Cannizaro Discusses Team Mindset, Lineup Versatility In Weekly Presser

This is twice in one week now that this space has been filled with a story about an interview with Andy Cannizaro, but hey, the guy is a great quote. And not just that, but he enjoys talking and having conversation, and he’ll be the first to relay a good anecdote or story when one is available.

Today, Mississippi State’s head coach was asked, among many other things, how the decision came up to take Brant Blaylock, an outfielder who hadn’t pitched since three years ago in high school, and put him on the mound in the SEC. Of course, the reporter asking the question knew why Cannizaro used Blaylock – there wasn’t anyone else. It’s the same reason outfielder Jake Mangum has a winning record as a pitcher this year. It’s the same reason first baseman Cole Gordon is MSU’s Saturday starter on the mound.

At a certain point, it’s almost funny. And when Cannizaro told the story of how all these oddities came to pass, he elicited more than a few laughs from the small herd of reporters standing in semi-circle around him.

Typically, a journalist is trained to not use too many quotes in stories. Anything that can be said by the writer doesn’t need to be quoted from a source. If it’s just a fact, the writer can say it. Use quotes to add opinions, reactions and unique thoughts or observations.

But, in this case, Cannizaro did a great job of telling the story on his own. He doesn’t need a reporter to chop up his words and write another story. So, these are the conversations had between Cannizaro and the press today.

“With a guy like Brant,” one question began, “did you ask him to pitch, or did he come up to you and suggest it?”

Cannizaro: You know what, probably, maybe, let’s call it a month-and-a-half ago, maybe two months ago, we had so many pitchers that were hurt. Like we’ve talked about all year, it is what it is. None of these guys are getting healthy, so we’ve got a limited staff.

So, we were in a hitters meeting and I just kind of threw the question out there: “Guys, like, this is a very serious, real question. Who can pitch? Do we have anybody in this room right now that can go get us some innings, that would like to start throwing bullpens? Who pitched in high school? You know, who had a really good high school career as a pitcher?” And Blaylock was the first guy to raise his arm. He was like, “I can get them out.” That’s exactly what he did. I was like, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, give me the ball.” I said, “Beautiful. You have a pen in 45 minutes with Coach Henderson.”

So, he ran down there and threw his first bullpen and Hendu came back and was like, “Hey, that was pretty good. He’s got feel for commanding the fastball, spun the breaking ball.” It was obviously rusty; he hadn’t done it in three years. So he’s continued to throw bullpens once a week, longtoss, doing those kinds of things in case he needed to pitch. We got him on the mound three weeks ago against South Alabama. He pitched against Alabama last weekend and did a great job for us.

We talk all the time; it’s all hands on deck. Who can help Mississippi State win baseball games? And if there’s a role for you right now, with the number of guys we have on our team, you’re going to get an opportunity.

So, Brant stepped up, put his arm up and 45 minutes later he’s in a bullpen, three weeks later he’s pitching in a game, four weeks later he’s beating Alabama. It’s kinda cool, man.

We talk about taking it back to the USSSA days where you had 12 guys on the team and everybody hit and everybody pitched and everybody played every day. Our team has done a great job of embracing that part of it this year. We’ve got position players that are starting SEC weekend games. We’ve got position players playing positions that they’ve never done before. We’ve got pitchers that are pinch hitting. We’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It’s a blast to be around our group every day.

Our guys have really embraced the challenge this year and they’ve stepped up each and every day. They’re having a blast playing baseball. We want to try to create an environment where our guys love coming to the field every day, where our guys love playing as hard as they can each and every day to try to help Mississippi State win baseball games. They’ve done that and it’s such a blast to be around these guys right now.

“Did anybody else in that meeting raise their hand and say they want to pitch that we might see this year?” someone asked as a follow-up.

Cannizaro: Yeah! Cole Gordon raised his hand. Jake Mangum raised his hand. So those guys are all pitching right now. It’s been a great team to be around because they’ve bought into the team concept of doing whatever they can to help us win. All of those guys that raised their hand in that meeting have now pitched very meaningful innings for us and have won SEC ball games and done things to help our team win. It’s been really cool to watch.

“So you’re not hiding Josh Lovelady from us, is what you’re saying?”

Cannizaro: Well, I think Josh Lovelady could pitch, but it would be one of those Bugs Bunny things where he pitched, sprinted to the plate and caught it, also.

We’ve got so many great team guys now that are doing everything they can to help us win ball games. It’s a great group, like I keep saying, to be around. They bring it every day. They play as hard as they can. There’s a lot of pride with our guys in terms of just wanting to represent the past that’s been here at Mississippi State.

We have a smaller roster right now of active players than anybody in college baseball, probably. Our expectation level has never wandered at all this year. We expect to win ball games, but it’s the process of getting there that our guys have really embraced, in terms of playing a complete nine innings, being ready to do whatever you can do on any given day to help us win. So, it’s been a really cool group to be around.

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Found In Translation: How Cannizaro, MSU Are Discovering Ways To Win

When tasked with the job of interviewing important subjects and turning their answers into meaningful and explanatory stories, it’s often frustrating when those subjects respond to questions with cliché-riddled answers that offer a high word count but provide very little actual information. In sports, we often call it Coach Speak – saying a great deal while saying almost nothing at all.

In the case of Mississippi State’s baseball team, however, the clichés actually are the real answer lately. There’s more to it, of course, but at this point, head coach Andy Cannizaro is at a bit of a loss to find a better way to explain the surprise run his team has been on in the SEC. Now ranked in the Top 10 in at least one major poll, the Bulldogs have won 15 of their last 18 conference games and are off to their best start in SEC play since 1989, well before any member of this team was even born.

“I keep saying, ‘It is what it is,’ and that’s the best thing I can say about it,” Cannizaro told reporters last week.

The answer came in response to a question wondering if the team ever starts to worry about when this run will come to an end. I mean, look at the circumstances. MSU is without double-digit pitchers, has suffered injuries throughout the lineup, and is playing with that decimated roster just one season removed from losing a dozen players to the MLB Draft.

Most teams in the SEC worry about having to decide how to trim their travel roster down to 27 when the time comes. Cannizaro would be absolutely thrilled if he could get his travel roster up to 27. For any given weekend, he’s lucky to have 23, perhaps 24 available bodies, pitchers and positional players combined.

And yet, the Bulldogs are in position not only to make the NCAA Tournament, not only to potentially host an NCAA Regional, but to possibly repeat as SEC Champions. How can one make sense of that?

“Our guys have done a phenomenal job of taking it day-by-day,” Cannizaro answered by way of explanation, clichéd or not. “We don’t look at the big picture. It’s all hands on deck every single day. We play really hard. We get after teams. Our guys love to compete. We love to play. And that’s why we’ve been winning ball games, because I really feel like we play extremely hard. We don’t give up. We never think we’re going to lose. We play a complete nine innings of baseball.”

So yeah, pretty much all Coach Speak. But it’s accurate Coach Speak, which is why you can’t blame him. Break down each part of his response, and it depicts what’s happening with his MSU team.

“We don’t look at the big picture.”

At some point after MSU got swept in its first SEC series against Arkansas and before MSU swept Tennessee the next weekend in its second SEC series, the players on State’s team had a change in mindset. Up to that point, they had been seeing the injuries and losses pile up and, like many on the outside, were expecting things to fall apart. It was just too much.

But in that week between the two series, something clicked and they all finally realized or admitted that no one was coming to help. If they were going to do this thing, they were going to have to do this thing. As it’s been described to this reporter, they collectively said, forget it, we’re the only ones here, let’s do it.

At that point, they stopped worrying about the big picture, stopped worrying about everything going on and just went into every game with the plan to win, no matter what did or didn’t happen in the days or weeks before. They became a perfect example of, “We all we got, we all we need.” They decided they didn’t need anything more.

“It’s all hands on deck every single day.”

Zero exaggeration here. MSU has pulled in three positional players and stuck them on the mound – and it’s worked. Jake Mangum, the SEC Freshman of the Year last year for his hitting and fielding, has been a regular Sunday starter, and it’s by more parts will than ability. Even getting consecutive pitches to come out of the same slot is sometimes a rarity, yet he’s made it work, and as Cannizaro has shared, Mangum is having a blast doing it. He’s competitive, and this is just another way to compete.

And that’s without discussing first baseman Cole Gordon (2-0 as a starter on the mound) or Brant Blaylock, who is pitching for the first time since he was a junior in high school, yet has a 2.45 ERA and is 1-0 on the mound.

Make sense? Not really. Working? Absolutely.

“We play really hard. We get after teams. Our guys love to compete. We love to play.”

Working with what they have, MSU has taken the SEC by storm. At the plate, junior Brent Rooker gets the headlines, and deservedly so as he leads the SEC in nine offensive categories, but top-to-bottom the lineup is improving every week. In front of and behind Rooker in the lineup, Mangum (59) and junior Ryan Gridley (57) help Rooker make up three of the top six in the SEC in hits.

Meanwhile, Hunter Stovall has returned and is perhaps the best nine-hole hitter in the league, helping to turn the lineup over with steady production while guys like Cody Brown, Josh Lovelady and Tanner Poole, among others, continue to hit in either a consistent or timely manner.

All that while sophomore Konnor Pilkington just plows along as one of the best Friday night pitchers in the league and bullpen stud Spencer Price leads the entire country with 16 saves.

That’s getting after it.

“We don’t give up. We never think we’re going to lose. We play a complete nine innings of baseball.”

Well, last Friday they actually went 13, and that was in the second game of that night’s doubleheader. But the point remains valid. Crazy stat: 20 of MSU’s 28 wins have been comebacks, 11 of those in State’s 13 SEC wins. That is, perhaps, the most unbelievable part of what MSU is doing, at least once one gets past the all the injuries and personnel losses over the last 10 months.

Just as this team doesn’t seem to care if people don’t think they should win before the game starts, they apparently do not care at all if they find themselves as similar underdogs during the game. As they do every day, they’ll just find a way. They’ll MacGyver it and not just hope for the best, but expect the best.

This isn’t a cliché that came out of Cannizaro’s mouth, but it’s one that still applies: MSU doesn’t give up, no matter the circumstances.

“And that’s why we’ve been winning ball games.”

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The Two Matts: Head Coach Roberts, Assistant Walters Reunite To Lead MSU Tennis

About eight years ago, Matt Walters was a rising star on Arkansas’s men’s tennis team. Over Christmas break, he and his doubles partner were at a local athletic club just hitting around. Nothing serious, just enough to not get rusty during the time off.

Then Matt Roberts showed up. A former Arkansas star and team captain himself, Roberts was playing pro tournaments at the time, and he was helping out as an occasional volunteer coach for the Razorbacks when he was home between tournaments.

Matt Roberts at an MSU home match

The two students had no intentions of a serious practice, but the pro walking in was incapable of anything but that.

“We didn’t know he was coming,” Walters said. “He walked in and was like, ‘Let’s train.’ We thought oh, crap. We didn’t really want to, but that’s his personality. If you’re going to be on the court, you’re going to go 110 percent and you’re going to have a purpose.”

“I came in pretty cocky,” Roberts admits now. “like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this drill.’ I didn’t know at the time I was going to be a coach, but I guess I had it in my blood.”

Over the years, the two Matts went their own directions, following the career paths that felt right to them. While their time around each other dropped, tennis stayed central to what each of them did on a daily basis.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and Mississippi State fans will know that Roberts had gotten into coaching not long after his encounter with Walters in Arkansas and had gone on to become the head coach at MSU after several successful years a college assistant. Roberts is now prepared to take his team to an NCAA Tournament for the third time in his three seasons as head coach, accruing the second-best all-time winning percentage (.696) in MSU history over that span.

Matt Walters in MSU’s match vs. Tulane

Walters, on the other hand, had turned toward one-on-one coaching, a fitting role based on the way he likes to develop relationships. By last summer, he was at IMG Academy as the personal coach of the No. 1 junior in the world.

The two Matts, the two Arkansas natives and former Razorback stars, were doing pretty well for themselves in their own tracks of life. Whatever story might be told about them, it seemed the majority of it had already been written. The pair were still friends, but the years old story of Roberts’ first experience coaching had already happened. A decade-plus memory of middle school-aged Walters being inspired by Roberts’ success seemingly remained the only anecdote left unshared.

“When I was 12 I was still contemplating whether to play competitive tennis,” Walters said. “When [Roberts] went to Arkansas and developed success, that’s when I chose tennis and saw that a guy from Arkansas could have success. To see that kind of pushed me.”

After all, the two had grown up in the same town, and they even share the same youth coach, a Swedish tennis legend by the name of Thomas Andersson. It only made sense Walters should take some inspiration and direction from the elder Roberts.

But then, last summer, Roberts’ assistant coach at MSU got a job offer he couldn’t turn down. Tanner Stump had been the one man Roberts trusted to help him when he first became MSU’s head coach, the first head coaching gig of his career. How could Roberts replace him? During Stump’s final days, a familiar name came up.

“Tanner leaves,” Roberts recalled, “and I’m wondering, man, who am I going to get as an assistant coach? I started calling around and figuring out who was out there. One day, I’m sitting there thinking about Matt Walters, because he had been at a lot of these ITF Tournaments and I saw him in Mexico. Literally as I think about Matt, Tanner is in the other office and says, ‘Hey, have you called Matt Walters?’”

And so the timelines of the two Matts crossed again, starting a new chapter in Starkville, Mississippi. Not to say it was easy for Roberts to get Walters to Starkville, of course. Walters had turned down several collegiate coaching opportunities, as he was quite happy working one-on-one and traveling the world with his star pupil.

But once again, it seemed Roberts was able to convince Walters of his own convictions.

“It wasn’t a pitch,” Roberts said of their first phone conversation, “as much as just telling him, this is what we do. And we saw eye-to-eye on developing great young men to where they feel confident about anything they do in life. Tennis is a tool they use to grow as men. To focus on that, to focus on their development for professional tennis, and then focus on a team that’s structured in accountability and being brothers, really trying to create a tightknit group of guys with no selfishness.”

“It felt right,” Walters recalled of the discussion. “I flew to Starkville a week later, and I knew it was the right thing to do. It was the right time. It wasn’t easy for me, because the guy I was coaching was like a son to me … I knew, if I was going to go, it had to be right. It had to be something like this with something special.”

And to this point, special has indeed been the right word. The Bulldogs have soared up the rankings as the year has gone along. Now up to No. 17 in the country, MSU finished the regular season 17-7 in year one of The Matts, including seemingly weekly wins over ranked teams and regular upsets of some of the SEC’s top squads. Navigating one of America’s toughest schedules, MSU reeled off seven wins over ranked teams throughout the course of the season. State’s roster features the No. 4 ranked singles player in the country in Nuno Borges, and top-to-bottom the Bulldogs have some of the best doubles play in the country.

And to see the two Matts in practice, it’s obvious why the dynamic has been so successful. They have enough in common – competitive fire, a passion for teaching and developing – to mesh perfectly as a team and enough differences – approach, temperament and life experiences – to each have something new to offer to every young man under their care and guidance.

And they certainly learn from each other, too. Like it was so many years ago, Roberts has something to offer Walters as his career develops.

“I hope he leaves here with the full package and can be a great head coach,” Roberts said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I think he’s one of the best assistants coaches in the country on the court. I told him that the other day. He has a presence. He’s very positive. He inspires the guys.”

Meanwhile, Walters brings an entirely new set of experiences, as evidenced in one recent practice when rain forced the team indoors. At the end, Roberts was trying to think of a more creative cardio drill to end the day’s work. Perhaps something fun. He asked Walters if he had any ideas. A few minutes later, the entire roster was racing relay style in down-and-backs across two courts that were half two-footed jumps and half full-out sprints, laughing and breathing heavily the whole way through.

“I think we balance each other very well,” Walters said.

As the team dispersed, short conversations took place between individual coaches and individual players. Some were quick reminders, others were pointed recommendations. If there were any admonishments doled out, it was tough to tell by the encouraging and encouraged smiles on each face involved.

Who’d have guessed nearly two decades ago that two Matts from the same town in Arkansas would be working together to bring Mississippi State to the top of the collegiate tennis world?

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Bulldog Greats Celebrate Reunion For Mullens’ Golf Classic

If there’s one thing career athletes have trouble turning off, it’s their competitive drive. Whatever else in the world they may want, they always want to win. Or at the very least, as former Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones put it at the Mullen 36 Foundation’s golf classic at Old Waverly on Monday, they don’t want to lose. Especially not to each other.

“Everybody wants to be better than everybody,” the current Kansas City Chief said.

Appearing as celebrities for the golf tournament, dozens of former football Bulldogs made their way to Starkville over the weekend and to West Point on Monday to support their old coach, and several more from a variety of sports volunteered their time and fame for the day. Bulldog greats like Erick Dampier, Will Clark and Jonathan Papelbon spent their Monday golfing at Old Waverly, too.

Among the football players, however, the gathering turned quickly from reunion to friendly competition as the one-time teammates who have gone on to great achievements were left to argue about who’s done the most and who will be the best.

“It’s always about trash talking and catching up,” Jones explained. “We’re just talking trash, catching up and having good laughs.”

Moments later, 2012 first-round NFL Draft pick Fletcher Cox was being heckled mid-interview by 1982 first-round NFL Draft pick Johnie Cooks.

“We’ve got Johnie Cooks over here,” Cox told the camera by way of introduction. “He’s like the 10th best player here that went to State. I think he’s just hurt that I’m here.”

Of course, Cooks was likely the loudest talker of them all, calling Dak Prescott “rookie” any time he referred to the Pro Bowl Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Cooks, a former Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants, took great pleasure in reminding Prescott of the one divisional rival he didn’t beat in his first year.

“Oh yeah,” he would say at the end of a compliment to Prescott, “you never did beat the Giants though, did you?”

Former first-rounders Fletcher Cox and Johnie Cooks

Such is the nature of athletes, and particularly so when the ones coming together have such strong relationships to begin with.

“It means a lot,” Cox said. “It’s kind of like a reunion. I haven’t seen Vick [Ballard], Cam [Lawrence], Gabe [Jackson] and all those guys in a while. It was great to catch up with these guys and talk a little football, talk about life and how everything is going.”

“It feels good to be back in Starkville, catching up with the guys, just going over things,” Jones added. “I feel old, you know? I feel old. I’m coming back for Coach Mullen’s charity event and all. But it’s great to catch up and I can see guys I’ve played with, guys that are legends in the program.”

For many, the foundation tournament provided an opportunity to come back to Starkville for the first time in a while. Guys like Prescott and Jones hadn’t returned since their rookie season began last August, and it had been closer to years, plural, since Cox had made it back.

And it certainly was nice timing with Super Bulldog Weekend taking place in the days leading up to the event.

“It’s been fun,” Prescott said. “Everything I had imagined. Just being away, it’s the first time I’ve come back since the season. Getting to throw the first pitch out, the spring game, it was a great weekend, as usual.”

“Man, I love it here,” former Thorpe Awar winner and current Chicago Bear Johnthan Banks said. “I was fortunate enough to be able to get a scholarship 15 minutes away and stay at home. The fans, the people – there’s nothing like it. It’s a great place. Awesome atmosphere.”

Noticeable in the crowd of former Bulldogs was the number of guys who played for Mullen since his arrival at Mississippi State in 2009, football stars who blossomed under his guidance and many of whom went to great lengths to be in town for the weekend. Without fail, each mentioned what it meant to them to be able to do something for their old coach.

“It’s great to come back and support Coach Mullen,” Cox said. “That’s his biggest thing is support the ones that support you. He supported us, so we return the favor and support him. I think that’s what’s really important about being here. I know it means a lot to he and Megan.”

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What It’s Like To Hit A Home Run: Dropping Bombs With Brent Rooker

To get straight to the point, Brent Rooker is really good at hitting baseballs. Like, really good. He is, it turns out, one of the very best at it, as the Mississippi State junior currently leads the SEC in just about every offensive category the sport of baseball has to offer. Through 34 games, as a starter in all of them, he’s batting .448 with 56 hits, 56 RBI, 33 runs scored, 19 doubles and three triples. His one-base percentage is .548 and his slugging percentage is a ridiculous 1.008. To boot, he’s stolen 14 bases and been walked 22 times.

But what we’re going to talk about here is home runs. It’s the thing everyone watching a baseball game wants. It’s the only thing in the sport that is guaranteed. Every pitch, every single, double or triple, every stolen base attempt, every bunt and every blooper is metaphorically up in the air until the play is completed. It might be good, it might not. There are outside factors, other people are involved, and the action continues inside the walls of the park until a result is determined.

Home runs, while literally up in the air, are the only guarantees in baseball. The only sure thing. If you hit a ball over the fence, nothing can change that. You can’t mess it up. No one can take it from you. It just is. No questions. It’s the play everyone is waiting for, that everyone wants to see. It’s the most exciting normal play in sports.

And Brent Rooker is really good at making it happen. When told he was about to have a discussion purely about home runs, his response was quick and easy: “Oh,” he said, “those are my favorite.”

Rooker has hit 15 home runs this season, sending six out of the park in the last week alone. On Saturday, he hit three in one game, and one of them was a grand slam. Back on Wednesday, his game-winning long shot over the fences of Dudy Noble Field was the first walk-off of his career.

One of his homers landed a full 90 feet past the fence in left-centerfield, falling through the hands of a fan on top of a Left Field Lounge rig about 15 feet in the air. Rooker’s walk-out song is, appropriately, Frank Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come,” but it’s another hit by The Chairman that each baseball he hits is surely singing to itself as it’s sent over the fence: “Fly Me to the Moon.”

This is not a story about why Brent Rooker hits home runs. Breaking down his swing, his hand speed, his foot placement, his weight distribution, is an adventure for another time. No, this is a story about something none of us will ever understand – what’s it like to hit a home run as Brent Rooker; what it’s like from the moment the swing is completed.

This is about the moment a home run switches from mechanics to celebration.

“It depends on the ball,” Rooker began to explain. “Sometimes you’ll hit it and you know immediately it’s gone. Then sometimes you hit it and you’ve got to watch the outfielder to kind of see how he reacts, how hard he’s running backwards and when he kind of stops so you know for sure that it’s out. The balls you hit really well, you know right at contact it’s going out and that’s when it just kind of becomes a celebration.”

How a hitter celebrates a home run varies from person to person and personality to personality. Some strut, some flip the bat, some just put their heads down and jog. It depends on the human hitting the ball. Rooker’s reaction at the plate has actually been determined as much by position as any personality trait. Out of habit, the bat on Rooker’s big swings always goes around his left shoulder, lies flat on his back, then whips back around to be held down at his right side.

It’s a fine looking swing, but the bounce back of the bat doesn’t provide him much to work with as far as a showy flip goes.

“So my big thing,” Rooker said, “is if I hit it well and I know it’s out, I’ll walk for a few steps and watch the ball, then I’m more of a casual drop guy instead of a big flip guy.”

From there, it’s almost entirely emotion. As Rooker heads to first base, the accomplishment is his own. It’s personal.

“It’s a cool feeling just getting to soak that moment in knowing you put a good swing on the ball and you did what you went to the plate trying to do.”

As he rounds second, the celebration grows outward. When hitting home runs at Dudy Noble Field, this is the time he looks up and sees his teammates celebrating. The first person he spots is the first one he’s looking for, the third base coach. Behind him in the dugout a celebration of great variety takes place.

Some, like Hunter Stovall are dancing. Others, like Jake Mangum on Saturday, are walking in bewilderment and yelling, not inaccurately, “He’s so good!”

“That’s a cool feeling,” Rooker said, “seeing how what you did affects your teammates and gives your team a chance to win.”

Of course, the celebration isn’t always in the dugout. On Wednesday when Rooker’s walk-off homer sealed the win over FIU in extra innings, his entire team was waiting on him at home plate. And as excited as he was, he was still sure to be careful not to mess up the one thing he had to do.”

“That was actually the first time I’d ever hit a walk-off,” he said, “so I was getting close and I was consciously making sure I touched home plate before I got mobbed. Which I did, thankfully. That was the first time that I’ve hit a walk-off home run and that’s something I’m pretty glad I got to experience.

“It’s adrenaline,” he continued to explain. “It’s excitement. At some point, it’s relief that you were able to end the game and put your team over the edge. Mostly it’s excitement and joy.”

What’s more impressive: the walk-off, or hitting three bombs in a single game? To be sure, a multi-homer game is a hard task, as Rooker knows, and the rush from hitting one jack has to be exorcised before the next time at the plate, otherwise the approach is ruined.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re settled down before your next at-bat or you’re going to try to get too big or do too much, and that’s when disaster happens,” Rooker shared.

Luckily, Rooker is a natural pacer, and “whether I hit a home run or strike out,” he’s going to be pacing in the dugout, slowly burning that nervous energy and bringing adrenaline back to normal Brent Rooker levels.

Tempering emotions, enjoying celebrations, hitting all the bases and repeating the task ad nauseum – there’s a lot that goes into creating those brief moments when Brent Rooker stands at the plate with the bat hanging by his side, watching another baseball sail out of the park.

“I don’t know what’s going on, I’m just gonna be honest with you guys,” he said after Saturday’s game, offering a small smile that was half joy and half bewilderment at his own accomplishments. “There’s a lot of God happening right now, and not a lot of Brent.”

Whatever it is that’s going on, perhaps it’s nice for a moment not to try and break it down too much, but to just appreciate it and go with Mangum’s first reaction to his teammate’s talent: “He’s so good.”

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Historic Run Ends In National Title Game For Schaefer’s Bulldogs

What do you say, what do you do, when you’ve already poured it all out? How do you hold your head high when your heart has dropped so low? You can’t speak to what you’ve done unless you also confess to what happened.

Mississippi State played in the National Championship game on Sunday night. And on that same night, South Carolina beat Mississippi State 67-55, winning a National Title for the Gamecocks, and losing one for the Bulldogs. It was the third time USC beat MSU this year, and every single one of those losses took away a championship MSU would otherwise have won.

Those are the facts of the game, and for those in the MSU locker room, the facts are as cold, hard and miserable as the dead of winter.

When the PA announced there was one minute remaining and a glance up at the scoreboard told the Bulldogs they were still down by double-digits, a few tears began to fall. When, with 44 seconds left, Vic Schaefer removed the players on the court and inserted each player who had not yet seen action, the crying began in earnest. As those on the court came off, MSU’s head coach hugged them, told them he was proud of them, and attempted to remain in control of his own emotions. Once each had sat down, Schaefer took a moment to walk down the bench.

“Good job, seniors,” he told his four veterans.

It was the most he could muster and still remain in the moment, but it was also the truest thing he could have said. They did do a good job. They did a great job, in fact, and they will go out as the winningest senior class ever at MSU by a wide margin. Of course, they’d have liked to extend that record by one more.

They had come so far just to fall short.

But still, they came so far. The entire team did. They spent most of the year at No. 2 in the country, and after a rough end to the regular season, they bounced back by powering their way through the toughest road to the title game the NCAA Tournament could possibly provide.

MSU beat the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and the year’s leading rebounder, then turned around and toppled the one-seed with the biggest lineup in basketball. Their reward was to be charged with doing the impossible. And they did it. At the end of the run, Troy, DePaul, Washington, Baylor and UConn were all left reeling and looking back at the team that ended their season.

“As our athletic director just reminded us,” Schaefer said, “there were 347 teams today watching that game on TV, and we were one of the two still playing.

“Today doesn’t define us,” he continued. “It certainly doesn’t define this season. We had a great year.”

Without question, this is a team that will be defined by its wins. It will be defined by the records it set. It will be defined as the best in the 139-history of the school, the first Mississippi State team to ever play a game with the National Championship on the line.

Perhaps more than anything, at least to those who watched them over the course of the year and followed their run to the title game, this team will be defined by its character. The country fell in love with Morgan William when she scored 41 points in MSU’s Elite Eight upset of Baylor and dedicated the performance to her late father. Five days later, America was in awe of “Itty Bitty” when her jumper fell through the basket as the buzzer went off and the Bulldogs pulled off the biggest upset in basketball history.

Sportswriters in Dallas to cover the Final Four were baffled when they saw the talent MSU put on the floor, because they just didn’t understand where it came from. Their recruiting rankings and reports just didn’t add up to the product that was right in front of their eyes.

“How is it,” multiple reporters asked Schaefer and his players, “that you’re the only team here without a McDonald’s All-American on the roster? I mean, you don’t even have one.”

Heart, Schaefer would tell them. You can’t measure it. Tough defense doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. Neither do clutch or determination. And that’s why Schaefer thinks MSU fans love their team so much. He believes it’s because of the relationships forged between players and fans. He feels that the way his team plays the game is endearing to the people of Mississippi.

“When we’re in The Hump, we get louder cheers when one of our girls takes a charge than we do for any big three-pointer,” he said. “I think our fans appreciate blue collar.”

It’s the same reason MSU fans first loved Dak Prescott so much, Schaefer continued. Sure, he’s good, but mostly, he’s tough.

“He never ran to the boundary,” Schaefer said. “He was gonna run you over.

“Our girls,” he finished, “don’t run to the boundary.”

No, they ran to the very end. When the final second ticked off the clock of the 2017 season, the Bulldogs were still on the court. In a season where State knocked over nearly everyone in its path, they finally suffered their own defeat. And to see their faces, to hear their strained voices as they tried to answer questions from both within and without, falling from the top of the mountain hurts a lot more than falling at the start.

But, to be sure, the view was worth it, and the final fall will only serve as motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In the locker room, when Schaefer is speaking with his team, he has four rows of seats in front of him. The front row is for the seniors, the second is for the juniors, the third for the sophomores and the fourth for the freshmen.

“Are we disappointed? Absolutely,” Schaefer recalled telling his team. “But I challenged the second and third row: OK, now it’s your team … Don’t minimize this moment. How you feel? Remember it. Wrap your arms around it. Use it as fuel.”

Even loss can lead to victory.

“I’m still waiting for the confetti to come down and my kids to be able to stand there in it,” Schaefer said. “We’ll be back.”

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Post-Game: Bulldogs Across The Country Celebrate Historic Win

Around 1:10 a.m., Mississippi State’s team bus pulled up to their hotel, the Hilton Anatole. Waiting inside was a crowd of hundreds in Maroon and White chanting and cheering and causing general mayhem in a hotel where everyone should have been asleep by then. Before they walked off the bus and into the crowd, the team director of operations stood up and told them they could take a second to say hi to friends and family, but they had to get upstairs quickly so they could go over the schedule for the next day and get them to sleep.

To speed up their entrance, security was in the crowd opening up a lane and directing MSU to a side staircase that would keep them from having to walk the length of the crowded and sizable lobby. When they reached their secret stairwell, Vic Schaefer realized what was happening. Halfway up a flight of steps, the head coach of MSU’s women’s basketball team turned to his wife to address a concern he had just realized he had.

“Why are we going this way,” he asked her as he looked back at the massive crowd he had just stepped away from. “I wanna go that way.”

Schaefer turned around and strode back into the waiting throng, taking handshakes, high fives, back slaps and hugs from every person he could reach. It could’ve been gameday in The Junction and Schaefer was walking through the Dawg Walk for all the fervor and excitement and enthusiasm. But it was nearing 2 a.m. at a hotel in Dallas as he continued celebrating with Bulldogs from all over.

On TVs inside the hotel bars where MSU fans unable to sleep were still celebrating, all screens were set to ESPN, where all the highlights were about their Bulldogs. Anchors were discussing continuously the biggest upset in basketball history. Every time they showed Morgan William hitting the game-winning buzzer beater to take down No.1 UConn in the Final Four, MSU fans cheered again. “Go State” cheers were still sounding in the lobby as it pushed nearer to 3 a.m., likely much to the annoyance of the hotel staff and anyone there who wasn’t with MSU. But at the same time, it seemed like everyone in America was with MSU, save for 1/50th of the country in a certain northeastern state.

In Starkville, crowds went wild. At Bin 612, video showed a completely full and completely still and silent main room for 12 seconds as MSU brought the ball up the court, as Dominique Dillingham dribbled around looking for room and as she passed the ball to William with just seconds left. When her jump shot fell through the basket and the buzzer sounded, movement and noise erupted in cheering and yelling and hugging, those standing on tables in the back so they could see having to jump to the ground or dance up and down on the table in celebration.

Mississippi native Robin Roberts speaks to MSU’s team in the locker room following the win

Just to the north in Oxford, Mississippi, MSU’s baseball team had just beat rival Ole Miss to win the series, but instead of celebrating their own victory, they were tensely watching the final seconds in Dallas as their peers attempted to make history. Video shown on repeat on SportsCenter throughout the night shows the baseball Bulldogs still in uniform going nuts with jumping and dancing and high-fiving and hugging.

Spencer Price, the Southeastern Conference leader in saves, chest-bumped a wall.

Past midnight Eastern Time down in Gainesville, MSU’s track and field team watched the end of the game from the Springhill Suites. In the room were five individual National Champions, between whom a combined seven national titles had been won. And they were riveted. As they should have been. Perhaps none know better what it’s like to find yourself in a moment like that. To find yourself in a moment like that and win is even better.

Among the crowd of Bulldog runners, throwers and jumpers was Raven Saunders, a three-time National Champion competing at the same meet, and also an Ole Miss Rebel.

“I’m going back to State!” she can be heard yelling at the end of the video. “I’m coming back with y’all!”

Celebrations rang, or better yet, clanged across the country on Friday night. Nothing like that has ever happened before, on a seemingly endless number of levels. It was historic in its own right as a national sports story, MSU snapping UConn’s 111-game winning streak, and that story is in every paper in America this morning, mere hours after celebrations wound down in Dallas.

But that game meant more to those in the Mississippi State family than it did to all the rest of world just watching for fun. It might sound like a negative to anyone else, but MSU fans, especially those who have followed for full lifetimes, know that things like this just don’t happen. For whatever reason, MSU has always seemed to be on the wrong side of history. When Dominique Dillingham was called for a flagrant foul with 26 seconds left, it was hard for many not to think, yep, of course that’s how this is going to end.

But, that’s not how it ended. For a handful of years now, some tide of momentum has begun to shift in MSU’s favor. Three years and nine months ago in Omaha, Nebraska, MSU’s baseball team played for a National Championship for the first time in any team sport in school history. 15 months later in Starkville, Dak Prescott and MSU’s football team rose to No. 1 in the country.

Then yesterday, MSU won the game it was never supposed to win, that no one was ever supposed to win, and tomorrow, they have the opportunity to win the first National Championship in Mississippi State history.

There’s a thing about MSU fans that cities across the country have learned over the years. All the hard years and all the disappointments have only made State fans more passionate, more eager and more appreciative when big moments come. As Omaha saw in 2013 and as Dallas is seeing now, it doesn’t matter where MSU is, the Bulldogs travel. Even if they can’t get in the game, they’re there, and that’s more than enough for them. All people want to be a part of something, and while it’s far from the most glamorous group, there are few who are more supportive and more passionate than MSU when the time comes.

On the court following the game, it was the perfect moment to exemplify what being an MSU fan actually means. Dak Prescott, who moments before had been near tears in his seat behind the bench, stood next to Morgan William, the hero of State’s last two games. ESPN reporter Holly Rowe looked at William and asked her why the Pro Bowl quarterback in the No. 15 MSU basketball jersey believed in her.

She answered not only for herself, but for MSU fans watching across the country.

“It’s a Mississippi thing,” the Alabama girl said as she stood under the arm of a Louisiana boy. “It’s family.”

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Schaefer, Bulldogs Shock The Country In Final Four Victory

In the final moments – the final 26.6 seconds to be exact – Vic Schaefer had his team in the huddle for what seemed like it might be the final time. Mississippi State was in overtime against Connecticut. The right to play for the National Championship on Sunday was on the line, and the game would be decided in less than 30 seconds. After MSU’s head coach gave them the play call, he looked up from his white board and told them one thing, over and over.

“You were built for this,” Schaefer practically yelled, looking straight at Breanna Richardson.

“You were built for this,” he yelled again, staring directly at Morgan William.

Schaefer looked each of his players in the eyes and reminded them that they were supposed to be in this position, and they were supposed to win.

MSU players celebrating with their fans

Exactly 26.6 seconds and one more short timeout later, with the game tied at 64, William’s shot, coming down from its high arc, dropped into the basket as the buzzer went off. The Bulldogs won, 66-64. Schaefer was right, and so was his team. They were built for that moment, built for those last 26.6 seconds, and built for that final basket.

When William hit the jumper, she wasn’t just making a shot. She was making history. She was sending her team to the National Championship Game for the first time in school history. And that’s not just the women’s basketball program. Never before has any MSU team in any sport been in a game where a single win would result in a National Title, and only once has an MSU team advanced to the championship round.

And beyond making history, they were earning redemption. For just over 12 months, MSU has been fueled by the embarrassment of losing by nearly 60 points in last year’s Sweet Sixteen against UConn. They talked about it before their first game at the beginning of the season, and they talked about it all week leading up to their most recent game. While their focus always remained on the team in front of them, their inspiration came from the loss behind them and the eventual rematch ahead of them.

“They’ve kind of been on a little bit of a mission,” Schaefer said. “They have tremendous heart. They also have a little pride.”

“It was personal,” Victoria Vivians added.

I’d be lying if I said I expected it, but I also wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said that the Mississippi State players didn’t expect it. I mean, UConn was riding a 111-game winning streak and were the prohibitive favorite to win every game from now until the apocalypse. Why would anyone expect MSU to pull the upset? Why would the Bulldogs think they could?

But for reasons that were clearly well-founded, they did think they could. It showed all week. I mentioned it to an administrator the morning of the game. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I told him, but the players think they’re going to win this game. I had seen it all week in practice, in the locker room and around the team hotel. They were calm. They were confident the whole time.

William was asked after the game when she thought they could pull off the upset. Her answer was short: “in film.” They saw on tape that they were going to win before they even entered the arena.

“What an absolutely gutsy performance that no one in the country thought could happen,” Schaefer said. “But that’s OK. We knew it could happen.”

Everyone around the Final Four proceedings in Dallas, everyone in the world of women’s college basketball, spoke only of UConn and their talent and their winning streak and their coaching and their history and on and on and on and, yeah. No one wanted to give State a chance. No one thought they could do it. No one, of course, except for them.

“We believed in our locker room it could be done,” Schaefer confirmed.

And naturally, it was William who made the final shot. The smallest player on the court, her game-winning shot had such a high arc not because it was last-second, but just because the angle was hard with her 5’3” stature.

“That’s one of the toughest shots to make, from that distance, under that kind of pressure,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

William is the perfect example of what her team has been all year. They’re the underdogs. The Bulldogs. They won with scrappy defense, high effort and strong resolve. They won by working the boards, owning the paint and hitting shots when it mattered. Shot, singular, most importantly.

MSU out-rebounded one of the biggest teams in the country, racking up 18 second-chance points as a result, and out-scoring the Huskies in the paint. And it wasn’t just a last-second shot. MSU was the aggressor in control for nearly the entire game, including overtime. UConn only led the game for a grand total of two minutes and fifty-seven seconds, held a full 10 percentage points below their season average field goal percentage. In fact, in the middle of the first quarter, the Huskies were actually honored on the video board for leading the country in field goal percentage.

But hey, the other team getting the attention – what else is new for MSU?

Mississippi State has been making history all year long. On the biggest stage in basketball, they showed the world why. They were built for this.

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#PTLGD: On The Origins Of Vic Schaefer’s Favorite Phrase

It’s hard to tell when it became a thing, but at this point, it’s very clear that it is 100 percent A Thing, capital A and capital T. At the end of every press conference, radio interview or speaking engagement, It’s coming. At this point, It isn’t just expected, It is anticipated.

“No more questions?” the moderator will ask reporters as a press conference ends. “Alright, thank you coach.”

“Thanks, y’all,” Vic Schaefer will say. “Praise the Lord and go Dawgs.”

Praise the Lord and go Dawgs shirt on sale at L.A. Green in Starkville (Photo via @shoplagreen)

The way “Hail State” became the saying for all of Mississippi State athletics, “Praise the Lord and go Dawgs” has become the unofficial motto for the head coach of the Bulldogs’ women’s basketball team. Not just because it sounds good, or because it’s a thing he says often, but because it’s The Thing he says every time. Always.

In fact, the one time he forgot last season, the statement was felt in its absence, leading then-junior guard Dominique Dillingham to offer a prompt for Schaefer.

“Coach,” she whispered as they stood up to leave the dais at the end of a post-game press conference, “you forgot to say it.”

“What? Oh!” he replied before turning back around to face the reporters and cameras in the room. “Praise the Lord and go Dawgs!”

It’s become so expected and so tied to his personal brand, that as his successes have multiplied and he has MSU in Dallas for the Final Four, the excitement for Schaefer and his program has resulted in t-shirts being printed and sold in Starkville with his favorite line across the front.

While his players tease him about it often (each of them have their own Schaefer voice to use for their impression as they repeat his catchphrase in the locker room and at team functions) they also expect and respect it, with former players as far back as his days at Arkansas in the ‘90s remembering his frequent use of his favorite line. If nothing else, they consider the saying to be good luck.

“I’m just superstitious about things,” Dillingham said when asked why she always reminds him if she thinks he’s going to forget. “It would be bad luck.”

Schaefer himself can’t quite remember the first time he used the line, but as far back as he can remember as a coach, he’s tailored it to fit the team he’s coaching. At Arkansas it was “Praise the Lord and go Hogs.” At A&M, “Praise the Lord and gig ‘em Ags.” He could have decided to go with “Praise the Lord and Hail State” at MSU, but it seems his gut call to go with Dawgs rolled off the tongue a bit easier.

“It’s just what I’ve always done everywhere I’ve been,” he said searching his memory for the genesis of the line.

While he can’t remember when he first said it, Schaefer knows exactly why he first said it. The two-part sentence pretty perfectly encapsulates who Schaefer is and what’s important to him. Whatever has been said in the full length of any interview or speaking engagement, that line sums it all up in his own way. The second part of the sentence is obvious, showing the dedication and support to his team, but the beginning is something that goes as far as back as his own childhood, long before he ever thought about coaching basketball.

“I was brought up in the church,” Schaefer said. “Faith is very important to me and my family. In today’s world, sometimes that can get lost.”

In Schaefer’s life now, he doesn’t have to look for a reminder of the faith that’s so important to him. He doesn’t need a sanctuary or bible to find a reason to “praise the Lord,” though he certainly makes a habit of attending the former and reading the latter. He just has to talk his son. His son who shouldn’t be here. His son who was nearly killed in an accident that most would have expected to either end or severely cripple his life. Instead, Logan Schaefer is in Dallas this week, too, a healthy and happy college student watching from the stands as his sister plays and his dad coaches in the Final Four.

When the head coach says “Praise the Lord,” he’s doing much more than just ending a press conference.

“I feel like God is always the center of everything in our family,” his daughter Blair, a point guard for MSU, said in Dallas, “and He’s the reason we’re here today. I feel like there aren’t a lot of people who get this platform in their life, and when they do, there aren’t many people who give credit to who it belongs to. There’s a reason we’re here, and that’s God. [When he says Praise the Lord] it’s that he wants to say, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve given me.’”

Blair, 21 years old, can’t remember a time in her life that her dad wasn’t using his go-to phrase, and the line may very well pre-date her and Logan’s birth. But over the course of their lives, it’s become a regular part of their day, a motto they hear often and put in practice even more.

(photo courtesy @EBMcMinn on Twitter)

However, it never caught on elsewhere quite like it has at MSU. Now, as the head coach, the number of opportunities for Schaefer to use the line is exponentially larger, and thanks to social media and online streaming, more and more people are hearing him say it. MSU fans have picked up on it over Schaefer’s five seasons at the helm of the program.

“At first,” Blair said, “I think people were kind of caught off guard by it. They were like, ‘OK, yeah, that’s cool.’ And now he says it every time, so it’s like people are waiting for him to say it. When people see that shirt, they know who says it.”

Of all the hundreds of shirts Vic Schaefer has, his #PTLGD shirt is almost certain to be his favorite.

“Really,” he said, “what an honor. How special is that?”

He never meant it to become a slogan on a t-shirt, a motto for his family or even a habit that would, according to at least one of his players, result in bad luck if broken. It was just the perfect line to describe who he is.

“Praise the Lord and go Dawgs,” senior forward Breanna Richardson repeated. “It’s all of him in one sentence.”

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William, Vivians Shine As Bulldogs Make First-Ever Final Four

When Mississippi State’s bus shifted into park at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the team managers quickly hopped off first, as is their custom, and the rest of the staff waited while the players began to follow from the back. But then Vic Schaefer stood up and held a staying hand out as he walked halfway down the bus to where his players were preparing to leave.

“Hey, headphones off, y’all,” he said as he got the attention of his full roster. “Everybody hear me? Listen up. Do not get off this bus unless you believe that we are going to beat Baylor and go to the Final Four.”

Here, Schaefer paused and looked over his team, making sure the message was sinking in and giving his players a short second to reflect on their deepest thoughts and see what the truth really was.

“You gotta believe it,” he continued. “You gotta know it. So don’t get off this bus unless you BELIEVE it.”

Schaefer gave them one more meaningful look as he turned and walked off the bus. For a brief moment, no one moved, then in unison, the line of Bulldogs began to file down the aisle and off the bus.

They all believed.

And they believed when few others did. Schaefer struggled to hide his indignation after MSU beat Washington in the Sweet Sixteen, saying his team deserved far more respect than most had been willing to give. When the Bulldogs advanced, despite the predictions of many in the media, they were given even less of a chance to beat the No. 1 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight.

Baylor is too big, MSU was told, too deep and too talented, too motivated and too well-coached to lose this game. Sure, MSU was seemingly told, they had done well to get so far, but Oklahoma City was where this great season was destined to end.

Perhaps that’s why Schaefer checked one last time to make sure his players believed what he was convinced was true. And he wouldn’t have asked them the question if he didn’t know the answer was yes. But the challenge served as a final motivation, an ultimate reminder to stand strong with their convictions and their belief in themselves.

From tipoff through the end of regulation and then again through overtime, the Bulldogs showed their belief. They never lacked for confidence, nor seemed to question what they had collectively decided was true: they were going to beat Baylor and they were going to go to the Final Four. And that’s what they did, taking down the Bears 94-85 in overtime.

MSU’s run through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament came on the heels of a new lineup and the backs of young talent, but appropriately, it was the veterans who had established the program as nationally-relevant that stepped up to ensure victory would be theirs. Inserted back into the lineup, junior Victoria Vivians played one of the best games of her almost entirely stellar career, scoring 24 points, grabbing six rebounds, notching six assists and wrangling two steals.

And in a matchup billed as the battle of bigs, it was the smallest player on the court who had the biggest game of them all. Junior point guard Morgan William played the game of her life, dropping 41 points and racking up seven steals in a game that stands for now as the shining moment of her career in Maroon and White. Just one day removed the third anniversary of her father’s sudden death, William played “for an audience of one,” as her head coach explained it after the win.

When Schaefer wrapped her in an embrace immediately following the final buzzer, William buried her face in his shoulder with tears in her eyes. Moments later, she was the first Bulldog up the ladder to begin cutting down the net, a teary-eyed and deeply-rooted smile on her face.

“Our point guard was as good as they get today,” Schaefer said. “She put us on her back. She led us.”

In her career performance, William helped make history for a program that has never won more games, never made it so far, never before reached the Final Four. It’s an achievement that Schaefer knew, once again, would not have come with out faith and belief in what he said and in what he promised. Yes, he asked them to believe they would win this one game tonight. But more than that, it was years ago when he asked the veterans of this team to believe that they could one day reach a game such as this.

The seniors on this team signed on before they’d even seen Schaefer coach a game. Juniors like William and Vivians joined the party when he’d had nothing but a single, losing season. And because they believed then, they saw his promise fulfilled in Oklahoma City.

“They believed in a vision when it wasn’t real easy to believe,” Schaefer said.

Thanks to their faith – and a whole lot of three pointers – Mississippi State is going to the Final Four.

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