Current associate AD, former MSU tight end Duncan McKenzie retiring after 28 years

To many, Duncan McKenzie is Mississippi State’s second-highest ranking official in the athletic department, the Executive Associate Athletic Director who runs (among many other things) State’s growing budget. To others, he’s a former MSU tight end, playing for the Bulldogs from 1974-77. Similarly, many in these parts know him as the Starkville native who starred at running back for the Starkville Academy Volunteers in the years preceding his college career.

McKenzie_Duncan1Most of that ends next week, though. Duncan McKenzie, after 28-plus years in MSU’s athletic department and several more as a student-athlete, is retiring to live full-time as what he’s known to only a handful of people: a husband and a father.

“It’s been great here,” he said. “I’ve been extremely blessed. I work with great people. The people in my office are just the most wonderful people in the world. It just came to a point where I want to spend more time with my family.”

Namely, he wants to spend more time with his wife Tinna. His two sons, Matthew and Johnathan, are out of the house, both having graduated from MSU with engineering degrees. A man who always knew how to work a budget, McKenzie is certainly prepared for retirement in the financial sense, too.

Parts of retirement, however, are harder to measure and far more important to him. The primary goal of his professional life has been maintaining the health of MSU’s athletic budget, a job he’s done very well, helping MSU perform at a high level despite having one of the SEC’s smallest budgets to work with. In personal life, however, his pillars are faith and family. In all he does, he will happily share, he wants to be a beacon of his beliefs, an example of his faith. All work put in over decades of accounting and number-crunching were with his family in mind.

That’s the man I grew up knowing, “Mr. Duncan” to me. His son Matthew and I were in the same kindergarten class, the same graduating class and the same freshman class at MSU the next year. My most specific memories from elementary school field trips aren’t the places we visited, but the mother – Tinna McKenzie – who signed up as a chaperone to help with every single one, snapping pictures and taking video along the way.

Mr. Duncan and Mrs. Tinna were my Sunday school teachers one year, and they had all of us on the soccer, basketball or whatever-sport teams over to the house on free weekend afternoons every year. We’re technically co-workers now, but the person I grew up seeing, Mr. Duncan, is the person McKenzie is retiring to permanently become.

“Tinna and I, we prayed about this for a while,” he explained. “You plan for it in a lot of different ways. The time away from your family, especially your wife – I’m so blessed with a wonderful wife. It just got to the point where I’m tired of giving that up and wanted to spend more time with her and maybe do something different.”

Duncan with, from left to right, Tinna, Duncan, daughter-in-law Nikki and Matthew

Duncan with, from left to right, Tinna, Johnathan, daughter-in-law Nikki and Matthew

That’s not to say he hasn’t fully enjoyed the work side of things the last three decades, though. He has, in fact, had a great deal of fun performing one of the toughest jobs in the department and in the conference as MSU’s CFO. His ability to stretch one of the SEC’s smallest budgets enough to keep MSU at or near the top of the conference in seemingly every category has been equals parts valuable and impressive as so much growth has occurred in recent years. New facilities, new staff positions, ever-growing coaching salaries and always-expanding sport budgets have all been handled quietly and intelligently in McKenzie’s office.

“The thing that’s kind of interesting at Mississippi State, and what I really enjoyed, is trying to compete in this league with not as many resources as everyone else,” he said. “Stretch the dollars as far as we can. I’ve enjoyed that part. It’s stressful at times when you’re saying no a lot, but at the same time, that’s been a fun part of it.

You’re doing it to protect the university, to protect the athletic director, to protect our coaches. While it’s sports and it’s entertainment, it’s still a business, and it’s a big business, so I’ve tried to approach it from that side. It’s neat being a former athlete and being able to do that.”

His confession to often having to be the person to say ‘No’ is something of a running joke among his colleagues, and one they say he always takes in stride. It’s one of the harder parts of the job, certainly, but it is absolutely necessary, as Athletic Director Scott Stricklin explained.

Stricklin knows that, despite what he would prefer, people don’t like telling the athletic director bad news or things he doesn’t want to hear. He is their boss, after all. Stricklin finds that McKenzie’s willingness to be honest, along with his tact in delivering those messages, is among his greatest assets, one of many reasons he will miss having McKenzie around.

“Duncan has always loved Mississippi State and this community. You see that in how he goes about what he does. More than anything, Duncan’s just a great person. Not a good person. A great person,” Stricklin said. “There are few people I trust, if anyone, more than Duncan McKenzie. He’s honest. He’s not going to blur any lines or cross any lines. His integrity is impeccable.

“I happy for he and Tinna, but selfishly, I’m going to be sad not seeing him down the hall anymore,” Stricklin continued. “Mississippi State’s not in the position we’re in financially if it’s not for Duncan McKenzie … It’s not easy being responsible for a budget the size we have. I’m going to miss having them there because I have so much trust and faith in him.”

McKenzie will miss being down the hall, too. But for any bittersweet emotions he feels about leaving his office of 28-and-a-half years, he knows that what waits on the other side is better than anything he leaves behind. His relationships with co-workers, with former teammates, with current student-athletes and with all people who crossed his path at MSU will be valued for the rest of what he hopes will be a long life of retirement.

Now, however, he gets to go full-time with his most cherished relationship. He couldn’t be more excited to spend the rest of his days with Mrs. Tinna.

“She’s my best friend,” he said. “Some people say they’re scared of retirement. To me, the most exciting part of it is just being able to spend time with her. We like to camp, so we’re going to go camping. Since both boys have moved out, we’ve just gotten closer. I’m just really looking forward to spending more time with her.”

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Celebrating Mississippi State dads on Father’s Day

One of the weirder things about this job is the interaction with parents of the athletes I write about. Fans, friends, coaches, teammates, even my bosses – I know they will all be more or less fine with what I write, whether they love it, hate it or forget about it within minutes. But the parents, that’s what makes me nervous.

Mississippi State pitcher Kale Breaux with his father, posted on twitter: "Thank you for the many opportunities and the lessons you've given me!"

Mississippi State pitcher Kale Breaux with his father, posted on twitter: “Thank you for the many opportunities and the lessons you’ve given me!”

Last weekend at Mississippi State’s Super Regional in Starkville, I heard someone call my name as I was walking to the press box. I turned around and it was Tim Sexton, father of MSU pitcher Austin Sexton. A million things ran through my mind, like a kid called to the principal’s office trying to remember what he had done wrong. In the half-second I had to think, I wondered, “Did he say ‘Bob’ in a mad way? Did I say something bad about Austin on Twitter? I’m pretty sure he’s on Twitter. Maybe I wrote something? Maybe he’s mad because I haven’t written enough!”

Tim Sexton, near as I can tell, anyway, is not an angry person. In fact, he’s been nothing but kind to me in the instances I’ve been around him and has appeared overwhelmingly supportive in the sacrifices he has made for his son to have reached the point he is now, having just signed an MLB contract this weekend. Parents of the players I cover just make me nervous.

They’re the ones who know the subject the best and the ones who will be the first to notice if something is wrong or some sleight has been made. They are the ones to whom the stories often mean the most, the ones who used to put school pictures and report cards on the fridge, who built shelves for little league trophies and went on visits all over the country before a choice was made to go to MSU.

All of this running through my head in the split second I stopped and held out my hand to shake his, scared of what he was about to say.

“I just wanted to say thank you for the story you wrote on Austin last week,” he said. “That really meant a lot to us.”

Dads are so proud of their kids. I can’t imagine the stress of someone like Tim standing along the wall of the concourse behind home plate and watching his son pitch in front of 15,000. Likewise, I surely have no concept of the joy fathers like him get from watching their children perform and perform well on some of the country’s biggest stages in the SEC.

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Assistant volleyball coach Brittany Newberry with her dad, shared on Twitter

An all-conference, All-American or Player of the Week honor is just another fact for most of us, something to tweet about or slip into a line of a story. For those dads, though, it’s another trophy on the shelf, a picture in the newspaper framed in their office, a call to grandma to tell her what great thing her grandchild did this week. It’s validation that their child is every bit as special as they always believed them to be.

Dads are everywhere in sports, and not just in the memories of teaching their kids to throw a baseball in the yard or shoot on a hoop in the driveway. Dads are motivation for some. Dads made the sacrifices for others. Many of the athletes are dads themselves, their children serving as an inspiration for every rep in the gym and every minute in their fields of play. Dads raise athletes, they raise fans, they raise those who become coaches and surrogate fathers to athletes of their own one day.

John Cohen, for instance, is very much the man and coach he is today because of the law-professor father he had growing up in Tuscaloosa. Vann Stuedeman’s dad couldn’t be prouder of the softball coaches his children have turned out to be. Bob Mullen stays away from the spotlight his son Dan so often commands, happy to watch from the stands like so many other dads.

Dads come in all varieties. Some were athletes just like their kids, while some never had an athletic bone in their fatherly bodies. Some dads are present, some are not. Some dads are stepdads. Some dads are moms. Some dads are coaches. The case could be made that all coaches are dads, at a certain level.

Preston Smith with his daughter

Preston Smith with his daughter Lauren Marie, posted to Twitter

In this space, I’ve written about the day Preston Smith became a father, the morning of the 2013 Liberty Bowl, a day sparking a run that took him from his junior year at MSU to a career in the NFL. He sat on the phone in his hotel room in Memphis while family members told him all about his daughter, Lauren Marie Smith, who looked just like him. Father’s Day, to him, was New Year’s Eve, not a Sunday in June.

Last summer, when MSU hosted the SEC Outdoor Track Championships, State’s Zach Taylor beat every personal record he had as he placed second in the decathlon and qualified for the NCAA Championships, fulfilling a promise made to the father he recently lost. Tears of both joy and grief welled up in his proudest moment.

This spring, nearing the conclusion of an unlikely college career of both the basketball and educational type, Travis Daniels wondered what life would have been like if he had ever known his father. He also shared how bleak the outlook certainly would have been were it not for the foster parents he later found.

Last fall, tragedy struck when Keith Joseph, Sr,. and Keith Joseph, Jr., were lost to a car accident, father and son, both Bulldogs, leaving the world together. Both were known for their smile, for their talent and for the fact that they were very much father and son.

After being faced with the difficult task of writing a story that could accurately capture the life of a legend, it was Jack Cristil’s daughter who was among the first to reach out to me, thanking MSU for the tribute to her daddy.

Just last semester, Cam Lawrence returned to school and finished his degree because he knew that, more than his NFL career or any other venture, would make his dad the proudest.

Dads have made Mississippi State what it is now, both through their own work and through supporting their children.

Hall of Famer Bailey Howell did it once as a player, and does it again now as father of Anne Stricklin, father-in-law of Scott Stricklin. Peggy Prescott did it for years, often playing the role of both mother and father to Dak and his brothers. Like so many other Maroon-and-White-clad fathers, Ryan Sparks does it, too, the backwards-hat-wearing dad of the most famous five-year-old fan MSU has seen, the curly-haired and always-visible Reed Sparks.

Father's Day picture posted by MSU defensive lineman Jonathan Calvin with his family and Dan Mullen

Father’s Day picture posted to Instagram by MSU defensive lineman Jonathan Calvin with his family and Dan Mullen, thanking all for the support and opportunity

The stands at softball games, the areas outside locker room doors after football games, the courtside seats following basketball games – they’re all filled with dads.

I’m occasionally nervous, sure, but I’m grateful to the dads, to my own dad. I’m thankful for the work put in, the sacrifices made, the hours and dollars spent, all so they could share their kids with the rest of us. The most stressed among us at any game as they watch their sons and daughters play, they are also responsible for the best among us at any moment, the proudest of any achievement no matter how great or small.

I wouldn’t be who I am without my dad.

Mississippi State wouldn’t be what it is without its dads.

Thank you and happy Father’s Day to them all.

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SEC Championship season comes to hard end at home for MSU

When unexpected, finality is devastating. Finality is crushing. Finality not only takes the breath out of the lungs, but swirls emotions, halts words in throats and unleashes torrents of tears fueled by love and regret alike.

CABQLBLGSBMBYUD.20160612040500In sports, the end of the season is the hardest part not because it’s the end, but because you didn’t know that was when the end was coming. Competitive flames burning year-round are snuffed out in a single moment, the belief that tomorrow would always be there upended with one swing of a bat.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Mississippi State’s baseball team, they thought. Not this year. Not this group. They were special, they believed. And they were right, which only made the end that much harder.

When John Cohen arrived at the press conference podium following his team’s elimination at home in the Starkville Super Regional, he did so as someone who has been through decades of competitive baseball. He did so as someone who has seen more seasons come to an end than his starting lineup combined. Experience doesn’t soften the blow, but it does prepare you for the pain.

His players, however, weren’t prepared. Brent Rooker and Austin Sexton, representing their teammates as they took the podium next to Cohen, had faces that looked as if they had seen death for the first time. In an allegorical sense, they sort of had. It was the death of a season, and it was one that came unexpectedly. That, again, is when things are most difficult.

Not knowing then that his comments were foreshadowing a hard ending, Cohen reminisced on his days as a player the night MSU won the 2016 regular season SEC Championship. When you’re a player on the team, he said, you think things like that are going to happen every year. Freshmen do it once and think it will happen every season they’re on campus. Juniors and seniors always believe, this is their year, no matter what year it is.

As a coach, Cohen said that night, you realize how rare those experiences are, how hard it is to accomplish such feats. The awareness of their rarity makes appreciation for big wins even greater.

CQWNKESNRVARTMI.20160612040501Such victories, however, seem to demand or even require the assumed invincibility of youth. The rigid belief that they are the best, that no one will beat them, is absolutely necessary to becoming the best and to ensuring one is never beat.

And that’s why the struggle with finality is so difficult for players to handle, the end such hard a concept to grasp.

Every single player on the bench believed they were going to win game two Saturday night, that they would win then win game three on Sunday and that this time next weekend they’d be in Omaha for the College World Series. In the first inning, ninth inning and 11th inning, the belief never wavered.

All year long, even when loss seemed immediately upon them, the expectation was always that the next pitch, the next inning or the next game would bring redemption, would bring victory. More times than not, they were right, and they had no reason to feel differently Saturday night in Starkville.

“At no point in the game did I think we were going to lose,” Sexton said.

You could see it on his face, hear it in his voice. He wasn’t offering what he thought were the right words for reporters. He was sharing what he genuinely felt. His firm belief that MSU was going to win was being disproved by the cold fact of the moment. They lost.

State’s players thought they were going to win a National Championship, and that dream being dashed is certainly part of why the loss was so hard. However, the most difficult thing, players will almost always say, is realizing two truths at the same time. First, that the journey was far more meaningful than the destination the whole time. Second, that the journey is over.

“It is disappointing that we came this far and weren’t able to finish it,” Rooker began as the tears came, the words getting stuck somewhere between heart and mouth. “But the biggest disappointment to me is that I don’t get to be around this group of guys anymore. This is a special group and that’s what hurts the most, having to leave these guys.”

VJNOEKJQYOFAUVV.20160612040501Rooker may be back, that’s a decision he’ll have to make after being drafted on Saturday. A lot of his teammates will be off to play pro ball. Some will just graduate. And plenty more, Rooker perhaps among them, will return and work to ensure they don’t have to feel this way again. But it won’t be the same team. Might be better, might be worse. But it will definitely be different.

That’s what Cohen remembers about the end of seasons as a player, and it’s the words of his former coach at MSU, Ron Polk, that he shared with the team in their final moments after the game. The same hard message Polk delivered then, Cohen had to repeat for his own club.

This, he said, is the last time this group will ever be together. Sitting in their lockers and trying to come to terms with their new reality, it was the final experience for those 27 players together, the last minutes for that exact group to exist as it was. It’s a hard truth, but a necessary one. The finality is a bitter pill that has to be swallowed.

The most important thing in those final moments, Cohen said, is to appreciate what they had, what they did together. One loss at the end does not define a season of wins, a year of training and four months of life lived and games played together at home and on the road. What they did was special, and what they accomplished will be remembered within that locker room forever.

“They are champions,” Cohen said. “They can hold their heads up and know they were a great Mississippi State baseball team. Looking at the tradition of our program, that’s saying a lot.”

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MSU’s Kruger a dominant leader on the diamond, passionate learner in life

Jack Kruger is a nerd.

GJHGRVCQZMMDLHA.20160605034846He’s a 6’1”, standout catcher who has started 52 games for Mississippi State’s SEC Champion baseball team. He bats .350, owns a slugging percentage of .562 and has forearms that could earn him a lifetime gig in Hollywood playing a mob henchman. He’s got 71 hits, zero errors, and after spending an entire game squatting as a catcher in the middle of a hot, Mississippi day last Friday, he managed to hit an inside-the-park home run in the eighth inning to ensure his Bulldogs won game one of their Regional.

And he’s a big ol’ nerd.

“I just love learning,” Kruger spouted with a smile when asked what he does in his free time.

That question came, on a hunch, about seven minutes into a group interview that really should’ve ended at about the five-minute mark, and turned out to continue for another 30.

A few days in advance of MSU hosting the Starkville Regional last weekend, the dozen or so reporters who typically cover the team were gathered to talk to MSU’s players about the baseball games to come. Whatever some of our lengthy stories may indicate to the contrary, previewing games is not a subject on which that many questions can be asked and get any kind of different answer.

That’s why I say the interview probably should’ve ended within five minutes, once all the baseball questions had been asked, some more than once, each answered in suitable fashion. And that’s why, remembering something his teammate Dakota Hudson had said in another baseball-centric interview a week prior, I took a flier on a question about Kruger’s hobbies once all the ‘How excited are you to play in a Regional?’ questions had been exhausted.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to him,” Hudson, the All-American pitcher, said with a knowing look and sneaky smile last week, “but Jack is extremely smart. I feel like he’s on another wavelength sometimes.”

When I told head coach John Cohen I was working on a story about Kruger, the response was similar.

“He’s exceptionally bright, isn’t he?” Cohen asked, checking for agreement. “He’s intellectual. He’s so bright. He’s so inquisitive about everything that’s going on in the world around him.”

Not only is he exceptionally bright, but he’s exceptionally interesting and exceptionally interested in everything that crosses his path. So finally, as the other reporters slowly turned off their recorders and walked away when they sensed I was about to go on a run of questions whose answers they didn’t care to hear or write about, Kruger got to talk about, well, everything.

“These are the kinds of interviews I was always hoping I would have,” he told me after about 15 minutes as I apologized for keeping him there with questions about chess, documentaries, drummers and George Orwell. “[Reporters] can ask, ‘How did it feel to hit a home run?’

Here, he paused for a laugh.

“’Awful,’” he sarcastically pretended to answer the fake question. “’It was really bad. I hated it.’ I mean, I can answer those questions, but those are one-dimensional questions that are going to get one-dimensional answers.”

And Kruger is anything but one-dimensional.

KVUWZBZEVULPROM.20160605034846He plays the piano, the guitar and the ukulele – the latter of which simply because a friend once bet him he couldn’t.

He’s an accomplished juggler.

His Netflix and cable habits run from things like The Office and Lance Armstrong documentaries to crime dramas about subtle lie detecting and features on the world’s best drummers.

“Do you watch Lie To Me,” he asked.

I don’t, I replied.

“It’s based on a true story of a professor who went to Papua New Guinea and started studying micro expressions and facial expressions to tell when people are lying,” he explained. “He reads people. I think that’s fascinating. I try to do it and I’m wrong all the time. But it’s really fun.”

Just 18 or so hours before this interview, Kruger had ordered a mess of poker books online, intrigued after reading about people making millions off a card game. He’s not so much interested in the money, but the idea of keeping track of cards and odds and possibilities appeals to his often-analytical mind.

That’s part of why he spends countless hours playing online chess, too. It’s the same reason he up and drove to a Toys-R-Us one day for the express purpose of buying a Rubik’s Cube.

It’s also – back to the game – a large part of why he’s so good at baseball, and it’s one of the main reasons Cohen wanted him on the team in the first place.

“The other thing we look for in our catchers is the ability to make decisions on their own with what they’re seeing,” Cohen explained. “’Can we go fastball in on this guy? Does that guy have his stuff? What pitch is he able to locate on that day?’ To give that responsibility to somebody, they really have to be wise beyond their years. In the recruiting process, I was convinced that he was going to be one of those guys.”

Hudson confirmed, “He’s got a great baseball mind.”

HTWBLRVQNFRWEPS.20160606061202It’s in those interactions and decisions that Kruger really shows his worth. He only has concrete numbers to back up his value as a hitter – and those are great numbers, obviously – but the subtleties of his relationships with pitchers, his ability to read them and communicate with them, is a significant piece of what’s made MSU’s pitching staff so effective in 2016 and what’s made Kruger so important to the team.

Not only is he sizing up batters and calling pitches, but he’s playing in-game psychologist to help his pitchers maintain focus and lengthen appearances.

“You can’t always take a mound visit and light into a guy,” Kruger said. “Different guys respond differently. That is all learned off the field. That’s all learned when you hang out together, or you go out to lunch. There’s so much that people don’t see, and that’s getting to know your pitchers and saying the right things when you go out. A mound visit can be extremely helpful, and it can be extremely detrimental, and you have to take those with care.

“Leadership is a lot about trust and a lot about serving.” He continued. “Being a catcher, especially, serving your pitcher first … If you’re a leader, you want to be feared or loved. I love The Office. [Michael Scott] says, ‘I want people to fear how much they love me.’ To be honest, I’d rather be feared. They can love you all they want, but if they respect and trust you, it’s kind of like a parent-type thing … I’d rather be feared and have them take seriously what I have to say.”

Part Two:

Under the Knife, Onto the Page

“I remember telling him, ‘This anesthesia is going to wear off. Make sure you have a get-sick bag.’ And, I mean, like, eight seconds later, he was throwing up.”

Last fall, during an off weekend when the entire team, training staff and assorted members of MSU’s baseball program were out of town, Kruger had his first surgery. With his family in California, his roommate at home for the weekend and his team trainer on a honeymoon, Kruger had no one to watch after him as he recovered. No one except for Cohen and his wife Nelle, that is, who took him into their home for the weekend.

His memories may be fuzzy, and theirs entertaining, but the Cohen house was a perfect escape for Kruger. That weekend was an example of why MSU was such a natural fit for him, and why he’s loved so much being in Starkville for the past year, the last stop of a collegiate journey that’s taken him from Oregon to junior college and now here.

YOLJCJLUVNHZATJ.20160603225814In John Cohen, Jack Kruger has a kindred spirit. Nelle Cohen sees the similarities as she remembers her husband at the same age so many years ago. They are anything but aloof, and neither necessarily in their own world, but each can be hard to read as their wheels are always turning, their synapses always firing, connections being made across various universes of experience and knowledge. In both, an obsession with baseball is complemented by a love affair with the world around them.

“I like talking to [Cohen]. He’s similar in that he likes just talking about the phone book,” Kruger said. “[Nelle] is awesome. At their house for surgery, I got to spend time with her. It’s really fun to talk to them because they both love talking about everything. They know at least a little bit about everything. It’s not one-dimensional, which I love. I love talking to people who aren’t one-dimensional.”

“You could tell he was exceptionally bright,” Cohen said. “He’s so well-read. Most kids his age don’t read the way he reads. He sat in my office one day and said he tries to read a book every week or so. I was like, ‘OK, wow.’”

It’s because of conversations like those that Cohen now expects more from Kruger not just in baseball, but in all topics covered. The head coach often calls out his junior catcher in team meetings when, the Socratic-styled teacher he can often be, he’s looking for someone to answer a question.

Kruger shared an example.

“He’ll be like, ‘In 1901 at the World’s Fair in New York, does anyone know who the President was?’ And for some reason,” Kruger said with his usual grin, “he always looks at me, like, ‘You must know the answer because you enjoy reading.’”

And Kruger really does enjoy reading. He loves it, mowing down books like his pitchers mow down batters. His biggest gripe about college is being so far away from his personal library at home. The entire last half of our “interview” – more of an off-the-rails conversation by that point – was about reading.

Kruger, a devout Christian, reads a lot of faith-based books and authors. Books about hobbies pique his interest, too. He loves fiction as well as biographies, reading up on Nelson Mandela and the Navy SEALs in the same weeks he devours books about astronauts on Mars and wizards attending schools of magical learning. Although, despite an affinity for dystopian future stories (George Orwell’s classic 1984 is among his favorites), he avoids most science fiction and fantasy novels.

“The only truly sci-fi book that I’ve truly loved is The Martian,” he said.

“Dude,” I responded professionally, “I love The Martian. It is technically sci-fi in that it is fiction, and it is based on science, but it’s just a good book. His character is hilarious.”

“So funny,” he confirmed. “I haven’t read it recently. I’m getting our trainer to read it. I’m going to re-read it after him. I love that book. I don’t know what it is. I liked the movie. It was an entertaining movie, but the book – it doesn’t compare. It never does. And people who aren’t readers will never understand that.”

Maybe we’ll start a book club. It’s the kind of thing Kruger would do. He’s always finding new projects, new interests that spark his curiosity and engage his desire to learn everything he can.

A great deal of his waking hours are taken up by baseball, naturally, but he believes the greatest mistake people can make is to not use whatever free time they have to try new things and explore fresh avenues of experience.

“I’ve found, a lot of times, the best things in my life have come from pursuing something that I impulsively had a desire for. I think a lot of people miss out on so many great opportunities.

“How many people have said, ‘Oh, I want to learn to play the guitar,’ and then they never do it? I learned to play the guitar because I was in a shop getting piano books and I told my mom I wanted to play the guitar, and so we impulsively bought a guitar. I play the ukulele because a friend told me I couldn’t … Got a Rubik’s Cube because, as soon as I saw someone do it, I drove to Toys-R-Us and I bought a Rubik’s Cube. I mean, everything. Even poker. I saw someone made a lot of money off of it, and it’s not something I want to make a lot of money from, but I thought, ‘Hey, that sounds really cool.’ So, I bought poker books last night online.”

With so many interests, it’s easy to wonder what it is Kruger actually plans to do with his life. Unlike Michael Scott (and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James), Kruger will have a business school degree, so that’s a good starting point. His baseball career is quite promising, as well, and the odds of him continuing his career on the diamond in some fashion are quite high.

If that doesn’t work out, Kruger loves the idea of working in the non-profit world, as well. Perhaps, he mentioned, doing something with the International Justice Mission, which fights slavery, sex trafficking and other human rights violations around the globe. Perhaps, he joked, he’ll be an astronaut. Who knows what world might permanently lay hold of his time and devotion.

Even politics, MSU pitching coach Wes Johnson remarked, could be an option, if he so chose.

“I call him President Kruger,” Johnson said, “because he’s got the makeup and the mindset that he may be President of this country one day, if he wants to be.”

His 21 years of life so far are only the first chapters of a book that is far from finished and whose ending none have yet determined.

In the meantime, Kruger will continue playing baseball. He’s got a Super Regional this weekend, something he’s determined to win and will use all of his wits and experience to accomplish. If things go right, Kruger and MSU have the College World Series after that. Books, movies and music are fun, but baseball is his passion, the constant in his life.

The emphasis on learning and education formed a natural tie between Kruger and Cohen, but the head coach said it is his catcher’s desire to be part of something special with this baseball team that impresses him the most. The fact that his variety interests often translate to the game only makes his presence that much more enjoyable for Cohen.

And if he can master the ukulele along the way, even better.

“We’re not here for that long,” Kruger observed. “We’re just renting time and it’s fun to learn new stuff.”

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National Championship, not Regional, on MSU’s mind after sweeping Starkville Regional

As Sunday’s game was nearing its end, Mississippi State coach John Cohen turned to his assistant coaches with a question on his mind, a thought that had just struck him for the first time. He didn’t want to jinx anything, but his team had the lead on Louisiana Tech and appeared to be closing in on a Regional Championship.

How, he asked the rest of his staff, would the players respond if they held on and won?

RSDXYXVXNGKJCZU.20160606061202Would they dogpile on the mound? Would they empty their Gatorade bottles on each other? Would they jump up and down, yell and cheer or hug and high-five in celebration? After all, the coaches give them no instruction. Players are told what to do all game long. When it’s over, the choice is theirs on how to react. Go with wherever the moment takes you.

Cohen’s curiosity dissipated momentarily as his team finished out the game, but once the final out was recorded and MSU won the Starkville Regional to advance to the Supers, Cohen was surprised by what he saw.

Mississippi State’s entire roster walked onto the field, formed an orderly line, shook hands with Tech’s players and coaches, shook hands with each other, then went straight back to the dugout to collect their things and head to the locker room.

The celebration, if one could call it that, was no more exuberant than if the Bulldogs had won a non-conference series in the beginning of the regular season.

“Our goal wasn’t to win a Regional,” junior outfielder and Starkville Regional Most Outstanding Player Brent Rooker explained. “Our goal is to win a National Championship and we haven’t accomplished that yet. When we accomplish that, we’ll celebrate.”

“The way they responded was pretty business-like,” Cohen observed afterward. “I have to admit, I was very impressed with our kids.”

It was something Rooker and his teammates talked about in the locker room following the game. It’s an understood mindset. As loose, laid-back and generally carefree and emotive as this team is, the players have a very clear understanding of their goals, paired with a very deep and proud devotion to not only restoring their good names, but establishing themselves as great.

WKGNJKZBZZHQSYN.20160606061203Rooker was on the team last year when MSU finished last in the SEC. Two years removed from Omaha and the deepest postseason run the program had ever seen, he and many others were part of a group that didn’t even make the SEC Tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament. Zac Houston, the junior who started Sundays championship game and put on a career performance, was on that team, too.

So were many others who calmly shook hands instead of excitedly celebrating in Starkville on Sunday night. Several more are new to the club, but have quickly learned what it is they’re fighting for – respect and redemption.

“We have a core of guys who still do have a chip on their shoulder,” Cohen said. “They want to show the world they’re better than what happened a year ago.”

“We know what it feels like to not succeed,” Rooker shared, “and that helps us succeed even more. That makes it even sweeter.”

The duality in personality of the club is unique in its nature and dangerous in its application, as Cohen himself said Saturday – mid-regional – that he couldn’t imagine a team being any more loose than his, whether in the postseason or regular season. Within the antics, however, they have a vendetta, MSU’s players. They want revenge, not against any other team, but against their own ghosts, their own failures and disappointments. There’s something to be said about a team that stages celebrations and skits in foul territory between innings, but does no more than handshakes and high fives after sweeping a Regional for the first time in the school’s history.

QDRVLEIFFFFRBXK.20160606061202Like any great hero, it is loss that drives them. And for a group which has already seen the bottom, there is nothing left to lose. And therein lies their danger, their greatest weapon. In short turnaround, these Bulldogs have found themselves to be one of the most talented teams in the country. As each opponent crosses their path, MSU displays the strength of an odds-on favorite with the determination and drive of an underdog given the longest of shots.

When MSU won four-straight series to start its SEC slate, some wondered if they had peaked too early. When they won the overall SEC Championship on the final day of the regular season, perhaps then, some might have considered, they had done enough. The calendar reads June 6 as this is written. In games that mattered, games with something on the line, MSU hasn’t lost since April 30. They are 14-0 in the span between, excluding the SEC Tournament in Hoover.

But none of it – the conference title, the Regional sweep or even the record crowds and shelves full of awards – is enough.

Asked by coaches after Sunday’s late-night win if they wanted to practice in the morning or afternoon on Monday, the team quickly voted for the morning. They couldn’t wait to get back to work.

These Bulldogs want more.

“When you have a nucleus of guys that has a chip on their shoulder, that got punched in the mouth a year ago, that’s a dangerous bunch because they want this bad,” Cohen said. “This is a team with a lot of goals and it’s fun to watch them accomplish them.”

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Sexton battles as MSU advances in Starkville Regional

A modern day warrior

Mean, mean stride

Today’s Tom Sawyer

Mean, mean pride

Though his mind is not for rent

Don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve, a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events

– Rush, Tom Sawyer

——————-

QZWQPWAGTEHHOEA.20160605034846Before Austin Sexton had even taken a step toward the dugout, the crowd was on its feet to give the junior pitcher a standing ovation. Often praised for being among the more baseball-savvy fans around, the 10,000-plus cheering for the Bulldogs stood as one as soon as the reliever – Blake Smith – trotted out of the bullpen.

The crowd on hand knew what it had just seen, understood the fight in every single one of Sexton’s 93 pitches. His line was impressive, certainly, only allowing four hits and one run through 28 batters faced as he notched another win. But more worthy of awe was, as his head coach described it, the battle of every inning, every batter and every pitch on a sticky Saturday night in Starkville.

A Saturday night so hot, a humidity so oppressive that Sexton had to retreat indoors between innings to cool off and keep his body in peak condition to continue fighting a strong, determined and crafty Cal State Fullerton lineup pitch after pitch. MSU head coach John Cohen admitted his star pitcher “battled through some adversity,” some of his own and some as a result of occasional defensive mistakes behind him.

But Sexton, who confidently claimed after the game that he never wore down mentally, never conceded defeat. Every blow he took glanced off his shoulders, the shoulders carrying the hopes of an entire team and 10,000 fans hoping and praying he would hold on. And hold on he did.

CSF coach Rick Vanderhook couldn’t hide his respect for the junior pitcher when speaking in the post-game press conference.

“I thought Sexton pitched good, but better than that, he made pitches when he had to,” Vanderhook said. “I thought we had him on the ropes multiple times, and he worked his way out of it. Our philosophy is, if you put a pitcher on the ropes three times, he’s gonna break once. He didn’t break.”

QGADVUWDFQPLWQW.20160605034846Much of that resilience is Sexton’s mental toughness, as well as the physical stamina to last through such a draining game. Much of it, too, is more direct and simple – Sexton’s change-up was working for him, and when that happens, he’s hard to stop.

Cohen, multiple times, has remarked that it’s a pitch an opposing batter can be told is coming and he still won’t be able to hit the ball. And there were plenty of times when Titans’ batters thought they knew what was coming. Plenty more when, whether they knew what was coming or not, they did manage to hit the ball.

But of the 12 batters to put the ball into play, only one managed to score. 11 of the 12, Vanderhook noted with great lament, were left on base. Potential heroes rendered casualties of Sexton’s assault from the mound.

In such tense moments, in high stakes baseball situations, Sexton was the model of cool-under-pressure, even if sweat from the Mississippi heat was constantly soaking into the brim of his hat. With little room for mistakes, he ensured there were none.

“Every single pitch Austin threw tonight had a purpose,” said freshman outfielder Jake Mangum, the person with perhaps the best view of his teammate’s performance. “Every pitch, the crowd was into it. Every pitch, the crowd was behind us. It really did change the game.”

“He’s such a mature kid,” Cohen observed. “He can do anything … He just doesn’t make two bad pitches in a row. That’s a great quality to have at this level.”

Ask Sexton, however, and the explanation is a bit more simple, far less outwardly proud. Whatever factors played a part, whatever talents made it possible are only pieces of his singular goal.

“I needed to come out here and give my team a chance to win,” he said.

As he so often wills himself to do, Sexton got what he wanted. When he left the mound, MSU had the lead. When he left the stadium, they had the win.

Exit the warrior
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the energy you trade
He gets right on to the friction of the day

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Rooker, Brown pull off clutch performances as MSU advances to winner’s bracket

Finishing his approach to first base, Brent Rooker’s eyes darted downward to make sure he stepped on the bag as he rounded first and continued what seemed like a fruitless jog to second base. The ball he had crushed to centerfield was, like so many before it, about to fall just short of its target, the gap between glory and defeat merely a few inches of leather glove.

QYUXTEXFIQRKOMJ.20160603225814The centerfielder for Southeast Missouri State had easily jogged back to the fence where his arm was outstretched and his gloved hand waited on the high-hit ball to fall into the sweet spot. In that moment, Rooker knew he had the same thing coming that had plagued him all year. To be sure, the junior outfielder has hit his fair share of home runs. But no one on this Mississippi State team has had as many robbed at the last second as Rooker.

The hit, he thought as he approached first base, was just like one he’d had against Texas A&M on Super Bulldog Weekend, the last time such a large crowd had come to watch he and his Bulldogs play. A high line drive to centerfield that weekend, with 15,000 watching, looked like it was going to leave the park. And most parks, it would have. But Dudy Noble isn’t most parks. With a light breeze blowing infield, that ball, too, fell just short. Robbed then, and robbed now, it appeared.

The gods of baseball, Rooker may have thought as he stepped on first, surely had something against him.

But then, he looked back up. In the same moment his eyes rose to the outfield, the volume around him rose, as well. The crowd was on their feet, cheers were carried to him from the stands and that ball, finally, mercifully, somehow, had landed among the grills and seats beyond the outfield fence in the Left Field Lounge.

The gods of baseball, it turns out, just have a keen sense of irony.

“I was pretty excited when I realized it was a home run,” Rooker told reporters after MSU’s 9-5 win over SEMO. “It was a big moment in the game. Any time you can come up with a big hit, it makes you happy.”

CMMGRMDTFSSTEYS.20160603225814Of those nine runs MSU scored, Rooker was directly responsible for each one of the first four State recorded. When SEMO took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, Rooker responded with his first home run in the bottom of the inning, cutting the lead in half. When the Redhawks extended the lead to 4-1 in the next inning and it appeared Rooker’s first longshot wasn’t enough, he hit another, his deep jack to centerfield with two on and two outs tying the game at 4-4.

Speedy centerfielders and finicky wind patterns be darned, Rooker was going to find a way to make sure his Bulldogs won.

“He just took great swings today when we really needed him the most,” head coach John Cohen said. “He’s got so much bat speed, it’s ridiculous.”

Indeed, MSU uses technology in practice that tracks bat speed, and Rooker regularly has balls coming off his barrel at 115 miles per hour. In other words, a Corvette couldn’t beat his home runs to the other side of the fence.

But back to the timely hitting, and really, the production of the whole lineup. Rooker took the headlines Friday as MSU won game one of the Starkville Regional, but spots 1-9 in the order are all deserving of praise. Jake Mangum, for one, who was constantly a nuisance to the Redhawks and a source of production for the Bulldogs. Or Jack Kruger, perhaps, the catcher who spent three hours doing squats behind the plate, only to pull off an impressive inside-the-park home run in MSU’s last at-bat in the bottom of the eighth. The two runs scored then gave Cohen’s club the insurance it needed.

“We got down early and they just never thought they were going to lose that game,” Cohen said.

IOXWCAHZOUCBCYD.20160603225814When MSU was behind, it always found a way to bounce back, quite literally. Every single time SEMO scored, batting in the top of each inning, MSU responded with runs of their own in the bottom of those innings. SEMO scored twice in the second, MSU once. SEMO plated two more in the third, Rooker ensured that his Bulldogs plated three. When the Redhawks had one runner cross the plate in the sixth, State answered with three of their own. Those last two through Kruger in the eighth were just garnish for a little style and flair.

“We’ve done that all year,” Rooker said. “That’s one of our strengths as a team.”

Said SEMO coach Steve Bieser, “They took it to us all throughout this game and it was tough on our pitching staff … There’s no soft spots in that lineup. I think it wears on pitching staffs.”

AXGLSXPAEHPJDAK.20160603225813As Rooker said, that who MSU is. They do it on the mound, too, where junior pitcher Daniel Brown pitched the final 3.1 innings in shut-down fashion, allowing no runs and no hits as he cruised through the final frames in only 37 pitches, 26 of them strikes. His performance, like so many others for MSU Friday, was indicative of who the Bulldogs are as a team.

When something is required, someone provides.

“He really got us on a roll at a time when we needed him to,” Cohen said. “His breaking ball when he’s commanding it and hitting in the zone, it’s a high, high professional level pitch.”

“Daniel,” Rooker added, “did an unbelievable job.”

Friday, it turns out, was chocked full of hard-to-believe moments. And in this instance, Rooker is happy to see, they turned out in MSU’s favor. Next time, he may not find it so hard to believe.

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Bulldogs avoiding distractions, focusing on routine in advance of Starkville Regional

No place does college baseball like Mississippi State. The entire top-10 list of biggest on-campus crowds in NCAA history is comprised of dates and attendance totals from Dudy Noble Field. The legends of the Left Field Lounge are surpassed only by the truth about the happenings amongst those colorful rigs lining the outfield wall.

PPCGTPJIMLMCJZQ.20110510155958From there, smoke billows onto the field. Blue skies are broken up only by the tops of trailers, the centerfield wall and Ol’ Glory hanging from the flag pole. The crowd is loud. The crowd is educated. The crowd is, especially on weekends like these, crowded. Come hell or high water – both quite literal possibilities with the heat of Mississippi summers and the thunderstorms this area of the country tends to produce – Bulldog faithful will ensure an atmosphere unmatched in college baseball, or perhaps any level of baseball. What happens in Starkville is decidedly unique and undeniably big.

And that’s exactly why John Cohen’s club has to treat it like any other game when they open up the Starkville Regional against Southeast Missouri State at 1:30 on Friday afternoon. The pressure of the moment is a lot to handle. Luckily for MSU, it’s an experience they’re used to.

“Opening day,” freshman outfielder Jake Mangum recalled, “we played in front of 11,000. Super Bulldog Weekend, tough weekend, but we played in front of 15,000 … That’s the thing about Dudy Noble. Every game is like that. Every game, the atmosphere is unreal. It doesn’t change anything.”

Mangum himself, as a freshman, has never played in a Regional, of course. But not only that, he’s never even been to one. Growing up, he was always playing in his own baseball tournaments whenever college baseball postseasons were taking place in Mississippi. The closest he’s come was a memory he has from 2007, when he was 11 years old, watching MSU host Clemson in a Super Regional from his hotel room at a travel ball tournament.

Many on the team are like Mangum, young in their careers or new to MSU. Less than a handful of players on this roster were even on the team back in 2013, the last time MSU hosted a Regional. Notable among the veterans who were is team captain Jacob Robson, and it is he who much of the team is relying on for leadership and guidance.

Jack Kruger, the junior catcher and junior college transfer, believes the key for MSU is to approach the weekend calmly and treat it like any other few days of baseball at The Dude.

“It’s the same game that we played day one, opening day,” Kruger said. “In that sense, absolutely nothing has changed. Now, externally, everything has changed. Everyone cares. There are a lot more eyes on us, which is great. We don’t care. That doesn’t bother us. That doesn’t affect us. It’s fun, but the game hasn’t changed. It’s the same game.”

Added junior first baseman Nate Lowe, “It doesn’t matter if there’s 15 people or 15,000 people here, we’ve got to play our game.”

The good thing, Cohen said, is that his team isn’t just saying the right things, but they are genuinely approaching the postseason the right way – the same way they did the regular season. In short, they’re comfortable. They’re happy. They have good chemistry and they play like a team with little pressure and little to lose.

“I think our kids are loose,” Cohen said. “It kind of reminds me of the 2013 team, because they have fun being around each other and they have fun practicing. Not every group in the country has fun practicing and this group does. I think our kids are ready and I know they are excited about it. We have done all sorts of competitive things throughout the week where they have competed with and against each other. I think they are ready to roll back out there and play baseball again.”

When the weekend begins for the Bulldogs, it will surely be with the cliché of one game at a time. But more importantly, whichever One Game it is won’t be any different from any other day.

“It’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Mangum said. “People come to Mississippi State to try and win a National Championship. We set ourselves up well, but the biggest game of the year is Friday and we’ve gotta be ready for it.”

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Cohen, Stricklin discuss Starkville Regional time changes

After opponents, times and television were announced for NCAA Regionals Monday, Mississippi State’s John Cohen had one big question which led to a great many smaller questions: how could his Bulldogs best be in position to win the Starkville Regional?

BAHOEAQXHRJZRAP.20160219012350Beyond scouting the opponents – Southeast Missouri State, Cal State Fullerton and Louisiana Tech – Cohen scouted the situation itself. It was there that Cohen found advantages he could get as the No. 1 seed and the home team in the Regional, and it is why MSU switched its game time from 6:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Friday against SEMO.

To do so required direct permission from the NCAA after the field was announced and all Regionals set, so MSU quickly sent in their request once the decision was made Monday afternoon, followed by a late announcement that same day once the NCAA approved the time switch, as they have done for  many host teams in past years.

I talked to Cohen this morning, as well as MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, and while both are aware of the inconvenience for some of MSU’s fans, they felt the switch helped with MSU’s ultimate goal: win Friday and win the Regional.

“One of the things that makes MSU fans so special,” Stricklin said, “is how much they want to see the Bulldogs be successful. We understand the burden and inconvenience this puts on some of our fans, and we appreciate their understanding the desire to put our team in the most advantageous competitive situation possible.”

Talking to Cohen, the reasoning behind the switch came down to three main points.

First, by playing the early game, MSU guarantees that it will have batting practice on its own field. Playing the late game would run the risk of possibly missing that opportunity and taking away the routine and comfort the Bulldogs are used to at home. Now, Friday’s game will go, more or less, like any other game day at Dudy Noble.

Second, the switch ensures that MSU will be well-rested for Saturday and avoids the possibility of playing a doubleheader Saturday if weather turned bad Friday afternoon or night, as it is wont to do this time of year in Mississippi. If the night game Friday started late or had a weather delay, MSU could be on the field past midnight before playing again the next day. If MSU were to lose a late game in that situation, there would be less than half a day between outings with the loser’s bracket game on Saturday afternoon starting at 1:30. Now, if they win the early game Friday, they’ll get 24-plus hours of rest before the winner’s bracket game at 6:30 Saturday night.

Third, it gives MSU the chance to scout the other two opponents in person. All of State’s coaches, staff and players will be able to watch CSF and Louisiana Tech play live and in-person in the night game Friday, one or possibly both of whom MSU will have to face over the rest of the weekend.

By the time Cohen broke it all down, he saw no baseball-related reason not to make the switch. It made too much sense. The only hang-up for the coach and athletic director was, obviously, the inconvenience for the MSU fans traveling from out of town. They wouldn’t have even had to think about it, otherwise. Ultimately, however, it came down to putting MSU in the best position to accomplish its most important goal: win the Starkville Regional and host the Starkville Super Regional next weekend.

“I know how much MSU fans want to see us win,” Cohen said. “We understand the stress it may cause for some of our fans, but I appreciate how supportive the MSU family is of our program and how much they want us to be successful.”

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SEC Freshman of the Year Jake Magnum shares passion, excitement with MSU teammates

“I’m the opposite of moderate,

Immaculately polished with,

The spirit of a hustler,

And the swagger of a college kid.”

– Clifford “T.I.” Harris

————————-

Forget about the awards for a minute. Forget about The Ferriss Trophy, the first-team All-SEC, the freshman All-SEC and the overall conference Freshman of the Year award. Ignore, until a bit later at least, that he leads the SEC in batting average, that he’s one of the country’s deadliest runners on the basepath and that he could even take the mound for an inning or three if he really wanted.

unnamedInstead, just for now, let’s take a moment to appreciate the personality of Jake Mangum, outfielder, Mississippi State. The one who jumps in the air in celebration just for hitting a single. The one who drops to his knee and fires an imaginary arrow with an imaginary bow into his dugout after hitting triples. And on Saturday, the one who unveiled some kind of leaping, fist-pumping, whooping pirouette of a celebration after making the diving catch to end the seventh inning and the Arkansas threat, effectively sewing up the regular season SEC Championship for his Bulldogs.

“I don’t even know what I did,” Mangum admitted when asked after the game about the celebratory outburst. “Probably something stupid.”

There is a history to these exuberant displays, too, it turns out. Once, in high school, Mangum and his Jackson Prep teammates were playing against Starkville Academy. It was, Mangum recalled, maybe the third inning, at the latest, and he was on base. The game was tied 3-3. Until Mangum crossed the plate.

Those who have seen Mangum play at MSU – or anywhere, surely – know how fast he runs. That day, like all others, he moved as fast as his body would let him. Like a bullet fired from the chamber when the ball was hit, Mangum didn’t sprint to home plate. He sprinted through home plate. And he didn’t stop there. Altering his trajectory slightly, Mangum kept going at top speed and full-on tackled his teammate who was waiting in the on-deck circle. Now an opponent of Mangum’s playing for Ole Miss, Rob Huffman was dropped to the ground in Mangum’s celebration of a game that wasn’t even halfway over.

“There are so many stories I could go through,” Mangum said as his mind’s eye wandered to visions of other such exhibitions of joy. “You can ask anybody who played high school baseball with me. Some of my celebrations over the years may have been over the top, but a lot of emotion goes into baseball.”

MSU recruiting coordinator and outfielders coach Nick Mingione remembers a similar occasion he witnessed when he was recruiting Mangum. The speedster rounded third base in a flash while the ball was off in play somewhere in the outfield behind him, and by the time his teammates had even figured out their guy was about to score, Mangum had reached home and already made it almost all the way to the dugout. From there, he continued sprinting along the outside of the dugout fence, giving high fives to each teammate as he passed them by and ran almost all the way to the outfield.

“He got to the dugout before everyone could even get out of the dugout he was so excited,” Mingione said with a laugh. “We want competitive kids, and there’s no doubt, he’s extremely competitive. Some kids are quiet competitors … Jake’s more of that animated competitor.

“Earlier in the year,” Mingione continued, “he gets on first base and he’s jumping in the air. Most people were like, ‘The dude was safe on a single and he’s jumping up in the air?’ But that’s who he is. He’s being Jake Mangum.”

DVRJPQNOLTJKICT.20160522033824Being Jake Mangum involves personality. It involves flair. It requires being competitive, expressive and unabashedly proud of the name on the front of the jersey as well as the one on the back. And, in addition to all that, it comes with a thick cloak of humility and a genuine team-first attitude.

Ask Mangum about his spectacular diving catches, and he’ll you tell that he considers his teammate Jacob Robson to be the best outfielder in the country. Try to talk to Mangum about his hitting prowess, and he’ll respond by letting you know just how great his teammates have been all year, bragging on spots 2-9 in the lineup. He’ll start telling you about the guys on the bench, too, if you don’t stop him. He’ll thank Mingione. He’ll thank his head coach, John Cohen. He even thanked a couple pitching coaches when reporters tried to talk to him about the success he’s had in 2016.

“I know how much he cares about Mississippi State in general, and he really cares about our team,” Mingione said. “I know where his heart is. There’s no doubt the guy cares about Mississippi State first.

“I talked to him every week in the recruiting process,” Mingione added, “and every time, he would talk about winning a National Championship. That’s all he wanted to talk about, was how great Mississippi State was going to be and how we were going to do it.”

There, again, is the trademark Mangum confidence and competitiveness. He’s been that way his whole life, he confesses. He gets it from his dad. It was fostered by his friends. Baseball, video games, hockey, even, it doesn’t matter; Mangum wants to win. He expects to win. And when he does win, he celebrates like a man who was never supposed to win a thing in his life.

“Games I’m not playing,” junior All-SEC pitcher Dakota Hudson shared, “I’m just sitting there watching him. Games I am playing, I turn around and he’s making a diving catch and fist-pumping … Being able to feed off that has been huge for our team.”

It’s an approach and attitude Mangum has had his whole life, but one that was enhanced in this, his first season at MSU, when senior catcher Josh Lovelady gave a speech to the team shortly before the season began. Lovelady – who Mangum calls the best teammate he’s ever had – preached to his teammates about never taking any game, play or moment for granted. Nothing is guaranteed, he told them, clichéd as it may sound. Take every opportunity, because you never know which game or play could be your last.

LEIFALHPENLKGGX.20160520031755

Mangum being congratulated by Mingione at third base

That was days before the 2016 campaign began. Four games into his senior season, Lovelady blew out his knee. His year was over before it had hardly begun. For him, for his teammates, and specifically for Mangum, the message he had shared so recently resonated that much more. If it wasn’t real before, it was after that.

So, now, Mangum takes every chance he gets. He sees not just every game, but every practice, every workout and even every film session as an opportunity, a gift that could be revoked at any time.

That approach to life is one he takes to the plate, as well, which numbers would indicate has been successful. Any ball he thinks he can hit – and he’s got enough confidence to believe he can get most – Mangum is going to take a swing at.

“My approach at the plate is, just get something you can hit, and hit it,” he explained. “There are so many great pitchers in this league … You can step in the box 0-0 and get a curveball that’s just absolutely filthy, then the next pitch you get a 96 mph fastball on your hands, and then the next pitch you get a change-up low and away. If you get anything to hit, you need to hit it.”

As for the results, they can be spoken for in awards, certainly, or explained in pure numbers. His .427 batting average leads the team, of course, but perhaps just as impressive is the fact that in 171 at-bats, he’s only struck out 12 times, the lowest total of any Bulldog with 150-plus plate appearances. He’s one of only two such players with fewer than 20 strikeouts.

Mangum’s 73 hits and team-high .472 on-base percentage are impressive, as well, and they are part of why Cohen has compared his freshman star to one of the best hitters MSU baseball has ever seen in Adam Frazier. They both, constantly, put themselves in position to get on base.

QQZIXTTCYXYXYOY.20160520031755It’s to the point now that any time Mangum doesn’t get a hit, the crowd at Dudy Noble Field seems genuinely surprised. Even the way he takes the plate, thanks to his chosen walk-up song, feels dramatic. The ‘80s hit ‘Your Love’ by English rock band The Outfield, just like Mangum, wastes exactly zero time. There’s almost no build-up, no intro, no time to prepare. Within a second of the well-known riff starting, the band is yelling across the stadium. “Josie’s on a vacation far away…” The Outfield bursting over the outfield.

It seems like you hear the song so many times in any game, and especially over the course of a weekend. You can’t look down without Mangum coming back up to the plate sometimes. The song really is perfect for Mangum, who Mingione observes to have an old school quality about him, somehow combining the swagger of youth with the confidence of an old soul, a wily veteran. The song, too – other than being appropriately sung by a band with Mangum’s actual position in the name – pays homage to his roots and the teammate who originally picked ‘Your Love’ as his walk-up song years ago.

One of Mangum’s best friends is the rightfielder from his high school team, Trace Lovertich, now a freshman at MSU who will be Mangum’s roommate next year. However, while Mangum’s baseball career is continuing, Lovertich’s ended at Jackson Prep last spring and, it seemed at the moment, so did the regular renditions of ‘Your Love.’ So, when Mangum was trying to come up with a song before this season started, Lovertich suggested he carry on the tradition he had started in high school.

“I’ll do it,” Mangum told him. “That’ll be my walk-up song all four years I’m here.”

Mangum says now, “It’s a tribute to him and it’s a tribute to Jackson Prep. Jackson Prep really did change my life. Just a special, special place that will always have a special place in my heart.”

To make the choice even better: the name of The Outfield’s greatest hits album on which the song appears is ‘Big Innings.’ Those two words form the exact goal Mingione has for the team every game. Get at least one big offensive inning per game by scoring three or more runs in a single frame.

The Bulldogs have had those Big Innings frequently this year, and more times than not, Mangum has been in the middle of the action. Whether he’s driving in his teammates for those runs or watching and running as they send him to home plate, he’s thrilled, in his usual emotive fashion, to see it happen – just like his coach.

“You’ll see Coach Mingione over at third base going absolutely crazy,” Mangum said, “because he loves big innings. That’s his thing.“

Inning or otherwise, it seems that just plain Big is Mangum’s thing. Big catches, Big hits, Big steals and the Biggest celebrations. However, as is typical with Mangum, he’s not thinking about his Big Self. His big personality is 100 percent invested in the even bigger dreams of his team.

“It really has been a special year so far,” he said. “And we don’t want it to end.”

Lucky him. The regular season concluded Saturday, but the postseason is just beginning.

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