Walk-off goodbye to Dudy Noble for Heck, MSU seniors

The last anything is always a little sentimental by nature, and the last of a good thing is impossible to be enjoyed without a hint of sadness. Time has a habit of speeding up during the things we enjoy, so the best way to fight back is just to take more time.

BBPDWJEFHWMNLYB.20150503011441Saturday morning, around 10, the first grill in the Left Field Lounge was lit. After allowing the coals to heat up, biscuits, sausage and tins of molded eggs were thrown on to be cooked and served for breakfast, a day-long tradition to say goodbye once more to Dudy Noble Field and Mississippi State baseball at the last game of the year.

That early in the day, there’s no music on, no crowds buzzing with conversation. The only sounds are cars driving by and the tin of the rakes from the grounds crew. In that moment, there’s nothing to distract the small group from each other. They’ve got nothing to do but relax in each other’s presence.

Sometimes it’s good to just be. No tweeting, texting or critical thinking. Just hanging around with food and friends enjoying the company, conversation, sun and slow moments provided by the day.

There aren’t many relationships quite like the ones you have with the people you watch baseball games with. For a consecutive four or five months, you spend almost every weekend with the same group. Others mix in and out, as well, but the core stays intact the whole way through. In the Lounge, in the grandstands or even in the press box, you commit to spending anywhere from four to eight hours a game for almost 40 games a year with each other. You pass the time together as the earth slowly turns from the end of winter to the start of summer.

Then, with the result of one pitch, it stops. There aren’t many social communities quite like it. Churches, service clubs and even friendships at work, they continue uninterrupted until you decide to leave. Baseball gets stopped for you, and you don’t always know when it’s coming.

The same can be said for the players, who fight, fight and fight every game, every inning and every out, only to reach the final moment and realize the game they worked so hard to end is the very thing they want to go on forever.

Just as some arrived a little early in the outfield to get some extra time in on their last day at The Dude, the players happened to take the game a little longer than anticipated, going all the way to the 12th inning. They didn’t intend for it to happen that way, but it was almost as if the baseball gods were giving the fans who cheered so hard and the seniors who worked so long just a little more time to enjoy it.

Wes Rea, Trevor Fitts, Ross Mitchell and Matthew Britton have put their entire collegiate careers into MSU baseball, and their names will be remembered for what they accomplished. Lucas Laster, Seth Heck, Cody Walker and Jake Vickerson took their own paths to Dudy Noble, choosing to believe in MSU and rest their futures on the result.

When Saturday afternoon had turned into Saturday night, Seth Heck stepped up to the plate for what would turn out to be his last time in front of the Mississippi State crowd. He waited for the pitch as his parents, in town for only the second time all season, watched from the same spot in the outfield where breakfast had begun so many hours before.

Heck’s last at-bat was an RBI single in the 12th inning, a walk-off in every sense of the phrase for the senior from the state of Washington. The hit scored Jake Vickerson, who raced home only to find that his sprint to the plate ended a marathon he began in Starkville two years ago. They won; the Bulldogs won.

The home finale will always be a little bittersweet, but in a non-perfect season, the ending for many turned out as perfectly as could be wanted – much more sweet than bitter.

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Stories from a weekend on the road with MSU softball

“Where are you taking him?”

“To set him free!”

Olivia Golden, a sophomore infielder for Mississippi State’s softball team, is sitting out this year after surgery sidelined her before the season began. Still a part of the team, of course, she travels with her coaches and teammates everywhere they go. However, when the rest of the team is warming up before games and getting ready to play, she has some time to kill.

On the road, she often ends up using that time to wander, look around and let her curiosity guide her while her teammates run through batting practice or fielding drills.

Chester

Chester

Last Sunday afternoon, waiting on MSU’s game against Georgia Southern in Statesboro to begin, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and found Golden and teammate Loryn Nichols holding a tiny frog on one of their mitts.

“This is Chester,” Golden announced.

Someone more versed in amphibious biology could tell us if Chester actually is a boy frog or not, but the concern was less for his gender and more for his well-being. Upon petting his back, it was discovered that Chester was pretty dried out having spent the day baking in the hot Georgia sun. Golden, the happy humanitarian she is, decided he needed to be returned to his home.

After Chester hopped around the dugout and scared a few members of the team, Golden scooped him up and took him to a wet, grassy area in the trees behind the stadium to, perhaps, save his life and set him free.

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The Southeastern Conference has an annual quirk in softball scheduling as only 13 of the 14 schools participate in the sport, Vanderbilt being the one university without a softball program. Because of this, teams will have a random weekend in the middle of conference play without an SEC foe to face. MSU could easily host an in-state non-conference school in Starkville on these weekends, but head coach Vann Stuedeman saw an opportunity in the odd scheduling situation.

unnamed-1Why sit at home for a weekend when you could go somewhere fun? Her players have the chance, for four years, to travel the country for free and see things they might never otherwise be able to. So, with only two weeks left in the regular season, Stuedeman took her team to historic (and lovely) Savannah, Georgia for the weekend, a short hour-ish drive from Statesboro where they played and won two games against GSU.

On arrival Friday, the buses of players, coaches, support staff and myself skipped straight past check-in at the hotel and went to the beach on Tybee Island. The Bulldogs had a “workout” on the same sand frequented by Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan and John Mellencamp, and where Robert De Niro and Zac Efron are filming for a movie just this week. From there they went to dinner at The Crab Shack for fresh-out-of-the-ocean seafood.

Over the course of the weekend, they went on a haunted trolley tour (“I screamed!” Golden admitted), walked around the country’s first planned city lined with live oaks and Spanish moss and ate at least a few good meals each day, though Stuedeman eagerly skipped dinner for the haunted trolley tour.

“I can eat anywhere,” she said. “I can only do this here. Most haunted city in America, this is the place to do it.”

The whole point of it all was to have fun, to let everyone enjoy themselves and give them an experience they’ll remember and may never be able to have under other circumstances. The other benefit is giving an opportunity for players’ families to see them play, as many of the current Bulldogs are from or have familial ties to the state of Georgia. In fact, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday were, at the very least, 50-50 MSU-GSU.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, though. Stuedeman makes a point to go on fun road trips every year, and sometimes more than once. Earlier this season, they played in Orlando where most of the team went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, though a small Stuedeman-led contingent visited Disney World. It was the second such trip to Orlando since she took over.

In her first year, Stuedeman took the team to Mobile during Mardi Gras, a more family-friendly version than the celebrations just west in New Orleans. Last year they went to Boca Raton, Florida and visited South Beach. On the schedule next season is a trip to California beginning in San Diego and ending in Long Beach, a trip partially planned for the California-native Nichols who will be a senior in 2016.

Even on unplanned trips, they make sure to have fun. One of my favorite travel experiences I’ve been on through MSU athletics was a swamp tour with the softball team in last year’s Lafayette Regional.

Of course, they’ve got the softball to attend to, as well. They certainly take the games themselves very seriously, and they had quite the match-up going Sunday afternoon in the shade-free and 90 degree GSU stadium.

MSU had to come from behind to even tie it, then it went all the way into the ninth inning (two longer then the seven regulation innings in softball) at a 5-5 tie.

In the top of the ninth, desperate to get the win, senior Katie Gentle walked up to the on-deck area and spoke to designated player MacKenzie Toler as she was about to step to the plate with one runner on base.

“End this right now,” Gentle told Toler, staring right in her eyes.

Next swing – Toler rocked a fastball out of the infield, past the outfield and straight over the fence for a two-run bomb, giving MSU a 7-5 lead they never lost.

When Toler crossed home plate, she pointed straight at Gentle, a huge smile on both their faces.

So MSU got the wins, plus they had a little fun as the postseason and a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament approaches. It worked out exactly as Stuedeman hoped.

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That’s What He Said: Reviewing MSU’s defense after spring football

It may seem as if it just began, but spring is now over at Mississippi State, at least for the football team. Spring practices concluded this weekend with the annual Maroon-White scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium, meaning we’ve got a long few months of waiting and speculating before fall camp begins in August (still summer, if you ask me or the sun).

TVQWSWQWRTPFDBH.20150418223746Things will certainly change between now and then, and they will surely change some more between the start of camp and the first game of the season at Southern Miss, but we learned a lot about where MSU stands over the course of the spring, so we’ll break it down by position with some general observations and thoughts from coaches.

We covered the offense yesterday, so we’ll hit the defense today.

Defensive Line

Coach David Turner has a lot to replace in this group, but he’s got a lot to work with, too. Senior Ryan Brown is, technically, the only returning starter, but juniors Chris Jones and A.J. Jefferson have had as many as reps as anyone, despite coming off the bench the last two years. Those three and fellow veteran Nelson Adams, a junior tackle, make up the starting four, but there’s talent aplenty behind them.

320-pound junior Nick James appears ready to be a consistent contributor for the first time and has earned a share of first-team reps, as well. Redshirt freshman tackle Cory Thomas was, to me, one of the most impressive players of the spring anywhere on the roster. He’s big, strong and incredibly talented; he just needs experience. On the outside, senior Torrey Dale has made big strides, according to both Turner and my eyes, while junior college transfer Jonathan Calvin looks like he’s going to push everyone for a starting position. Junior end Will Coleman and freshman tackle Braxton Hoyett deserve mention here, as well.

There’s a lot going on with the line, but Jefferson may have been the most attention-garnering member through the spring, culminating with his highlight-reel play in the spring game when he not only tackled the running back behind the line, but brought down the 6’6” tight end blocking for him, too.

That’s What He Said: David Turner on A.J. Jefferson – “He grinds and he’s kind of sneaky good. You don’t realize what he’s doing and how good he is until you stop and watch the tape. He has the ability to make a lot of plays. A.J., he loves football. He plays violent, he plays strong and he loves football. He’s a guy that should be the alpha dog of this group, kind of the bell cow of the group.

Linebacker

The only position on the team with a new coach in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, this unit also has to replace two out of three starters in the departed Benardrick McKinney and Matt Wells. However, plenty of talent remains.

MSU knows what it has in presumptive starters Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown and Zach Jackson, a versatile and experienced trio. The story of the spring here, though, surely has to be redshirt freshman Gerri Green. He’s the next in line following McKinney and K.J. Wright of big, long and strong linebackers at MSU, and he’s ready to play after redshirting his first year on campus.

Green finished his spring by showing out in the spring game, including an interception, and will force coaches to put him on the field. Presently, he’s working behind Richie Brown in the middle, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Diaz move guys around to get Green and the two Browns on the field at the same in certain packages.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on people comparing Gerri Green to Benardrick McKinney – “He is his own player. Benardrick didn’t look like that when he was a freshman. Gerri does look like that. He has such a great work ethic. He’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve been around.”

Cornerback

After quarterback, this is probably the most steady, safe position on MSU’s roster. Seniors Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun both return as starters and the duo ought to be one of the best in the conference.

The story here has been the return of Cedric Jiles. The talented junior has been hamstrung by injuries throughout his career, but he’s finally healthy and showing what he’s capable of. I still remember hearing former MSU corners Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks rave about him after his first week of practice a few years back, saying he was a sure-fire future NFL player. In 2015, it looks like he’ll finally get the opportunity to show off that talent.

That’s What He Said: Cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend on Cedric Jiles – “He’s just a guy that’s had reps, has played in the SEC and has that experience and the confidence that you need. Another body that can run. The physical type of corner you need in the SEC.

Safety

Where QB and cornerback have their starters in place from last year, safety is exactly the opposite, where zero percent of the starters are back from 2014 after the graduations of Justin Cox and Jay Hughes. It would seem safeties coach Tony Hughes has his work cut out for him, but he’s actually got a very talented group in place, and one which will be bolstered when the 2015 signees arrive this summer.

One of the coaches’ favorite young players on defense is redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant, a guy who easily could have played last year. One of my picks for breakout new player in 2015, Bryant is a hard-hitter who (pardon the cliché) has a nose for the ball. He’s always in on the action it seems and has a real knack for finding the pigskin.

Some combination of Bryant, junior Kivon Coman, junior Deontay Evans and senior Kendrick Market (out for the spring with injury) will likely enter fall camp as the No. 1s and 2s, but it’s not unreasonable to think they could be pushed by players on the roster now or freshmen coming in.

That’s What He Said: Tony Hughes on Kendrick Market – “He’s our leader. Not just a leader in the safety group but of the whole defense, the whole team. When he talks, everybody just shuts up and listens.

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That’s What He Said: Reviewing MSU’s offense after spring football

It may seem as if it just began, but spring is now over at Mississippi State, at least for the football team. Spring practices concluded this weekend with the annual Maroon-White scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium, meaning we’ve got a long few months of waiting and speculating before fall camp begins in August (still summer, if you ask me or the sun).

LNYCMJOHUVCTRZT.20150418221646Things will certainly change between now and then, and they will surely change some more between the start of camp and the first game of the season at Southern Miss, but we learned a lot about where MSU stands over the course of the spring, so we’ll break it down by position with some general observations and thoughts from coaches.

We’ll start with the offense today and come back with the defensive side of the ball tomorrow.

Offensive Line

Can a group lose three starters and be better? At least in terms of depth, that seems to be the case, though we’ve got a while until we see how it pans out with the starting five.

Exiting spring, it appears to be athletic senior Rufus Warren at left tackle, senior Justin Malone at left guard, junior Jamaal Clayborn at center (moved over from guard), junior Devon Desper at right guard and junior Justin Senior at right tackle. That group performed very well, and it speaks to the talent of the two tackles that Martinas Rankin, the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country, hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on MSU’s offensive line – “They’re coming along. We’ve got a long time until they play. If you look, we’ve got a lot of good offensive linemen, we’ve just got to get them experience. They can’t get enough reps, we could have 15 more practices and be happy. There’s only two of them that have had legitimate bunches of game reps.”

Quarterback

I’ve got a good feeling about this Dak Prescott guy, really think he’s got a chance to be decent. Really though, everyone knows what MSU has in Prescott, but it’s the emergence of redshirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald that’s been the big story. 6’5” and 225 pounds with a big arm, he’s rocketed up the depth chart, looking like the first option behind Prescott while junior Damian Williams and freshman Elijah Staley have been sidelined with injuries.

Short term, Williams would be the first player in if Prescott were sidelined for a few plays. But if Prescott were sidelined long-term, and certainly after he graduates following this season, I have a feeling Fitzgerald is the next man up.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on what Dak Prescott is working on this offseason – “You want to see his ability to get to second, third and fourth progressions, make throws, make off-balance throws, throws on the run, unorthodox throws, changing arm angles to get around linemen. Things that take some experience. The biggest one right now is here’s a guy that knows what it takes on the field to go out there and win.”

Wide Receiver

Similar to the offensive line, this may be the most talent at the position in the Dan Mullen era, and truthfully it may rival any team at MSU all-time in terms of ability.

De’Runnya Wilson is the star (as written in this space Saturday) but the story from spring was true junior Fred Ross. Injuries slowed the first couple years of his career a bit, but Ross seems to be the smoothest and most consistent receiver on the team. He catches everything, runs routes perfectly and has enough speed and size to compete with anyone.

Moving Ross to the slot seemed odd to me at first, but the more I watched it through the spring – and the more I heard the rave reviews from former slot star Chad Bumphis – the better a switch it seemed. Wilson getting attention on the outside and Ross moving the chains from the slot and even out of the backfield will be a tough tandem to cover, all while 6’5” senior Joe Morrow (who doesn’t seem to have received enough credit for his consistency and improvement the last 12 months) patrols the third spot.

Throw in Gabe Myles, Fred Brown, Donald Gray, Jesse Jackson, plus pass-catching tight end Gus Walley (another spring star this year), and MSU has more weapons than ever.

That’s What He Said: Dak Prescott on what he and De’Runnya Wilson will work on in the offseason – “He should know what I’m thinking from the moment I drop back based on what the coverage is, and vice-versa.”

Running Back

With Josh Robinson off the to the NFL, rising junior Ashton Shumpert entered the spring as the presumed starter after a strong finish to the 2014 season. He exited the spring seemingly still holding on to that spot, but his grip appears much more tenuous as redshirt freshman Dontavian Lee was one of the breakout stars on the offensive side of the ball.

Lee may be the least-recruited running back of the group, but he seems to be the most well-rounded. He’s got the size to run up the middle, as well as the hands and the speed to catch passes out of the backfield or bounce runs outside. It was his running that set up the White team in the redzone for its first score of Saturday’s scrimmage and his five-yard touchdown run that tied it up later in the second quarter.

That’s What He Said: Dan Mullen on Dontavian Lee – “He runs the ball really hard. He’s done a real good job of picking up the offense. That’s important for young guys. You recruit him to put the ball in his hand and let him go run, but there’s so much more than that.

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De’Runnya Wilson breaks out in Spring Game, poised for big 2015

For the majority of spring practice, De’Runnya Wilson was limited, half-speed and rarely heard from. Other receivers, young and old, got the attention as fifth-year senior quarterback Dak Prescott led what looks to be a high-flying offense throughout the spring.

JHGBKLCMEBQDLLN.20141116010217Then, at the exact last moment possible, Wilson reminded everyone why they were wrong to ever forget about him, or at least to not be talking about him. It was only a spring game, but on Scott Field, the rising junior receiver showed again why he’s considered one of the best in the country, why he hauled in catch-after-catch and broke tackle-after-tackle during Mississippi State’s run to the top of the college football world in 2014.

With five catches for 92 yards and a score Saturday, De’Runnya Wilson broke back out, one last show before his third season starts in September.

Bear, as teammates call him, had been limited through the spring due to minor injuries, but a talk with Prescott, combined with health, spurred him to finish strong.

“I told him to come out here running and let’s get our game speed going,” Prescott said. “I told him we wouldn’t have this chance again so we had to make sure we pick it up.”

Said Wilson, “Dak Prescott is only going to make me a better person on and off the field.”

It can be a little odd to think of Wilson as a player still trying to get better. After all, as just a true sophomore last year, he led the team by a longshot in every major receiving category, catching 47 passes for 680 yards and nine touchdowns, despite being limited for a significant portion of the season.

Most impressive were his numbers in big games against MSU’s toughest opponents. Wilson racked up a total of 548 yards combined in six games against LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, including six touchdowns.

Just last week, the Sporting News named him the fourth-best receiver in the country.

“I didn’t know that,” Wilson said when asked about it after the spring game. “But it’s a blessing, I can say that.”

However, despite all his success and recognition, he’s only entering his fourth year of even playing football, having just started in high school as a senior. It can only be assumed, he believes, that he’ll get better by significant amounts as each year goes by.

A big part of that, Wilson told reporters, is receivers coach Billy Gonzales. For a player as young as Wilson, in terms of football knowledge and training, having a longtime instructor and developer of talent like Gonzales has been invaluable.

“Coach Gonzales is going to bring the best out in you,” Wilson said. “He recruits you to come play SEC football and you’ve gotta live up to that hype.”

Surely, training with Gonzales, getting extra work in with Prescott and spending time in the weight room will help Wilson’s game going into 2015. However, the same reason those around the team stopped talking about him all spring could be the exact cause for him to have an even bigger year this fall.

The talent at receiver, anyone on the team will concede, is as strong as it’s ever been under Mullen. Listing the potential playmakers, one might as well copy-and-paste the receivers portion of the roster. Some are tall, some are fast, some are strong and some are all of the above.

The benefit for Wilson is that opposing defenses can’t just focus on him. Plus, he’s still an athlete. Teammates or not, he’s competitive and wants to be the best person on the field.

Add to that depth an experienced senior quarterback who will likely be in the Heisman race, as well as a re-tooled offensive line and new running backs, and it would appear the Bulldogs will be throwing the ball a lot in 2015.

If today’s spring game was any indication, De’Runnya Wilson will be the star of the show.

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Maroon-White Spring Game rosters released

Just under 24 hours away from kickoff, we’ve got the rosters for the annual Maroon-White Spring Football Game at Mississippi State. You can check out the full rosters here, but we’ll hit the highlights below.

DUEQHOZBTOGJHGD.20141004185209In every spring game under Dan Mullen, the Maroon team has won, and based on these rosters, they’ll be favorites to repeat. It doesn’t work out exactly perfectly, but the split is pretty clear between starting groups and second teams.

Maroon has the starting quarterback (Dak Prescott, obviously), running backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive line and defensive backs. Those starters will be working with, generally speaking, the second team offensive line and linebackers.

Conversely, the White team has the second team quarterback (freshman Nick Fitzgerald, who has had a very good spring), running backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive linemen and defensive backs. Naturally, they’ve got the first-team offensive line and linebackers.

The pairing of basically the starting offense with the second-team offensive line (and the second-team offense with the starting offensive line) should make for some fun and help balance things. As a result, the starting defensive and offensive lines will be pitted against each other, and the same for the second team lines.

One note announced earlier in regards to the game: basketball coaches Ben Howland (White) and Vic Schaefer (Maroon) will serve as the guest coaches for the spring game on invitation from Dan Mullen.

Also, I’m told MSU will be holding a few players out for precautionary measures. Quarterbacks Damian Williams and Elijah Staley are on that list, as well as receivers Gabe Myles, Jesse Jackson and Malik Dear, defensive backs Taveze Calhoun and Kendrick Market, running back Brandon Holloway and linebacker Dez Harris.

We’ll have more in the way of analysis, information and observation from the Spring Game tomorrow. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. and MSU will officially welcome the new Bully in a ceremony beginning at 10:30.

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Bulldog Bites: Prescott talks titles and Starkville eats at the Arts Festival

On a somewhat weekly basis in this space, sports and food will be brought together to run through the happenings in Mississippi State athletics and talk about places to eat in Starkville. If you’re only interested one, feel free to scroll right past the other. Sports first, food second.

SPORTS STUFF

He avoided the words all through his breakout campaign in the fall, but now, Dak Prescott is talking National Championships.

Not for him, though. He’d like to win one, too, but he surprised Mississippi State’s women’s golf team this week as they were leaving for this weekend’s SEC Championships, and he told the No. 9 team in the country what he thinks they’re capable of.

“Y’all have a chance nobody else has to be the first National Champion at Mississippi State, period. No one else has done it,” Prescott accurately pointed out. “I’m excited for you. I hope you do it and I think you can do it.”

One of the best teams in the country the last couple years, MSU absolutely has a chance to do it. In fact, they’ll be one of the favorites to pull off the feat once the NCAA Tournament field is selected and competition begins.

But, as head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm pointed out, any previous success is meaningless once the postseason begins.

“The rankings don’t mean anything now. It’s 54 holes of competition,” she said. “I’d put these girls up against anyone in the country.”

And they’ve gone up against people from all over the country already. Fairly often, they’ve beaten them, too. MSU’s program has undergone resurgence the last few years, led by Brown and seniors Ally McDonald and Rica Tse. It was those two who Prescott charged to be the example for their teammates and lead the charge as they push for those two words: National Championship.

If they win it, Prescott said, it would be more proof of what the entire athletic department has built the last five years.

“Expectations have changed around campus, around this whole university,” he said. “Everyone in this country knows who we are now.”

Said Brown, “As we change the culture of MSU’s women’s golf, we wanted people to know who we are based on the color of our shirt when we walk onto the course … It’s taken a couple years to change that. But we are now competitors and contenders for every event we’re in.”

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While the attention will be centered on Starkville and Super Bulldog Weekend the next several days, the women’s golf team is one of four MSU teams who will be on the road this weekend, all playing in the SEC Championships as postseason play begins.

Men’s and women’s tennis and men’s golf are all beginning competition, each with hopes of advancing in the postseason.

In fact, men’s tennis – who seems to be the hottest team on campus lately – might have worked itself into a position where it could be hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament after a third place overall finish in the SEC’s regular season.

Under first year head coach Matt Roberts and with a roster full of young and new players, it took the Bulldogs a little while to get going. But once they hit their stride, they became nearly unbeatable.

Now No. 20 in the country, the 18-6 (9-3 SEC) squad is 6-1 over its last seven matches, all against SEC competition. However, it was a loss to Texas A&M before that streak began when things changed.

MSU lost, but it was a thriller at home against the then-No. 7 team the in the country, one of the SEC’s dominant programs, and players say it was then that they realized they can compete against the best teams and individuals the NCAA has to offer.

“You can’t have regrets, but you can learn from everything you go through with your team,” Roberts said. “We learned a lot that night. It gave us a lot of confidence going forward in how good we are as a team … We got more comfortable being uncomfortable.”

On Friday, the Bulldogs will play the winner of Florida-Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, and they’re hoping for another couple wins to enhance their resume. MSU has already submitted its bid to host in the NCAA Tourney.

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Also in competition this weekend is the men’s golf team at the SEC Championships, a young group in a bit of a transition year. However, they’re playing their best at the right time as the new pieces have started coming together and consistency has improved down the stretch of the season, concluding in their annual home event at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss.

“We knew there was going to be a learning curve,” assistant coach Noah Goldman said. “I wish we could sprinkle some dust and give them that experience, but that’s just not how it works. They’ve done it this year and figured it out.”

We didn’t get the chance to talk to the women’s tennis team, but at No. 42 in the country, MSU is having its best season in a decade, led by head coach Daryl Greenan. The 10 seed in the SEC Tournament, MSU will play seven-seed South Carolina this afternoon.

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FOOD STUFF

Dan Mullen, a millionaire football coach, and myself, a less-than-millionaire (hundredaire?) writer, don’t have a ton in common, but we do share at least a couple of the same interests – sports and food.

Mullen is a pizza snob, to the point that he tosses his own dough for homemade pies in his kitchen, and he’s had occasional daydreams about opening up an Italian restaurant in Starkville, though it seems he’s been a little busy coaching football.

3597406_origHe’s got 76,000 followers on Twitter, but he only follows about 300 people himself, mostly players and recruits, and of that small group, at least a few are dedicated exclusively to philly cheesesteak sandwiches. He once spent 15 minutes with local reporters explaining exactly how to make a good one at home, and exactly what type of roll one needs.

Me, I love many things in life. Books and TV, beaches and mountains, family and friends; but like Mullen, two of my biggest loves are sports and food. That’s the whole point of this weekly column, after all. It’s for those reasons that Super Bulldog Weekend is one the happiest times of the year for me – three days of watching sports and eating all kinds of edible items.

MSU’s head coach and I spend a lot of time around each other at games, practices, press conferences and various athletic events. But last year, we ran into each other unexpectedly on the morning before the football team’s spring game. I had a bag of biscuits and he had two kids, a dog and a Styrofoam cup full of some type of soft drink. We were both walking around the Cotton District Arts Festival, enjoying some sunshine and food in a fair-like setting before our day of work began.

Super Bulldog Weekend – all about sports and food. And people, too, I suppose.

The grills fire up first on Friday morning for the annual pig cooking competition and they’ll continue throughout the weekend in the Left Field Lounge. Restaurants around town will have their full staff on the clock around the clock to accommodate the tens of thousands of people coming to town, and my favorite part of SBW – the Cotton District Arts Festival – runs 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday. The Arts Festival is the city’s street market for a day, a Starkville Bazaar of arts, crafts, entertainment and, most importantly, food. Visit their website (here – http://www.starkvillearts.net/cotton-district-arts-festival.html ) for the full schedule of events, bands and vendors, but sticking to any kind of schedule out there almost ruins the fun.

My Saturday duties take me to football, baseball and softball by late morning every year, but getting out there at 8 a.m. is a nice way to beat the crowds, get the best selection and have neat stuff to look at while drinking coffee.

The best part, however, starts at 9 with Taste of Starkville, the cooking competition amongst local restaurants. About 15 businesses are competing, which means they’ll have trucks and stands setup for anyone (read: us) to come by and get something to eat. I don’t know why, but it seems like things taste better when they come on a paper plate and are eaten when on foot outside. There’s a freedom to walking around with food in your hands, not caring what kind of mess you make. And I’ve certainly yet to find anything that isn’t better deep-fried on a stick.

Harvey’s has some of the best fair-food options every year, as do The Veranda and Bin 612. Seeing food from Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern in the bright light is strange, but just as tasty, and I hear Mugshots is breaking out a veggie burger as festival organizers have asked participants to have a healthy option, though I personally throw all concerns about cholesterol and carbohydrates out the proverbial window in these situations.

That’s part of the fun, too, as it’s not just healthy dishes but all manner of inventions and off-the-menu items these places put together especially for the Arts Festival.

So, I’ll see you many of you at Davis Wade Stadium, Dudy Noble Field and the MSU Softball complex this weekend. The hungry ones, I’ll see you walking around the district Saturday.

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Bully 101: How mascots are selected and why they retire

When Jak was just a baby, he was picked to take over the family business whenever his father retired. Jak’s grandfather, who he never met, was the first in the family tree to run it, taking the job as a young pup in 2001.

unnamed

Jak, left, with Pritchard and Champ

Jak, full name Cristil’s Golden Prince, is the new Bully, the 21st mascot in Mississippi State University history. His father Champ was Bully the last seven years and his grandfather TaTonka was the school mascot before him. In dog years, Jak’s grandfather started the family business a century ago, and Jak’s eventual successor will be picked from his own litter when his reign ends.

The excitement on Saturday will be for Jak, who will walk out onto Scott Field with his dad and be given the ceremonial harness before MSU’s spring football game. But for Lisa Pritchard, who has been the caretaker of Bullies since 1993, it will be hard not to reflect on the life and career of Champ, who has lived with her since shortly after he was born.

“Everyone will get to see me cry,” she admitted as she walked Champ and Jak onto Scott Field last week. “It’s sad for me, personally. I’m not going to have Champ going with me to all these places. But I don’t lose him. Whenever we do retire him, he gets to sit at home in the recliner and enjoy the retired life, which I think every MSU alum should get to do.”

Through his time as Bully, Champ has become the most successful mascot in school history, at least in terms of wins. He’s been to five bowl games for football. He watched MSU play in the College World Series from the same recliner he’s retiring to. Just last month, he watched the women’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament, and he’s seen them make it all the way to Sweet Sixteen before. He’s seen men’s basketball win the SEC Tournament and baseball do the same. He was there for the biggest crowd in school history at football, and he ran onto the field before Dan Mullen’s first game.

Champ his been in a blimp and he’s donned an Air Force hat to take pictures on the wings of fighter jets. In fact, he even gets his own seat on the charter plane with the football team.

“The pilots and stewardesses absolutely love him,” Pritchard says.

Champ’s favorite snack is popcorn, and he legitimately enjoys watching ESPN, so much so that Pritchard leaves it on for him when he’s at home. She says he can tell time, too. No matter where they are or what they’re doing, Champ’s internal alarm clock goes off at 5 p.m. and somebody better feed him.

He’s even been hoisted into the air on ESPN’s College GameDay.

unnamed-1Now, he’s adding father of the mascot to his list of accomplishments as he passes the reigns to six-month old Jak this Saturday.

Jak was born in October and was named for Jack Cristil, the longtime MSU radio Voice of the Bulldogs who passed away last year. Pritchard was the one in charge of selecting which pup of the litter would become Bully, her area of expertise for the extent of her professional career.

She started working with Bullies back in 1993 when it was Bully XV, and it was Tonka who was the first to be formally purchased by the University and go off to live with Pritchard so she could take care of him (and his successors) 24-7 back in 2001.

When making the decision, she’s looking for two main things beyond health. First is the color. Bully needs to have a good balance, not too much brine, which doesn’t show up as well as on camera, and not too much white either.

The second, and perhaps most important, is personality.

“They have to have a very outgoing personality, almost to the point of being showy,” she said. “They have to have their own life about them already. You can tell even as young pups if their personalities are strong.”

It’s something she learned the hard way, as one bulldog who wished to remain anonymous was forced into early retirement back in the 1990s after a couple of incidents. He was replaced by an interim, just as any important figure, until a permanent successor could be found and named.

Jak met the stringent requirements in both appearance and personality, giving Pritchard full faith he’s ready to take over the business. Champ was almost two when he became the full-time mascot, but Jak is taking over at the young age of six months. Of course, already weighing around 50 pounds, he’s likely going to be one of the biggest Bullies ever, and certainly bigger than his father.

unnamed-3The process of becoming Bully has changed a great deal since the very first one, who was just a stray bulldog who roamed the campus and was fed by compassionate students. After his death, the school yearbook said of him, “most of us doubt that there was ever an uglier, lazier dog alive.

Of course, they added that “there was a never a better-natured nor better-loved dog alive.”

Bully’s time as the first mascot came to an end after five years when he was accidentally struck by a bus on campus and consequently buried under the 50-yard line of Scott Field after a full military processional.

That part has changed, too. The average Bully has generally lasted 2-4 years, but Champ made it nearly seven full years and is still running and moving fine. In fact, his father TaTonka is the only one who ever served longer, though Jak will have every opportunity to out-work them both.

Champ’s retirement comes not because he’s sick, dying or becoming a problem. He’s just getting a little old. Most English bulldogs, Pritchard said, are expected to live 10-12 years, though some can make it as far as 14. On the backside of nine years old, Champ has lived a full life and reached retirement age. He’s ready to live out his days on the recliner at home.

So now, Jak will take over, officially crowned on top of the same field where the first Bully was buried and where the ashes of his grandfather TaTonka were spread.

unnamed-2Jak was born a short walk down campus at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and it was Pritchard he was immediately handed to upon birth. She didn’t know the little bulldog she held would soon be named Bully XXI, though she knew there was a chance.

Pritchard cradled the tiny bulldog in her hands, rubbing his belly until he took his very first breath.

“And I’ll be there for his last,” she said as she watched baby Jak climb on his dad during his first visit to Scott Field just one week before taking over.

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MSU defense making strides under Diaz

Thursday afternoon, late in Mississippi State’s football practice, a couple hundred coaches from various schools and levels watched from the sideline as Dan Mullen burst out in a fit of frustration. One of the defensive linemen, junior tackle Nick James, had jumped offside before the snap in 11-on-11 work. It wasn’t the first mistake in practice, nor would it be the last for either side of the ball, but it was the one that set Mullen off – the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

MSU’s head coach ran from his spot behind the action and right into the middle of the fray of coaches and players to let them know – loudly – that he wasn’t happy. He wasn’t mad at James specifically, he was mad at the defense in general. That play happened to come a few days after the offense had a banner day in the first full scrimmage of the spring in Davis Wade Stadium, meaning the defense was less than stellar.

“I would say it was a pretty strong butt-kicking,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said about it, with only a hint of a smile.

RWSOANQDKBTWABE.20150105222602If Mullen was frustrated, Diaz was even moreso, though he was a bit less obvious about it. However, since that moment Thursday, the defense has looked like an entirely different unit. The rest of practice, they flourished. For the majority of the second scrimmage this past Saturday, Diaz’s unit was dominant; fast, strong and swarming.

Now, all that improvement didn’t come just because of one heated talk from their coach. They’re football players – it would be strange if they went more than a week or two without one of those. But it was certainly a good reminder for a defense that has a lot of talent and has started to show it under their new defensive coordinator.

“Our blessing and our curse here is we have a bunch of guys who can make plays, and have made plays in big games,” Diaz said early last week, before the eventual improvement. “The issue is they have to be able to do it consistently … What stops us from doing that consistently?”

On Saturday in Davis Wade, they were consistent. In fact, even those who have never made plays in any game – because they’ve never played in one for MSU – were showing out.

Junior college transfer and defensive end Jonathan Calvin has been a star on the line and made a strong impact for his unit Saturday. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Cory Thomas was in on seemingly every play, the spark for many of them. Redshirt freshman safety Brandon Bryant looks like one of the most talented players on the field and junior corner Cedric Jiles – healthy for the first time – is showing why teammates called him a future NFL player the day he arrived on campus.

It can be easy for those around the program to forget, but Diaz is completely new to these players. The coaches know him from his last stop in Starkville, as do the fans and media, but not a one of the defensive players now had a single practice under him back in 2010. They were all in high school, and junior high for some of them.

As such, learning a similar-but-new system has been a process. Early in spring, as Diaz said, the issue wasn’t talent. More than anything, it seemed to be communication and comfort.

Seemingly, those issues have improved greatly. State’s defense looked fast Saturday, and that’s because they knew where they supposed to be. Speed does no one any good if they don’t know where they’re going.

“I think we’re getting a little bit better,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “It’s all the subtle changes. There’s little changes at certain positions and certain defenses that things look different than what they did in the past. You’ll see some guys, when it’s a high-stress, high-tempo situation, all of the sudden reverting. How the blitz is hitting, what gaps we’re hitting in, those will take some time as they continue to grow.”

The change on defense hasn’t been wholesale, however. Far from it. As Diaz said, what MSU did in the past was good. They’re just trying to make it even better. One of the favorite buzzwords for defensive coaches is “multiple,” but it appears to have truth under Diaz. MSU is sending blitzes from everywhere, disguising plans (as well as it can against it’s own offense, anyway) and moving people around frequently.

Reading between the lines, it also sounds as if the 1A and 1B defense may be a thing of the past. Diaz likes his depth, but when asked about it, he didn’t give the vibe of one who envisions subbing out his entire starting 11 at the same time.

“What we did here the last few years was good, but like anything, we’re trying to make it better,” Diaz said.

One of the more subtle differences, as Mullen pointed out Saturday, has been the demeanor of the defense, the collective attitude. It’s nothing malicious, but exchanges between offensive and defensive players have been slightly more chippy. No one is allowed to tackle Dak Prescott, of course, but when Chris Jones breaks through the line and has the play blown dead for a would-be sack, he makes sure to give his quarterback a bump on the shoulder as he runs backs to his defense.

Mullen joked that you won’t see any freshmen comfortable enough to do such a thing, but harmless exchanges like that speak to the enhanced aggression and drive from this unit.

To say everything is perfect, on either side of the ball, would be unwise at this moment. But it’s very easy to say this: MSU’s defense is starting to click under Manny Diaz. With the playmakers available on the field and the playcallers standing on the sideline, the Bulldogs have a great deal of potential.

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Meyer, O’Brien speak at MSU coaches clinic

Saturday, September 20, 2014, Ohio State’s football team had its first off week of a year that would ultimately end in a National Championship. Having a rare weekend of relative freedom in the fall, Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer was able to spend time with his family.

Watching football on TV instead of the sideline, Meyer spent Saturday night with his eyes glued to the big screen as he watched his longtime friend and former assistant Dan Mullen pull off what was then the biggest win of his career, a 34-29 victory in Baton Rouge over one of the country’s Top 10 teams.

Today in Starkville, Meyer spoke at Mississippi State’s coaching clinic, introduced by his old pal “Danny” Mullen. OSU’s head coach remembered that free Saturday clearly, he and his family pulling for the Bulldogs.

“I was cheering my heart out when Dak was running all over LSU,” he told the assembled coaches as Dak Prescott himself listened from the side.

The two ended up speaking for several minutes after Meyer finished his talk, and while Prescott was new to Meyer, elsewhere in the room he saw several familiar faces from his long, successful career. He was greeted with a huge hug and smile from Megan Mullen, who he first new as Dan’s girlfriend, the TV reporter Meg West. He spoke to MSU’s John Hevesy, Jon Clark and Billy Gonzales, too – all members of his staff at least once along the way.

The connections are everywhere, as the next speaker mentioned. Meyer was followed on the stage by Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien. While Meyer’s connection is Mullen, O’Brien’s is Hevesy, State’s offensive line coach.

It was only six months, but for a period of time so many years ago, Hevesy and O’Brien shared a desk at Brown University where they were the offensive line and running backs coaches, respectively.

“We’re just two guys that are very passionate about coaching football,” O’Brien said.

The talks the two coaches gave focused on leadership, though certainly, re-connecting with old friends became a topic of conversation.

MSU’s coaches clinic will continue through the day.

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