe it, too.”

In fact, Road Dawgs wasn’t the first time Moorhead had given the brief Little Engine That Could speech. On the last day of spring practice, in the locker room after the Maroon-White Spring Game, Moorhead said the exact same thing to the team. As he announced the team captains, he sent them into Phase III where the culture required to win an SEC Championship would be established, and he did so by reminding them what they should expect to accomplish.

Instead of a quote from the depths of history, Moorhead chose a more modern exhortation as he explained to MSU fans at each stop why they need the type of confidence he wants them to have.

“Scared money don’t make money.”

Though he also shared the more traditional, “It’s not what you wish for. It’s what you work for.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he reminded the crowd before adding a personal caveat. “But I wasn’t the foreman on that job.”

At each stop, nearly all of them with crowds at or over capacity, Moorhead received a standing ovation. In the span of 20 minutes, he not only connected with those in the room, but he inspired them. If he hadn’t yet seemed like “their” coach before, he certainly did after they heard him speak.

For all the quotes in his binder, it was a simple one from a young MSU alumnus that summed up the reaction to Moorhead. Walking through the parking lot after hearing Moorhead’s speech in Memphis, he turned to a friend to express his feelings on the night.

“That guy is awesome.”

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