Brandon Bryant on plans to be MSU’s No. 1 player

Entering his redshirt sophomore season this year, Mississippi State safety Brandon Bryant is one of the leading returning playmakers not just in the secondary but across MSU’s entire defense. Earning a starting role midway through his freshman campaign, Bryant ended up finishing fifth on the team with 63 tackles, and his three interceptions led all Bulldogs last season.

Considered the fastest player on the defense and quite possibly on the team, Bryant has taken on a leadership role under new safeties coach Maurice Linguist, also switching his jersey to No. 1 in an effort to showcase his role on the team. The following is a review in the words of Bryant, Linguist and head coach Dan Mullen on how a great safety is made and why Bryant could be one of them.

BKXUPRLPOSYLAOZ.20160309232526“I just want to be the No. 1 player on the field,” Bryant explained. “I want people to know my position when I step out on the field on defense … A couple good players had this jersey. Now that I’ve got it, I’ve got to be a playmaker, too. Everybody thinks No. 1 is one of the best players on the field, and that’s who I want to be this year.”

He’ll have to continue working to keep that number, however, Mullen later told reporters: “As long as his GPA stays right, he’ll stay in No. 1. He could go switch back if his GPA’s not right … Nobody had it right now, so moving forward, the jersey numbers and a lot of that stuff is determined on GPA. Quarterback reps, all that stuff. That’s how you start earning it in the offseason.”

“His mental temperament right now is really good,” Linguist offered in regards to that offseason approach. “He wants to learn. He wants to come in here and meet extra. He wants to watch extra film. He wants to stay after practice. That’s why I feel like he’s gonna have a high ceiling. He’s got a lot of natural tools, which are really good … You know, you’ve got to find out, what’s a guy’s spirit? A guy can be a good player. I can want him to be good and you can want him to be good. His parents can want him to be good. If he doesn’t want to do it himself, he’ll just be a good athlete that’s gonna be at home and never really make anything of himself.”

“I feel very comfortable because I’ve got the experience now to come out on the field and play every day,” Bryant noted on his mindset before delving into his growing role as a defensive and team leader. “I took a lot on the leadership role. Me and Kivon [Coman] are the top leaders in our unit. We’re not just playing as one individual, we’re playing as a unit. We’re out here leading each other and helping each other every day to get better.”

RQIBCLFMKWZADGG.20151017201106Calling it a ‘unit,’ Linguist extrapolated, “means having a selfless attitude about myself and taking care of my brothers to my left and to my right. I told them the first day I walked in, you’ve got one job, and that’s to take care of each other. I told them I’ve got one job, and that’s to take care of them.”

“Coach, he’s a good man,” Bryant mused. “He’s very demanding. He keeps us tight on everything. He limits our mistakes on the field. He’s getting us right right now … We go into his office and talk to him a lot.”

“Even before he got to the field,” Linguist began as he shared his first experiences with Bryant upon his arrival this spring, “he jumped in my meeting room and was eager, wanting to know everything. He wanted to ask questions. ‘What are we running? Where are you from?’ He’s like a young puppy. He’s eager. He wants to just learn and run and hit and those kinds of things. He’s got a great energy about himself. The biggest thing we’re doing now is knowing how to focus and control it. We talked about what he felt like he did positive last year and what he felt like he did negative last year, and how do we get better. You get better by, one, learning from your mistakes. Football is all about mistakes, all about who can minimize mistakes. Everybody’s gonna make them, but when you minimize your mistakes, you increase your chances of being successful, so we’re trying to minimize mistakes and learn from mistakes he had last year, build on those things, let the confidence grow. True confidence is when you have a demonstrated ability in something. I could jump, yell, shout, do all those things, but when a guy does it himself, that confidence in his heart and in his mind really grows. We’re trying to teach them what to do, get them lined up, then let them go make the plays they’re capable of making so they can build their confidence in themselves.”

“I don’t want to lose my starting spot,” Bryant admitted, though he knows his natural talent as a ballhawk will always give him a chance.

“If we could just make up ballhawks, they’d be all over the place,” Linguist joked. “A guy’s got to have a natural instinct for it … What you can coach is the awareness piece of it. You can coach the technique piece of how to high-point a football. But then, a guy’s got to go do it. You’ve gotta have ability to do it.”

KCMJQHEXDCTZBQZ.20151025014948“I think he has a great attitude, has a great work ethic,” Mullen bragged on Bryant, before returning to the strides his safety has made among teammates. “I think he’s trying to become a leader, trying to step into a little bit of a leadership role. That role is available in the backend of the defense. It’s great to see him try and take responsibility that way, as well.”

“I’d say it is,” Linguist replied when asked if that leadership is rare for someone just entering his sophomore season. “Most guys that are his age are probably still trying to figure themselves out, figure the scheme out, figure the coach out, feel a lot of things out. I think a little baptism by fire, that he was thrust into a situation where he had to play early, you’re either gonna sink or swim. Right now, he’s been trying to swim. I think he’s being doing a good job of it.”

“There’s nothing more common than guys that are athletic that don’t realize their potential,” Linguist later offered as he considered what makes Bryant good. “That doesn’t make you a great player, just because you’re a good athlete. But if you are a good athlete, you’ve got a chance to be a very good player. He is a good athlete … He’s a good athlete that I feel like wants to be a good player and is going to do the things necessary to reach his potential. I think he’s got a really high ceiling right now.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chicagoans find unexpected home in MSU’s Left Field Lounge

Walt had no idea what was in the box.

He and his wife Cathy had tickets to see their hometown Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field that night for Walt’s birthday, but his wife insisted that they come here, to their favorite local country music bar, instead.

Walt and Cathy, right, with friends Donna and Hobie last weekend

Walt and Cathy, right, with friends Donna and Hobie last weekend

Confused, wearing a “DUDY GRAS 2015” T-shirt and wondering who this mystery gift was from, Walt eventually gave up staring at the box and opened up what turned out to be his favorite birthday present: a card from everyone they had met unexpectedly the year before on their first trip to the Left Field lounge, plus a signed Mississippi State baseball.

“He was elated,” Cathy remembered. “He said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ and teared up.”

That birthday present was one of many great moments to come as the result of an adventure Walt and Cathy Cohen (no relation to MSU head coach John Cohen that they know of) decided to take during Easter weekend of 2015. Long-time Chicagoans, they had seen the likes of former Bulldogs and then-MLB stars Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen come through for the White Sox, leading Walt to wonder, “What kind of team was that?” The eventual SEC Storied documentary on Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark at MSU sparked Walt’s curiosity even more.

Two years ago, the Cohens were watching college baseball on ESPN and happened to see the game in Starkville when announcer Kyle Peterson broadcast the entire night from MSU’s famed Left Field Lounge, a mobile broadcast booth set up in the Right Field Tiki Lounge.

“We’ve got to go to this,” Walt thought at the time, Cathy quickly agreeing.

Walt asked around at work and it turned out a friend of a friend – long-time MSU meteorology expert Renny Vandewege – knew plenty to get the Cohens started. In fact, Vandewege had himself previously been the chief weather expert for MSU’s baseball team and knew precisely what the Cohens should do.

“Go by the tiki tailgate and say hey to Hobie,” Vandewege relayed to Walt.

“Oh, tiki,” Walt reacted excitedly, “that was the one that was on ESPN.”

PKGHKOKZBVBLVMU.20150120182735So, Easter weekend, the Cohens headed south, no idea what to expect, nothing to go on but the name of a stranger they had never met who had no idea they were coming for him and depending on his hospitality.

Walt and Cathy likely would’ve found the Tiki Lounge and the man named Hobie Hobart who oversees it on their own – he’s hard to miss in his Hawaiian shorts, bright shirts, sunglasses and visor – but the gods of the Left Field Lounge weren’t content to leave it to chance. Shortly after arriving in Starkville, a man in a gas station overheard the Cohens saying it was their first time in Starkville and first time going to an MSU baseball game.

“You guys have never been to the Left Field Lounge?” the stranger asked.

“No,” Walt replied. “I keep envisioning it and I’m dying to see what it looks like.”

“I want to make sure you do it the right way,” the kind Samaritan answered. “Do you know where to go?”

“We do not.”

“Follow me.”

(“We love the south,” Cathy later said.

“Overwhelmed at how nice everyone is down here,” Walt agreed.)

The nice man got the Cohens to their hotel, then took them to Dudy Noble Field and led them straight to the Tiki Lounge to introduce them to his friend Hobie who he knew would take care of them.

The rest of the story isn’t just history. It became the future. The Cohens had such a good time, made such good friends with Hobie, Donna, Pickle and the entire crew that they’ve kept up with everyone over the last year, Walt texting a congratulations when MSU’s football team wins a game, the Starkvillians sending presents to Chicago to help Walt celebrate his birthday. The Cohens even have dreams of retiring to Starkville, to the SEC.

unnamedThis weekend, one year removed from their first trip, the Cohens returned to Starkville for a reunion with their friends in their new favorite vacation spot.

“Everybody goes to Hawaii or the Caribbean for Spring Break,” Walt said. “We come here.”

“It’s the power of Left Field Lounge,” Hobart says now. “The Left Field Lounge is such an ambassador for Mississippi State.”

“This is the greatest atmosphere,” Walt remarked Thursday night as he stood in the Lounge with a plate full of food watching MSU beat Georgia. “I remember telling people last year, we do the same thing at home, barbecue and have friends over, except for the game’s on the TV on our patio. This is the best.”

Quite literally just strangers off the street when they walked into the Lounge last year, the Cohens have been treated like life-long friends from the start. Beyond being guided in direction and showered with grilled meats, veggies and cheeses, Walt even got to meet his favorite college baseball player as a result of the hospitality last year, former MSU first baseman Wes Rea.

“We also wanted to come last year pretty badly because I became a big Wes Rea fan. He was my favorite player,” Walt said. “We met him in the left field area. Nicest guy in the world.”

Walt and Cathy feel as if they couldn’t possibly re-pay their friends for the kindness they’ve been shown, but as a sign of their gratitude, they brought a piece of Chicago with them back to Starkville this time. A 20-pound piece, to be exact, in the form of their favorite Chicago sausage from their preferred local spot, Tony’s Italian Deli, a family-owned business that makes its own sausage in-house.

Beyond the fences of Dudy Noble Field, Starkville and Chicago meet now on an annual basis, southern hospitality and northern curiosity forming an unlikely team. In no other world would Walt and Cathy have crossed paths with the crew from the Right Field Tiki Lounge, and without the chance meeting, the Chicago-loyal Cohens certainly would not now be considering retiring to Mississippi.

Much as they appreciate their city, however, they’ve found a new love, a place for Walt to tell coworkers about when he talks about “going home.” As Hobart said, such is the power of the Left Field Lounge, the draw of a place that looks like a fantastical combination of a junkyard and a college football tailgate, the character of a venue with seats made from pontoon boats, milk trucks, bowling alley benches and discarded stadium chairs, a community full of smoking grills, cheering fans and Mississippi’s staple: hospitality.

“Pictures did not do it justice,” Walt said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It blew us away. We absolutely live for this. I don’t know why we haven’t been coming before.

“I told Hobie, you ruined Wrigley Field for us.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

MSU’s success now built on first group to believe in Vic Schaefer

No leader can ever lead without someone to believe in them, someone to follow them. No president can govern, no general can command and no team captain can direct without first having those supportive of and dedicated to their cause.

IQUSHBLFIYEAMWL.20160320231406Just the same in basketball, no coach can lead a team to greatness without a staff and roster of those who trust their vision and believe implicitly that they can get it done. For Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer, his appearance in the Sweet Sixteen of the women’s NCAA Tournament this weekend (with plans to advance from there) is dependent upon people like that. The foundation of his program’s success goes back nearly four years, to a period of time when he had not yet coached a game at MSU, but had a vision for what he could do when the time finally came. The first coaches to join his staff and the first players to sign with his program believed in Schaefer and his dreams for Bulldog basketball, even if there was not yet much evidence to prove his plans possible.

Now, however, the evidence is plenty. The promise that Dominiue Dillingham – the junior guard who Schaefer calls the heart and soul of his team – bought into when she signed with Schaefer and MSU over three years ago is on the path to being fulfilled as the Bulldogs travel to Connecticut to play the defending champs, No. 1 UCONN, in the Sweet Sixteen.

“He’s a great coach and he’s won a National Championship [at Texas A&M],” Dillingham said as she looked back on her high school decision, “and that’s what I wanted to do when I came here. It’s just another stepping stone getting to play the best team. It’s gonna be a great opportunity.”

YFKRJEHNTXJRMYM.20160129053245Dillingham was part of that first group of players to believe in the coach who now has them on college basketball’s biggest stage. That group is why MSU had the size to beat Tennessee twice this season. That group is why the Bulldogs had the resilience to come back from Michigan State’s 20-0 run in the second round game and win on their home floor. That group was the first to believe, the first to buy in, setting the foundation for the successes to come.

Without them, MSU doesn’t host the NIT in that group’s first year, doesn’t advance to the second round of the NCAA Tourney in their second and certainly doesn’t make it to the Sweet Sixteen in this, their third year. Nor do they set an example for those to follow, as the following year saw the all-time leading scorer in girl’s high school basketball history sign with MSU. Belief, they’ve proven, begets belief. Particularly when Schaefer is delivering on his promises, thanks so much to that group.

“When we were recruiting that first class,” Schaefer recalled, “it was just knowing where we’d been and the success we’d had and believing and trusting in a vision. That’s what we do. Once you bring it to fruition, I think it really gives you credibility and it gives your kids credibility, too.”

“It changed the makeup of our team as far as the physical makeup,” he continued. “Chinwe [Okorie] and Bre [Richardson] with the SEC bodies. Ketara [Chapel]: long, athletic, slender, can run. Dominique: that physical, tough, aggressive kid that you desperately needed to change a culture and bring that toughness to your team that you were really lacking. That competitive fire that you were really lacking. There’s no question that class was critical. We had to sign them before they ever saw us play, because if they saw us play they might not have come.”

However, had it not been for one person, Schaefer wouldn’t be at MSU at all today. When offered the job by athletic director Scott Stricklin, Schaefer was eager, but he had one demand, one qualifier that had to be fulfilled: “I wasn’t coming without Johnnie.”

Baker, far right, and Harris, second from right, celebrating as the Bulldogs beat Michigan State

Baker, far right, and Harris, second from right, celebrating as the Bulldogs beat Michigan State

Johnnie Harris, MSU associate head coach and long-time cohort of Schaefer. There alongside Schaefer and the rest of the staff in College Station when the Aggies won a national title, Harris is one of several behind-the-scenes heroes for MSU. An ace recruiter, an excellent teacher and an expert in Xs and Os preparation, Harris is one of the biggest cogs in the Schaefer system. And she’s been with him since day one, the first of many to come who believed in him and his vision for MSU.

“We’re really fortunate to have Johnnie here at Mississippi State,” Schaefer said. “She brings so much to the table … Her ability in scouting and knowing what we want to do and how we want to do it … her knowledge of the game … the role model that she provides these young ladies.”

She does it all, seemingly, and what helps so much is just how well she knows Schaefer from their many years working together. Like him, her attention to detail borders on unhealthy, a necessity in the coaching world. Her mind, Schaefer says, is like his: 10 different places at once and always staying a step (or better yet, two) ahead.

If there is anyone on the staff, however, who knows Schaefer better than Harris, it’s Maryann Baker. If Harris is the backstage star, then Baker might be the stage itself, the director of operations who keeps the entire production of Mississippi State basketball going on a daily basis. Another of the day one believers in Schaefer, hers was not a hard decision. A former Texas A&M shooting guard, Baker had already spent her playing career under Schaefer’s tutelage, winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and earning back-to-back All-Academic Big XII honors in her playing days, a span which included the Aggies’ 2011 National Title.

Now responsible for the day-to-day operations of the program, one observer joked that she’s the one keeping Schaefer’s head attached to his body.

“You’re exactly right,” he replied with a laugh. “She does a tremendous, tremendous job. Handles not only our staff, but our team, the managers, our boosters, all that. She just has her hands in a little bit of everything. And again, attention to detail. She just doesn’t miss anything. She knows exactly what I want and how I want it done.”

OJBSQZSZNBCOHXC.20160320231407Baker, Harris, a handful of players and many, many more have believed in Schaefer from the start. As his star has risen, the numbers have grown. Crowds have increased, recruiting has advanced and nationwide respect has multiplied exponentially.

Schaefer may be the man at the top, the leader without whom the movement would never have begun, but he’s not so naïve to think he could have done it without those who trusted him from the start. For those, he is grateful, and for them, he hopes to do what many said was impossible, taking Mississippi State to the Promised Land.

“Hoo, Sweet Sixteen,” Schaefer said as he sat down for his meeting with the press earlier this week. “Great opportunity.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New MSU D-Line coach Baker passionate about return to college

With Mississippi State’s football team starting spring practices, we’ve had a couple opportunities now to get more familiar with the new defensive coaching staff under head coach Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. On Tuesday, reporters got to talk to new defensive line coach Brian Baker for the first time, an interview in which we expected to learn about his coaching tactics and instead learned much more about Baker’s human side, the reasons he’s in Starkville in the first place.

VSMARIAWZPRDJGG.20160309232526Plenty of people wish they could go back and re-live their glory days attending college, but Baker has been pining for the opportunity to re-live his college coaching days. In 1996, Baker left his post as the Georgia Tech defensive coordinator to make the jump to the NFL, and for 19 years, he’s coached Pro Bowlers, All-Pros and the like at football’s highest level.

As much as Baker enjoyed working with players like Demarcus Ware and Julius Peppers, Baker rarely felt he was doing the most he could for people just by teaching them Xs and Os. After talking to him Tuesday, it’s clear why he thinks coaching in college affords him the opportunity.

“Well,” he began when asked why he returned to this level, “really, just a chance to pour into the guys. I’m a man of faith and I’ve always wanted to share that part of my philosophy, my coaching experience and just give back to the players what the good Lord has given to me. I didn’t always have a chance to do that in pro ball. It doesn’t lend itself to that. I tried to do that, but some places were easier than others.

“That was another big plus when I came here. I knew, having a chance to deal with kids from 18-22 years old, that they would be more receptive to a philosophy. The philosophy, real simple, is just an attitude of gratitude. Understanding that them being here as players is a gift from the good Lord and me being here as a coach is an absolute gift from the good Lord. They should work every day to show that appreciation. Their work should be that attitude. I try to do that through the way I coach and the way I lead. It’s a great opportunity to do that.”

Once before, Baker made the attempt to get back into college football, leaving the Carolina Panthers to join Butch Davis’ staff at North Carolina. However, as drama took the program by storm and Davis was soon out as head coach, the stint barely lasted a couple months and Baker headed back to the NFL to work with the Dallas Cowboys.

While in Texas, however, Baker finally found a chance to coach how he’s always wanted to, to work with a malleable clay of a team. In 2015, Baker joined the Covenant Christian Academy of Colleyville, Texas football team as an assistant coach and a mentor.

In Baker’s words, it was high school football in Texas, but it certainly wasn’t the Texas High School Football people think about. A K-12 Christian school with around 600 students, everything about Covenant Christian was a huge change from Baker’s decades in the NFL. And he loved it. Turns out, it was exactly what he needed to be ready for his return to the college ranks. That season – which included a district championship and playoff appearance – taught him more than he expected.

“The thing I got from it is teaching,” Baker said. “I had to really be detailed in my teaching, in my expectations. Again, the good Lord is all over my career. That prepared me for this. Understanding that I have to be very, very detailed. I can’t go in with an expectation of these guys being able to do exactly what I’m used to guys doing. I have to coach to the player. That experience really helped me with that.”

SZFJEYIGRVQJYOR.20160309232526So, he’s finally made it back to college. What now? It certainly pleases Baker that he takes over a defensive line with a great deal of experience and a strong veteran presence. And while it may be difficult for some new coaches to earn respect from such a group, Baker has arrived with immediate credibility after so much time in the NFL and so many stars under his tutelage.

“You get their attention right away,” Baker conceded. “Now, it’s up to me to keep it and earn it. I think, as a coach, our responsibility is to earn the right to coach. You do that by showing players you can help them win. I think being very detailed in what we’re doing. A question was asked today about why I don’t do a certain drill that these guys are used to doing. I said, because I don’t see the application to football for that particular drill. If I don’t see the application to football, I don’t do it. Just because somebody else may have done it or a bunch of people may have done it, if I don’t see the application, I don’t do it. Everything I want these guys to do needs to relate to winning on Saturdays. That’s all we talk about.”

Spring practice is only two sessions deep, and Baker’s tenure at MSU hardly a month old, but, finally, he’s where he wants to be. He couldn’t be happier.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Hudson seizing role as dominant ace for Cohen’s Bulldogs

After three weekends in a row against premier opponents, Mississippi State’s baseball team has proven itself to be a contender, able to seemingly beat anyone at any time. As head coach John Cohen has showcased a team with veteran production and young talent, perhaps the most impressive performances have come from a star only on the field once each week: junior right-handed pitcher Dakota Hudson.

VQQPRYEPDOBGRSR.20160319053703The preseason All-American has not only met the high expectations national outlets had for him entering his third year, but to this point, he’s exceeded them.

“A potential 1-1 candidate in the draft,” D-1 Baseball’s Kendall Rogers wrote after Hudson’s nine-inning gem in MSU’s win over No. 2 Vanderbilt last Friday, “and a true ace for the Bulldogs.”

Hudson, named the SEC Pitcher of the Week for his performance, dominated that night against one of the best teams in the country, not allowing a single earned run and only giving up four hits as he struck out eight batters over the course of his nine innings of work. The lengthy performance – 126 pitches – was particularly impressive for a power pitcher whose fastball clocked in near 96 MPH, while the cutter one national reporter dubbed “devastating” came in as fast as 92 MPH.

Those on the outside may have been surprised by his stamina and determination, but to those in his dugout, it’s what they now expect from their ace.

“Gosh, 100 pitches in, he’s throwing 94 miles per hour,” Cohen remarked after Friday’s game. “When he’s doing that and he’s in rhythm, I think he’s one of the premier guys in the entire country.”

Hudson has gone over 100 pitches now in his last three starts, all against ranked teams. Cohen and pitching coach Wes Johnson have learned to trust him more and more with each outing.

“We’ve had the conversation multiple times,” Hudson told the SEC Network during Saturday’s game, “and every time they ask me about it, I just tell them I’m going back out. If I’m anything short of 120, I’m gonna go out there and do what I can for the team.”

“He wants that baseball,” Cohen confirmed. “It doesn’t matter if he’s 100 pitches in or 10, he wants the baseball. Not sure that was always the case with him, but he’s that confident now.”

That confidence has been an important factor for Hudson, and one that’s easy to see when he takes the mound. The junior captain has a team-leading 40 strikeouts in his five starts, totaling 32.2 innings. With a 1.38 ERA, he’s only allowing opponents a .172 batting average in 2016.

But perhaps even more impressive has been his performance when playing against top opponents. In three-straight starts against ranked teams, including two against teams in the Top-10, Hudson has been lights out. Against UCLA, Oregon and Vanderbilt in successive weeks, he’s only allowed three earned runs, while he’s struck out 23 batters. In 351 total pitches, he’s only given up 13 hits. Hudson has proven himself a top-flight pitcher not just in the SEC, but in the country, one of two Bulldogs named a national player of the week this season.

His quick ascension to stardom this season has come, in Cohen’s belief, as a result of Hudson’s time in the Cape Cod summer baseball league back in the offseason. It was there that Cohen believes his star developed the now-obvious confidence he hadn’t always exhibited previously.

Explained Cohen, “I think when you go up there and you say, ‘You know what, I’m facing some of the best players in the country and I’m having success against them, maybe I’ve put other people on a pedestal. Maybe I’m as good as any of these guys.’ And I think he really believes that. He should. Because he is as good as anybody out there. He’s a different competitor. He’s really matured.”

Whether it’s summer experiences in the Cape, offseason training with Johnson or just the seizing of an opportunity, it’s worked out well for Hudson. And in his mind, he’s only just begun.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Impactful crowd at The Hump propels Bulldogs to victory and Sweet Sixteen

Humphrey Coliseum, in a nod to glories of the past, held up the new stars of today and tomorrow, taking its old form not as a building, but as a weapon capable of being turned against any foe, as an advantage given only to the home team. On Sunday, with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, The Hump was rockin’ as it propelled Mississippi State to the promised land, a coliseum full of millions of bricks, thousands of people and two basketball teams locked in a fight until the final second.

unnamedThe Hump came to life, as it has so many times before, and as a result, the Bulldogs emerged victorious, taking down Michigan State 74-72 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the Women’s NCAA Tournament.

“We don’t win that game if we’re not at home,” head coach Vic Schaefer said after. “Our fans were tremendous … If you were in that arena, you were a part of that win.”

Said Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant, “I’ve been a head coach for 21 years. I’ve played in front of some big crowds, probably a few bigger than that one. But I’ve never, ever played in front of a crowd that loud. Ever. That was the loudest crowd I’ve ever played in front of.

“What was the attendance,” she then asked as she checked the game notes. “7,000? It sounded like there were 70,000 in here.”

Schaefer agreed with her. Just this year MSU has had larger crowds in The Hump, setting a record with over 10,600 for a tilt against South Carolina. But this time, with the season on the line, in the definition of a do-or-die game, the State fans were even louder, despite their marginally smaller numbers. Louder than they’ve been at any point in the four years Schaefer has been coaching games at The Hump, as he said after the game.

This time, the crowd didn’t just make noise around the game. The fans impacted the game itself. All three of Mississippi State’s players in the post-game press conference called the atmosphere a distinct advantage, citing not just a vague “energy” but actual, specific moments in which the game was changed because of those watching, and, more specifically, yelling in the stands.

unnamed-2At halftime, the Bulldogs were up by six. By midway through the third quarter, the home team had broken open a 13-point lead. But then the scoring stopped. After Victoria Vivians hit a bucket at the 5:35 mark of the third quarter, Michigan State went on a 20-0 run, not just closing the gap, but gaining a lead and extending it to multiple possessions.

The Bulldogs look gassed, winded and over-matched. The Spartans looked confident, like a fighter who knows the knockout punch is coming. But Mississippi State got off the mat, 15 players being lifted up by 7,000 fans. The crowd breathed energy into a team that had seemingly lost all momentum and passion. And the Bulldogs bounced back.

“I wish I could have shook all 7,094 of their hands,” Schaefer said. “Wish we could’ve hugged all their necks. Because they deserved it. They pulled us through.”

With new life, The Bulldogs got back the lead they had worked so hard for the first three quarters. Then they lost it, won it again, and lost it once more. Until, finally, they got the last lead of the game.

unnamed-3But boy, did they have to work for it. With 30.6 seconds left and the game tied at 69, junior forward Breanna Richardson found herself just behind the three-point line with the ball in her hands and no one in front of her. As if she’d been practicing for the moment her whole life, Richardson never blinked. She sank the shot, the crowd went nuts, and they had half a minute to make sure they didn’t let Michigan State get the lead back.

But could the Spartans tie it up? Just six seconds after Richardson made her three, another three was attempted on the other end. It was a miss, but the shooter was fouled and Branndais Agee went to the line for three free throws and a chance to tie it up.

Richardson, however, had no fear. Not once the crowd got involved, anyway.

“There were times you couldn’t hear anything,” Spartan guard Tori Jankosa told reporters later.

“On the free throw line,” Richardson recalled as she reflected on that tense moment, “they were yelling so hard my ears were ringing. I knew she was going to miss them.”

And miss them she did, the first two bouncing off the rim, only the third falling into the net.

Moments later, the Bulldogs won, the crowd went wild and Mississippi State took the court in celebration, onto the Sweet Sixteen.

“You won’t ever forget today,” Schaefer said. “As a student-athlete, as a coach, maybe as a fan, you’ll never forget today.

“I couldn’t be prouder today. What a heck of a basketball game … tremendous.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Vivians paces Bulldogs in NCAA Tournament victory

Taking down Chattanooga 60-50 on Friday, the Bulldogs won the first round of the NCAA Tournament in classic Mississippi State fashion under Vic Schaefer. They played stout defense, hit timely shots and frustrated their opponent on both ends.

“This is who we are,” Schaefer said afterward.

GBVYZHQQRMYONVT.20160306051513At the center of it, scoring over 30 percent of her team’s points, was the sophomore star Victoria Vivians, dropping 19 on the Mocs and helping her team advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a Sunday matchup against Michigan State.

In the final minute of the game, on the last of her many breakaways after long defensive rebounds, a smile cracked open on Vivians’ face as she crossed midcourt. Two Chattanooga defenders had stepped in her path, fearful after what they had seen her do so many times already that game, continually staving off comeback attempts with her frequent baskets. In that moment, as Vivians saw the fear and respect in their faces, she knew that not only had she won, but her team had won.

The 19 points she had, the difference in the game, came as a result of that team, too. All those breakaways?

“That comes off our defense,” Schaefer said.

And it goes the other way, too, with Vivians’ success inspiring her teammates along the way.

Chattanooga head coach Jim Foster knew that coming in, though. After all, Vivians was just this week named first-team All-SEC, such a short time after winning the Gillom Trophy given to the best player in the state of Mississippi. Even more impressive than her season-long performance, however, has been the hot streak Vivians is on since the postseason began. When it’s mattered the most, when the opponents have been the toughest, Vivians has been at her best.

HVREQKOJAMIFCBS.20160306215321In her last three games – the SEC Tournament semi-finals against Tennessee, SEC finals against South Carolina and NCAA Tournament first round today – Vivians has racked up 75 points and 24 rebounds. She’s averaging 25 and 8 in what should be the hardest games of a long season. And she’s managing it with the other teams doing everything they can to stop her.

“We knew that she was going to try to do everything she could to put the team on her back,” UTC senior Alicia Payne said, “and she did a good job doing that.”

“She’s talented,” Mocs head coach Jim Foster confirmed succintly.

And when they say Vivians does everything, they don’t just mean she makes everything. She’s affecting the game all over the court.

“Tori took a charge,” junior forward Chinwe Okorie said with a laugh after the game. “Tori’s not really our charge-taker, but she knew she had to sacrifice in that moment, and she did. She did it for out team … When you see Tori do that, you’re like, ‘Oh, ok, there are things I have to do.’”

Of course, it is those baskets that mean so much. Seemingly every time UTC was coming back and making it close, Vivians would fly down the court for a breakaway layup, drop a three from steps beyond the arc or hit a clutch jumper to keep momentum on her team’s side. For someone seemingly so cold-blooded, it’s when she’s hot that she does her best.

“When Victoria scores,” Schaefer explained, “our team relaxes and plays better.”

That explains plenty about MSU’s strong play once Vivians got going after a cold first quarter for the Bulldogs. The Mocs led the Bulldogs 16-11 after the game’s first period, but by halftime, paced by Vivians, State had pulled off an 18-5 run and made the score 29-21 in their favor. By the end of the game, of course, MSU held a permanent double-digit lead, a final score of 60-50. Thanks to a full team effort, both the cause and result of Vivians’ latest grand performance.

When she hit back-to-back threes in the second half, Vivians said she was giving herself a heat check to see if she really was in the zone. Turns out, she was. And because of that, the Bulldogs moved on. With 27 wins, they’ve tied the school record for most in a season, and now they have a chance to set a new mark in front of thousands on Sunday. Playing like this, they may just do it.

“We’re making history,” Vivians said.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Schaefer proud to showcase Starkville and ‘The People’s Team’

At Starkville City Hall on Tuesday night, Mayor Parker Wiseman stood up in front of the board of aldermen, gathered media and concerned citizens to make a proclamation: March 18-20 of the year 2016 is now, officially, Mississippi State Women’s Basketball Weekend in Starkville.

OBDHOBIRPAWSCXB.20160317204554Where MSU head coach Vic Schaefer and a group of players watched, a standing ovation grew around them. The No. 15 team in the country, State is hosting the NCAA Tournament for the very first time this weekend, and the city of Starkville has played a great role in helping to make that happen.

“It’s very humbling and a tremendous honor,” Schaefer said Thursday. “I think it’s so appropriate. This community has embraced us in the four years that I’ve been here. Their support of our team, my girls, has just been outstanding.”

It even led Schaefer to reveal at the official NCAA press conference on Thursday what his nickname for his group is: The People’s Team. Well, it was a reveal to those who hadn’t been paying close enough attention, anyway.

“Y’all haven’t been listening to me,” Schaefer responded with a laugh after getting his second question about the supposedly new moniker. “I’ve said that before, now.”

Whether new or old, the nickname fits. As a team, the Bulldogs have been built off tough defense, aggressive play and a disciplined approach. But as a program, they’ve been built off their relationship with their fans and the example they provide to those of any age cheering them on. And it’s not a chicken-or-the-egg situation. The fans started coming before the NCAA Tournaments and top-10 rankings did. But as the achievements have grown, so too have the crowds.

PZUHGXWSAJYKAWF.20160110223637MSU set a record this season for overall attendance, breaking the state record for the largest crowd to see a women’s college basketball game in Mississippi history, over 10,600 filling Humphrey Coliseum on a Sunday afternoon. State averaged over 5,000 fans per game over the course of the season, including a mean of 6,200 in SEC play.

Schaefer said the reason for the support has been his players, both in how they perform on the court as the games progress and in how they act off the court when the games are over, taking to the stands every single night to meet and talk with the fans.

“We hug mamas and kiss babies,” he said, “and vice versa … It’s the respect that [players] give our fans and the time that they spend with them, their ability to communicate and their willingness to do so. In today’s world, there’s lots of kids that want to run straight to the locker room, grab their phone, get out as quick as they can. Our kids aren’t like that. They understand the importance of having that relationship with our fans.”

As much as Starkville and the fans from around the state have helped showcase Schaefer’s program, he’s determined that this weekend also be an opportunity to show anyone watching how special his community is.

“This is our moment to shine,” he said. “I want to show the country what we have here that’s so unique and special … There’s so many good places that we have to offer here. I’m hopeful that all the fans will have a chance to experience those, because this is a great town, a great community. We have tremendous people and, obviously, we have a beautiful, beautiful university.”

WEFWBURUSDXOJCF.20160317204554The focus for Schaefer and his team is, of course, on the upcoming game, Friday’s contest with Chattanooga at 1:30 p.m. And if that goes well, the focus will shift to the next opponent, so on and so forth until the season has finished or all foes have been vanquished.

However, each part of every coach and player that wants to win for their own pride is matched by an equally passionate desire to win on behalf of the community that has supported them so fervently.

“The mayor,” junior guard Dominique Dillingham recalled, “he said it’s Mississippi State women’s basketball weekend. We want to make sure it’s a weekend. We don’t want to just make it a day. We want to win the weekend.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hot bats, steady pitching carrying MSU through non-conference play

In a stretch that would have seen many teams across the country emerge winless, Mississippi State baseball came out of a grueling seven-game run of non-conference play with a 5-1-1 record, adding to an overall record of 12-3-1. Facing, in succession, UCLA, USC, Oklahoma, South Alabama and three games against top-10 Oregon, the Bulldogs showed those around the country what their new-look roster can do.

MRWSXDZFZIJOSGA.20160312050327Particularly impressive was the sweep of Oregon in Starkville, as the Ducks entered the weekend with a No. 9 ranking and a pitching staff considered to be the best in the country. Against that vaunted group, MSU amassed 24 runs and 33 hits, scoring in bunches throughout the weekend.

“Our hitters went out this summer and worked really hard,” junior pitcher Austin Sexton said. “Top to bottom, every guy that steps up to the batter’s box, you think they’re gonna get a hit.”

By comparison, MSU’s pitching staff only gave up nine total runs to the Ducks over the weekend while totaling 32 strikeouts in three games, led by junior pitcher Austin Sexton and his 12 strikeouts in game two.

“It’s huge,” junior and captain Jacob Robson said of the sweep over the Ducks. “Our confidence hasn’t wavered at all this season, but I think it’s even increased after this series.”

In particular, the weekend sweep showed how dangerous MSU can be when its offense and starting pitchers both play at the level they’re capable of. While the staff had more walks than coaches would have liked, the high number of strikeouts helped move the game along quickly, allowing the Bulldog offense to stay in rhythm, while also frustrating the Duck batters.

Even as good State’s starting pitchers were, head coach John Cohen still thinks they haven’t yet shown their best.

“I know how good our starting arms can be,” Cohen said Sunday following the sweep and the quality start by junior Daniel Brown. “Even as good as Daniel was today, he’s better than what he showed today. He has better command than that. I’ve seen him just top shelf, and he’s striving to get there. Today was a really good sign for him … I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Dakota Hudson yet. I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Austin Sexton yet.”

If their best is better than what they’ve shown, their best is, apparently, pretty darn good.

HDYNQNUVNDCYMYV.20160312050326However, at the plate, at least a few players seem to be playing at peak levels every outing already, and perhaps no one is hotter than junior Brent Rooker. The talented hitter was named the SEC Player of the Week this Monday after batting .583 in MSU’s four-game home stretch last week, including a 1.167 slugging percentage.

The first MSU player to win the award since Nick Ammirati in 2013, Rooker has been on fire all season. Batting .377, he leads MSU with 20 RBI so far in 2016. Rooker has racked up 10 runs scored, six doubles, five walks, two stolen bases and a triple this season as he’s led a potent State offense.

This weekend, he credited MSU’s aggression at the plate, their approach to each pitcher and their patience to swing at strikes and hold tight for balls as reasons for the offensive success against what was a talented staff full of highly-rated pitchers.

“It’s a big confidence booster going into the competition we know we’re going to face in the conference,” Rooker said. “Those are the kind of arms we’re going to see in the SEC every weekend. It’s frontline guys like that who have gone in the first round before, guys who are going to go in the top five rounds this year, guys that have really good pro careers ahead of them … We’ve got really good guys in our lineup who love to compete with guys like that. That’s what we did this weekend.”

Going forward, the overall performance is one MSU can certainly build on, starting this week with home games against Eastern Kentucky and Oral Roberts followed by a trip to Vanderbilt to open SEC play. Luckily for MSU, as SEC play begins, Cohen believes his team has started to find its identity.

“I think so,” he said. “We have a lot of moving parts. We have a lot of people whoa are doing a lot of things for us. Certainly, that’s part of being on a team. When your name is called, you have to be ready for that opportunity. I feel like our kids are.”

IVAVYYZLJHVKESY.20160312233054Most importantly, as Rooker sees it, they’re having fun. He believes the trip to Los Angeles went a long way into solidifying the team’s chemistry, and their performance the last two weeks has been evidence of his belief.

“The looseness and how much fun we’re having playing the game right now is what’s propelling us,” Rooker said Sunday. “The feel of this team is unbelievable. Locker room camaraderie, locker room chemistry, it’s unbelievable. Everybody’s having fun. Everybody’s building off each other. Liking being around each other is a huge part of a team, because you’re around each other so much.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Schaefer, MSU hoping to host as NCAA Tourney selection approaches

At 6 o’clock tonight, Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team will learn its fate in the NCAA Tournament when the selection show airs on ESPN. Under the recent changes, MSU isn’t just hoping for a good matchup. They’re aiming to host the first two rounds in Starkville.

PQYNVNGOYLFZTAB.20160129053243The top 16 seeds in the tournament – the 1-4 seeds in each regional, more specifically – host the first two rounds on their home floor. The case for MSU to be one of those teams, head coach Vic Schaefer believes, is a pretty good one.

At 26-7 overall, MSU is the No. 15 team in the country by the Associated Press poll and No. 14 in the USA Today Top 25. With that record, the Bulldogs finished No. 2 in the SEC, the second-best league in the country in terms of RPI, and advanced to the championship game of the conference tournament last weekend.

MSU doesn’t have single loss outside the RPI to 50 and owns a 5-7 record against top 50 teams. Even more relevant, State is on fire lately, having gone 9-3 in the last 12 games, including a 6-2 record in the last eight road games.

It’s for those reasons that Schaefer thinks his team’s resume is all set for hosting as the selection committee makes their decisions.

“I don’t think we have to do anything,” he said. “At the end of the day, if we’re trying to seed the top 16 teams in the country, how can you say we’re not one of the top 16 teams in the country? To me, that’s it, in a nutshell. I don’t think you have to add anything else and justify anything. I think we’re one of the top 16 teams in the country and I think people will recognize that and reward us for that.”

Of course, one of the best things Schaefer’s team has going is something that doesn’t factor into the decision: MSU’s fans. Crowds in Humphrey Coliseum averaged over 5,000 this season for MSU, including a record-setting attendance of over 10,000 for MSU’s game against No. 2 South Carolina on a Sunday afternoon.

XHRRJOGAMVWAQKU.20160129053243As MSU waits, Schaefer can’t help imagining what The Hump would be like for NCAA Tournament games, just two years after the place was filled when his team hosted in the WNIT.

“It would be unbelievable,” Schaefer said. “I think our game deserves that. I think it would be wonderful if we could provide that here in the The Hump. I think the other teams would absolutely enjoy it, embrace it and really appreciate it. There aren’t many places like that across the country. I think our fans would absolutely come out.

“All we’ve done is try to create a great environment here for women’s basketball and something that our sport can be proud of,” he continued. “I think people across the country have noticed that. They do acknowledge that. They certainly know what we’ve been able to create here in this short period of time. From a national standpoint, I’m sure we have everyone’s attention in that matter. But, again, if you’re trying to be fair across the board, you have to take that out and say, ‘Who are our top 16 teams?’ That’s who deserves to be in the mix. That said, I know the committee will do a tremendous job and that they’ll do what they think is best for our game.”

Of course, Schaefer does think he has one of the best 16 teams, a belief the Associated press and USA Today voters seem to share. In a league which will likely send nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, MSU finished second, behind only the No. 2 team in the country. The Bulldogs are one of the hottest teams in the nation entering the tournament, and certainly, it would seem, one of the best.

Whatever happens, though, Schaefer said he will be pleased. After all, it could be worse.

“We could be one of those teams out there hoping to get in,” he pointed out. “We know we’re gonna play, and that’s the beauty.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment