Maroon-White Spring Game rosters released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bully 101: How mascots are selected and why they retire

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


Jak, left, with Pritchard and Champ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second, and perhaps most important, is personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MSU defense making strides under Diaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meyer, O’Brien speak at MSU coaches clinic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MSU’s coaches clinic will continue through the day.

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“Ricketts Effect” leading to huge offensive numbers for MSU softball

Inside Mississippi State’s softball facility last Thursday, a group of hitters were waiting in line to step up to the plate opposite the pitching machine and take some swings with a lacrosse stick. 10 yards away in a batting cage, another Bulldog batter was taking tosses from a live pitcher as balls came flying through what’s called the V-Flex, a giant contraption hanging from the ceiling, suspended between pitcher and hitter.

ETSFVJSTARSYYED.20150309175840The lacrosse stick and the net at the end of it are for teaching batters to get on top of bunts. The V-Flex is to enhance vision and awareness of the strike zone. At the center of all of it, new MSU hitting coach Samantha Ricketts was calmly directing traffic, offering pointers and even playing a few hitting games herself (eventually coming in second place in line-drive knockout, which is not nearly as deadly as it sounds).

Ricketts is only in her fourth year as a full-time coach, her first in Starkville, but she’s already getting praise for the impact she’s had at MSU, something everyone around the program except for her calls the “Ricketts Effect.” The Bulldogs have never been a bad hitting club under head coach Vann Stuedeman, but the jump they’ve made in 2015, despite losing several big hitters from last year’s squad, is garnering attention across the country.

To list a few examples, State’s team batting average has jumped from .257 in 2014 to .325 this year. With 14 games to go in the regular season, the Bulldogs already have 40 home runs in 2015, compared to 34 the entirety of last year, as well as 12 triples this season, surpassing the 10 hit all of 2014.

“Coach Ricketts for President,” Stuedeman joked. “I’m going to write her in on the next election.”

Maybe only a half-joke, if she’s being honest. With a specialty in pitching, Stuedeman likens herself to a head coach with a specific area of expertise who leaves the other side of the game up to a coordinator. In this instance, Ricketts is her offensive coordinator, and she’s got the freedom to do pretty much whatever she wants.

It’s that freedom that got Ricketts to MSU in the first place, leaving her post after three years as hitting coach at Wichita State. Remember her interview with Stuedeman, Ricketts said she was the only head coach who didn’t ask her what her hitting style is.

Ricketts recalled the interaction: “She said, ‘I don’t care. You’re the offensive head coach. You can have them and do what you want.’ That’s a lot of pressure, but it was cool to hear.”

Ricketts arrived at MSU with a strong resume, including an illustrious playing career at Oklahoma, where she graduated as the all-time Sooners leader in home runs and RBI. In fact, her monstrous RBI numbers were the most in Big XII Conference history. She was never supposed to do any of that, though. She had next to no offers out of high school, signed site-unseen with Oklahoma at the last minute and was the only unheralded member of her class. But she went on to outperform all of them, and it’s that process that led to her being such a good coach now.

“You hear a lot that the best players aren’t the best coaches,” Ricketts said. “For me, I was always more of a thinker as a hitter, and really, the best hitters aren’t. I liked to learn it. I had to work so hard to be good and I think that’s where it translated. It’s a lot of studying and trial by error.”

KAADIOAYLMQWHHE.20150406012815Whatever it is that worked for her then is now working for her players, as nearly every hitter on the roster is making huge strides.

Sophomore Amanda Ivy, for example, barely saw the field last year and was a combined 0-for-5 on the season. With over a dozen games left in 2015, she’s hitting .343 with 34 hits, 31 RBI and five home runs.

Perhaps the best example is athletic junior Kayla Winkfield. Winkfield is as dangerous as anyone on the country on the basepaths, but her problem in the past was getting there. This season, her batting average has jumped over 100 points, going from .221 in 2014 to .339 in 2015. She’s got 40 hits so far and already has 11 extra base hits, compared to just one all of last season.

For Winkfield, the change wasn’t mechanical; it had little do with footwork, stance or swing. It was all in her head, in a good way.

“We really worked on my mental game,” Winkfield said. “Most people think it’s all physical. I didn’t have any confidence when I went up to the plate and I was just thinking negative things. Coach Ricketts instilled that confidence in me. Now, when I go up to the plate, I’m thinking, ‘OK, I can do this. I got this.’”

Said Ricketts, ”An athlete like Wink, she’s unbelievable. She’s so talented, there’s no way that she could not be a good hitter. It’s really been getting her to believe it.”

Between Ricketts, Stuedeman and assistant coach Tyler Bratton, they feel like they’ve got a staff built for success both short term and long. With Bratton getting some of the best players in the country, Stuedeman teaching them how to pitch and Ricketts teaching them how to hit, they’ve got a trio that works incredibly well together and balances each other perfectly.

On the season, MSU is outscoring opponents an impressive 246-154 in 39 games, attention-worthy numbers on both sides.

unnamedSophomore pitcher Alexis Silkwood is a perfect hybrid of the talents the staff has, a multi-time SEC Pitcher of the Week (including the last two) who is also hitting .340 at the plate with 16 RBI in 50 at-bats, a significant jump from her .231 average in 2014. She’s 21-7 on the year pitching with a 2.38 ERA and 164 strikeouts, too.

“Usually,” Ricketts said of players who both pitch and hit, “you’ve got one who’s stronger in one than the other. With her, it’s so much her mentality. She’s such a fighter and she’s so determined.”

Just like Silkwood, MSU has a staff adept at all parts of the game. Sitting at 29-10 on the year with three SEC series left, the Bulldogs are setting themselves up well for their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in as many years under Stuedeman.

If they make it again this year, Ricketts will be a big reason why.

“It’s a testament to what a great coach she is and what a great coach she’s going to be,” Stuedeman said. “She’s just got a good head on her shoulders. This is her offense and these are her numbers and our kids’ numbers. I’ve been really, really impressed.”

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Bulldogs optimistic for permanent turnaround after series win over USC

After starting the season 13-0, Mississippi State’s baseball team lost something in the consistency that had led it to such a record. The Bulldogs weren’t terrible, but were they were a good ways from great, too. After an undefeated February, MSU lost 12 games in March, a woeful month for John Cohen’s club.

When he spoke to reporters after games, both wins and losses, Cohen had a similar frustration: there was always something going wrong. For a while the starting pitching was great, but the bullpen was struggling. At times the defense was stellar, but the offense found it near impossible to produce. On days when the runs came in, the starters on the mound couldn’t protect a lead.

GKTMVZUMVJCHPNM.20150405003944All parts of the game had proven winnable for Cohen’s club, they were just having a tough go of getting all those pieces going at the same time.

Finally, after that cold and even snowy month of March ended, MSU got it together, winning its first game of April, 13-2 over No. 13 South Carolina at Dudy Noble.

“We needed a big game like this,” starting pitcher Lucas Laster said after the win that night. “The month of March wasn’t too good for us. This was a good way to start out [April] and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Laster was a big part of the win, throwing a complete game as the Bulldogs finally seemed to break through a little bit. Of course, the 13 runs scored went a long way, as Laster himself conceded it’s much easier to pitch with a comfortable lead.

It didn’t stop there, though. The next day in game two, MSU pulled out another win, a 7-5 decision that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. At that point, MSU had scored 27 runs in its last three games, after only scoring three in the previous four combined.

In fact, the Bulldogs had single innings this weekend when they scored more runs in one frame than they had in the entire previous week of games, including a six-run inning immediately following a rain delay in game two that led to the win there.

“It was nice to know we were putting the whole package together,” junior second baseman John Holland said after Saturday’s win. “I think that was the team everybody saw at the beginning of the year … I think we were back to the team that was 13-0.”

Now, MSU wasn’t able to fully develop a winning streak, dropping game three of the series 13-7 after uncharacteristic outings by a couple pitchers, but even after losing, Cohen still saw the signs that his ship had been righted.

After the series finale, the Bulldogs have now scored 34 runs in their last four games, all over the course of one week. Compare to that to the previous four-games-in-one-week stretch where they only scored three.

Every problem hasn’t been solved, and it’s still baseball where streaks of both the hot and dry variety are bound to happen. But, at the very least, it seems one major issue has been fixed.

To hear Cohen and the players, the answer to seemingly every problem was the strike zone. The pitchers needed to throw strikes and the hitters needed to swing at strikes. Games one and two were good examples of the former, while everything the last week has shown the change in attitude of the former.

“We’re a lot more aggressive on the plate,” Cohen said. “We’re assuming every pitch is going to be in the strike zone and we’re attacking more.”

TSIDVGZHATOSZED.20150403232951Sophomore outfielder Cody Brown, third on the team with a .340 batting average, said the change has been pretty straightforward, just a more simple approach at the plate.

“Just going back to a little league mindset,” he said. “See ball, hit ball. Not overthinking things, just playing the game and letting it come to you.”

The effect was evident to Cohen as he watched his team rack up runs from the dugout.

“I thought our kids just played really relaxed at the plate. We just took some comfortable, relaxed swings and got our barrels in place,” he said midway through the weekend. “I think they’re starting to get really comfortable with their swing. It’s just that time of year where it warms up and you start seeing it a little better. I think everybody’s a little more comfortable right now.”

Going forward, MSU still has six conference series left, plus a couple handfuls of non-conference tilts, all followed by the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs have a lot left in front of them and a great deal of work to do to make sure they’re still playing when the regular season ends. But with March behind them and the month of April just underway, things are looking much more promising.

“We’ve got a lot of good things going,” Cohen said. “We knew we were capable of playing this way. We’ve gotta keep it going in a positive direction.”

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Freshmen impress in MSU’s first spring scrimmage

Typically, defenses are ahead of offenses in the offseason, but led by Dak Prescott, Mississippi State’s offense shook that notion in the first scrimmage of spring practice for the Bulldogs.

unnamedPowered by Prescott, freshman quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and a host of young skill position players, MSU’s offense found the endzone frequently, both by air and ground, part of an entertaining day in Davis Wade Stadium.

In particular, junior receiver Fred Ross built on his already-impressive spring, catching eight passes for over 100 yards out of the slot. Junior Fred Brown and freshman Jesse Jackson both (unofficially) totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 yards, including a nice touchdown catch by Jackson.

The most exciting play out of the backfield came from junior Brandon Holloway, who scampered over 70 yards untouched for a quick score. Redshirt freshmen Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams both had solid days, as well, with a pair of scores for Lee and one for Williams, too.

However, as Mullen said after, the key for the young playmakers is to be consistent. They can’t make a play, then miss a block on the next down because they were too busy celebrating.

“They do some really good things sometimes,” Mullen said. “But for us to be great, they have to do really good things every time.”

Now, to say the offense did well doesn’t necessarily mean the defense looked bad. On a unit replacing starters at every position and working under a new defensive coordinator, some growing pains are expected.

“You see some definite improvements,” Mullen said of the defense under Manny Diaz. “You see some things that are going to be drastic differences from what we’ve done before. Trusting their job, trusting their teammates, trusting all the fits and not just sitting there.”

While several wizened veterans were on the field Friday, it was a linebacker who’s never played a down in the SEC that impressed more than anyone. Redshirt freshman Gerri Green, one of the most physically impressive players on the roster, was all over the field. Of his eight tackles, four were for loss and two were sacks. A player with his combination of size and speed seems ready to fill a similar role to the departed Benardrick McKinney, one of both run-stuffing and quarterback-chasing.

Just as other young players, though, Green has a ways to go before he can reach McKinney’s level. He’s got to learn assignments, how to hold gaps and how to read offenses, but that’s what this time of year is for.

Said Mullen, “Spring is all about player development.”

MSU’s players are off for the rest of Easter weekend to go home and be with their families before coming back next week for the second half of spring practice. Activities conclude on Saturday of Super Bulldog Weekend with the morning Maroon-White game in Davis Wade Stadium.

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Bulldog Bites: Three teams deserving of praise, plus cheese logs and pie at The Veranda

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

Sports Stuff

ONPSDWRQJXQJPSS.20150331212109Women’s Golf: Outside, perhaps, of football last fall, not many teams on MSU’s campus have been more deserving of praise than the Bulldog women’s golf team. They’re on pace to make their fourth-straight NCAA Tournament after finishing in the top five of last year’s NCAA Championships. The follow up to that performance has been an increasing level of success.

MSU finished No. 2 in the country after the regular season concluded this week and they’ve got two weeks off to recover and prepare for the SEC Championships. The 2015 spring season was by nearly all accounts the best season in the history of the program as MSU finished in the Top 10 of every tournament it played in, including six top-five finishes and two first-place trophies.

To hear the quote from head Ginger Brown-Lemm, however, it sounds like her goal is much higher than finishing No. 2. Well, one spot higher, anyway.

“We have a great team, and I’m very proud of them,” she said. “We can’t focus on rankings. We have to keep focused on the SEC Tournament coming up and perform well like we have been all season.”

We’ll have more from them as the postseason nears.

Men’s Tennis: Under first-year head coach Matt Roberts, MSU’s tennis team had a somewhat up-and-down start to the season, but they’ve been on absolute tear lately, jumping back up the rankings all the way to No. 26 with a 15-5 overall record, 6-2 in the SEC.

The Bulldogs are 4-1 since toppling Auburn on March 15th, including a streak the last week in which they beat Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky all in a row.

“This is another huge win for us and shows how much we’re growing as this season goes along,” Roberts said after beating UK Sunday. “The SEC is an extremely tough conference to win in, especially on the road. Our guys have come through in the clutch lately and delivered some big wins and I could not be more proud.”

Following State’s 3-0 week, junior Mate Cutura was named the SEC Player of the Week for his role in the success.

Next up, MSU hosts No. 6 Georgia at 5 p.m. on Friday and plays No. 45 South Carolina at 1 p.m. on Sunday in Starkville, as well.

Women’s Tennis: Hey, speaking of good tennis teams! It seems as if MSU has turned the proverbial corner in head coach Daryl Greenan’s rebuilding process, entering the rankings early this season and working their way up to No. 44 in the country.

MSU started the season 13-3 before a rough skid in conference play brought the record to 14-7. However, they got a huge and drawn-out win yesterday, winning a five-hour marathon over No. 42 Auburn in Starkville.

“Our girls have done an unbelievable job rebounding after close losses,” Greenan said after the win. “Today, their efforts paid off.”

Next up, MSU closes out the regular season with matches on the road against Tennessee, Georgia and Ole Miss.

Softball: Just so you don’t think I’m ignoring them: I’m working on a long story on the success they’ve had this year, particularly the incredible strides they’ve made offensively. A teaser: MSU has upped it’s batting average from .257 last year to .326 this year and already has as many triples (10) and home runs (34) with 17 games left this season as it did the entirety of 2014. Impressive stuff.

Football: Same story here, in that the stories are elsewhere. I’ve written a few things about spring practice so far if you scroll down on the blog, and MSU has it’s first big scrimmage in Davis Wade Stadium tomorrow morning (9:45, open to the public), so we’ll have a lot more following that.

Food Stuff

Sports and food often have parallels that make the two seem like they were meant to be together, and I firmly believe no couple was ever more pre-ordained, save perhaps Adam and his lovely wife Eve. But occasionally the sports/food dynamic gets a bit, well, off.

Courtesy: The Veranda

Courtesy: The Veranda

For example, the apple of the baseball world’s eye is the starting pitcher, while appetizers, the starters of the culinary world, are given as much importance as the Diamond Girls. (Don’t get me wrong – they’re nice, but they’re complimentary, not what you’re there for.).

Conversely, the main course is the center of the menu at any establishment, but its baseball equivalent is, what, a long reliever? I suppose dessert is the closer in this poorly-constructed analogy, held in seemingly high regard despite the fact that people can only name a few of them.

I’ve written about plenty of entrees before, and we showcased around a dozen of them on video back in the fall, but it’s time the starters and closers of the restaurant industry get a little credit.

In this instance, such an exercise takes us to The Veranda, one of the most popular and well-known restaurants in Starkville. Owner and Chef Jay Yates is all about flavor on his steak (and it’s a really, really good steak), but he’s got more than pasta and well-cooked meats at his place. When it comes to ancillary dishes, he has some of the best.

What I like about appetizers and desserts is the feeling that you’re getting away with something or that you’re splurging a little bit. They’re great on dates or in groups, and particularly fun when you decide to skip the main dishes altogether and just get some snacks. If you’re at The Veranda, there is one clear choice for each category.

On the appetizer side, we can debate who has the best cheese sticks in Starkville for days (I’ve done it), but one thing is true: you won’t find cheese sticks like The Veranda’s anywhere else in town. Yates calls them cheese logs, and that’s what they are. Where most establishments go heavy on breading and deep fry ‘em ‘til the cheese is boiling hot and the breaded crust is thick and crunchy, The Veranda goes the other direction, completely reversing the ratio of cheese and batter.

These logs of cheese are over 90 percent mozzarella (or pepperjack, if that’s your preference), with a light and buttery breading to give it the needed crunch and extra flavor.

I’ve got a group of friends who want nothing more after football, baseball or basketball games to go straight to The Veranda and get some cheese logs off the late night menu. If cheese is what you want, cheese is what you get.

Now, for the dessert, there are few if any concoctions that can match The Veranda’s key lime pie. Some people tell me they don’t like key lime pie, but I don’t care. Eat this. Eat it with your mouth and go straight to Nirvana. The key lime filling is great, first off, but it doesn’t stop there. That filling is set on top of a crushed Oreo crust, then it’s topped with a thick layer of Belgian chocolate ganache. My goodness, it’s the kind of thing I would trade family members for an unlimited supply of.

So, the moral of the story: treat yourself. Not only is it OK to get an appetizer and dessert, it’s encouraged.

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Turner breaks down deep but “green” defensive line group

Mississippi State’s strength on defense last year, its defensive line, might be its greenest position in 2015. Gone are three starters from a dominant unit, including potential first-round NFL Draft pick Preston Smith.

XCWHYZYHBCHNIIE.20141108233651So, who replaces those guys, as well as the two senior backups who are now off in the real world, too? Well, despite only one “starter” returning, the Bulldogs do have a few who were technically backups last year but played as many snaps as anyone. They’ve also got some young talent who hasn’t yet seen the field. Plus, they’ve got new guys, too. Having quality options isn’t the problem for defensive line coach David Turner. It’s figuring out which ones to use and when.

Obviously, there’s a ways to go before next season starts, giving Turner plenty of time to get things figured out. But halfway through spring practice, he’s got an idea of how things are shaping up, so we talked to him about it.

Now, here’s the thing about Turner. He’s much better than me at coaching football, as one would expect, but he’s also much than me at words. Typically, these type articles are heavy on my words and light on the quotes, but for someone with the gift of description like Turner, we’ll reverse that.

Anyway, let’s start with the big question, figuring out who replaces Preston Smith as the feared pass rusher. The natural answer seems to be senior defensive Ryan Brown, which Turner said is both accurate and not accurate.

“Ryan’s just gotta be Ryan and that’ll be good enough,” he said. “He’s a little different animal than Preston in terms of athletic ability. He does some things better than Preston. Probably not as fast as Preston, but very effective.

“Ryan does what Ryan does. He comes out every day and grinds and works. Every day is the same. I think he’s gonna have a tremendous year.”

Relying on Brown is expected, though. He’s the only returning starter from last year, after all. But who else adds to the pass rush? It sounds like junior A.J. Jefferson, who has consistently earned praise from Turner, might be one of the most important guys in the group, even if he doesn’t always seem that way.

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

Jefferson and Brown sound like the guys to beat at defensive end, but one guy I think has that ability is junior college transfer Jonathan Calvin. He’s impressed in practice, particularly with a diving one-handed interception over the weekend. Once again, Turner’s words on Calvin are better than mine could ever be.

“Well, right now he’s a lost ball in high weeds,” Turner said of Calvin. “His head is spinning. He’s going to be OK. He’s got some power, he’s got some pump, he’s got some explosion. Once we get him in the right direction learning what to do, he’s gonna be fine.”

Two other wild cards are senior Torrey Dale, who Turner said really turned a corner late in 2014, and junior college transfer Will Coleman who redshirted last year. Coleman offers something a little different than those competing with him.

“Will is a little faster than some of the other guys,” Turner said. “Which he’s probably gotta be because he’s not as heavy as some of the other guys. I’ve been pleased with him. Will wants to be good, works at it, studies it, asks questions.”

So, those are the ends. Strong, experienced group. At tackle, however, Turner said the depth is good but the experience is partially lacking. Juniors Chris Jones and Nelson Adams are the most game-experienced of the group, and Jones played as many downs as just about anyone on the line last year.

Few question the ability Jones has, being big, strong, fast and explosive. The key, Turner says, is for Jones to keep working.

“I just want Chris to lead himself,” Turner said. “I’m not worried about him leading anybody else, I just want him to lead himself and understand for him to be as good as he wants to be he’s gotta work hard every day at it.”

Pair those two likely starters with junior Nick James, who Turner said has continued to make strides in the offseason, and MSU has a good group of tackles who have at least played in the SEC. However, one of the most impressive players to me is one who hasn’t played a down. Big Cory Thomas redshirted last year, but he had all the physical tools to compete with the big boys as soon as he got on campus.

Natural size and ability, however, aren’t all it takes. Turner sees the physical characteristics of Thomas. It’s the rest of the game he said needed developing.

“He’s gotta learn how to play and play hard in this league,” Turner said. “It’s not high school. He hasn’t played ball in two years. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s no different than any other freshman. He’s gotta learn the tempo and understand that things are going to be moving a whole lot faster and everybody is going to be big and strong and it’s not gonna be a matter of just overpowering people. He’s gonna have to play with technique.”

Those aren’t all the candidates across the line, of course, as Turner will have plenty of freshmen coming in, a few others who redshirted last year and a host of other available and talented bodies to put in the fray.

Given his wish, he’d like to use 8-10 guys each game, but he’s got to find them first.

The spring has been a good start.

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