Celebrating Rick Cleveland As He Enters Mississippi Sports Hall Of Fame

When I was a little kid, my parents use to have me read the newspaper at home. They weren’t trying to keep me updated on world news or anything. It was just a way to help me practice reading, to learn new words and to get a better understanding of sentence structure beyond “See Spot jump.” I didn’t typically comprehend what I was reading, but that wasn’t really the point of the exercise.

It was through these regular perusals of the newspaper that I first read Rick Cleveland. I couldn’t begin to remember what some of those columns were about early on, but I know that it was through reading them that I first started learning about college sports in the state of Mississippi. I mean, I knew sports existed, but as I got older and developed the capacity to understand sports and their meanings and intricacies, it was Rick who taught about me about football and basketball and baseball. It was the state’s most respected authority on sports who shared the stories I missed and the reasons behind the scores I could find elsewhere in the sports section.

Rick Cleveland at Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy: Elijah Baylis/The Clarion-Ledger

Like anyone who grew up, moved to or found themselves in Mississippi during a time period spanning decades, Rick Cleveland’s words were the ones you could always trust as reporters and editors came and went, both at The Clarion-Ledger and other papers across the state. Whatever was happening in sports in Mississippi, Rick was the person whose expertise you wanted on the subject.

And it was in the biggest moments that Rick shined. I still have, sitting in my old bedroom of the same house I first read his words, the front page of the paper with Rick’s column from Mississippi State’s Final Four basketball run in 1996. Egg Bowls, Cotton Bowls, years that no one even made a bowl – Rick was there. Hirings and firings, arrests and awards. Rick was more than just our ears to hear the real story among all the noise, he was the mouth that told it.

It wasn’t that Rick was good – he was and still is great – or consistently there. It’s that he came along at a perfect time when his state unknowingly needed him most. His first reporting job came as a teenager, and by the time he had developed his voice and his stature in the state, sports in Mississippi and America had developed a bigger following and more widespread interest than ever before. In the time between pro contracts changing from thousands to millions and college sports changing from niche hobby to big business, Rick was there to share the stories.

When the heyday of modern MSU athletics came in the ‘90s, I was a kid in Starkville who couldn’t get enough, but unfortunately for all sports fans at the time, those were the days before 12 different ESPN channels, long before the hundreds and thousands of websites and blogs devoted to sports, and decades ahead of smart phones that sent all of it right into our pockets.

Say what you will about newspapers now in the internet era, but in the first days of sport’s big boom, it was the printed word that satiated our hunger for information and perspective. And in Mississippi, it was Rick’s words we trusted most. Before every game was on TV, before every press conference was streamed online and before context was supposedly provided by talking heads ad nauseum on every sports channel, Rick served as our eyes, ears and collective conscience. For Mississippians of a certain time, it was through Rick’s eyes that we watched our teams, through his stories that we got to know the players and coaches whose successes and failures we were so emotionally invested in.

Rick going into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this weekend is, among other things, a no-brainer. He’s practically a living hall of fame himself, a walking history book of the modern era of sports in Mississippi. Not to mention a regular award winner, he’s been a reporter, an editor, a columnist, an author and historian. He’s the icon who wrote about icons, sharing the stories of the well-known, the lesser-known, the deserving and the great.

Listing the names of the great athletes and coaches he’s covered would take far longer than any of us have right now, but there is a full roster of them in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and deservingly, Rick Cleveland will be the newest name to join them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

True Freshman Thompson Preparing To Be MSU’s No. 2 QB

Entering the 2017 season, now less than one month from kickoff, Mississippi State is placing its promise, its hope and its next four-and-a-half months on Nick Fitzgerald. The fourth-year junior was the breakout star of the SEC last year and was voted a preseason all-conference quarterback back in July as he is expected to build on his first year as a starter.

His head coach Dan Mullen expects him to do the same, and that’s a big part of why Mullen has so much confidence in his team’s potential this year. With a good offensive line, some senior wideouts and a stud tailback, the stars of the recruiting variety are aligning for Fitzgerald and his Bulldogs to have a big and bounce-back year in 2017.

Certainly, football is a team sport, and Fitzgerald couldn’t get back to the postseason by himself, but one need look no farther than his predecessor Dak Prescott to see the impact one great quarterback can make, particularly in Mullen’s offensive system that flourishes so easily with a dual-threat quarterback. The quarterback is the leader in all ways: mentally, emotionally, even statistically. As he performs, so does the team, it often goes.

And in one play, one slip of a helmet off Fitzgerald’s head or, knock on wood, one hit that takes the junior star out for a more significant period of time, all that responsibility falls to the next man in line: an 18-year-old true freshman from Louisiana who has not only never played a down of college football, but never even watched from the sideline as a teammate.

In a warm-body-vacuum created by the transfers of three quarterbacks in under a year, Keytaon Thompson is the automatic No. 2, the backup who at any moment could become MSU’s Atlas, the Greek Titan tasked with holding the sky on his shoulders for all of eternity. Although, in Thompson’s case, eternity is limited to the length of his NCAA eligibility.

Unlike Fitzgerald and Prescott before him who were able to spend their first year quietly redshirting, learning and developing at a typical, slow pace, Thompson is having to prepare to be the backup immediately, and being the backup means being prepared to be the starter at a moment’s notice. Certainly, the hope is that he never has to play until the end of the games when MSU is up big, but it was just a few years ago that another true freshman quarterback was thrown into the fire when not one, but two quarterbacks went down with injury. In the SEC, in big-boy football with so much on the line, you’ve always got to be ready.

What Thompson does have in common with Prescott and Fitzgerald, however, is what will help him as he prepares for the season. For one, he’s got natural physical and mental ability, enough so that Fitzgerald even went so far as to say the freshman is “leaps and bounds” ahead of where he was at that point in his own career. Second, Thompson got the same head start as the two QBs who came before him by enrolling in school a semester early and going through a full spring of practices at a time that he should have been finishing his last semester in high school.

MSU quarterbacks coach Brett Elliot, yet another former Mullen-coached quarterback, knows how valuable that extra time was for a freshman who is being counted on in a variety of ways.

“He’s picked up where he left off mentally,” Elliot said. “Now he’s got to take that next step and run the show. He knows what he’s doing. I don’t know how confident he is in what he’s doing, but he knows it. He’s just got to, now, exude it. As a quarterback in this offense, we make a lot of checks, a lot of calls. Got to make sure guys are in the right place.

“We’ve had that conversation and he understands that it’s next guy up. He’s got to be ready to go. He’s got to take it up to that next step, which obviously has got to be expedited with our quarterback situation. It’s not optimal. You’d rather bring him along slowly. But he’s got the ability to do it mentally and physically.”

From a purely physical standpoint, Thompson is more polished than most his age. He’s got some work to do on tweaking a few little things. He occasionally lifts his pointer finger off the ball when he throws, which hurts accuracy. He’s got to keep his back foot down when he throws. But for the most part, he’s ready to go.

And mentally, there’s no doubt about his capacity to learn and understand, something he’s already shown. Beyond just comprehending and memorizing a football playbook, this is a guy who graduated high school early and with ease, an 18-year-old who plays chess for fun.

“Oh, he’s smart,” Elliot said. “He gets it. He’s just got to believe and know that he gets it and be confident. When you make the check, it’s not timid. It’s a confident, loud check. In terms of maturity, that guy is way beyond his years.

“You’ve got to get him confident in what he’s doing. A lot of times it’s just film work. Going over film, asking, what are you doing? Say it loud and do it in the meeting. Be loud with it. Kind of the running joke in our meeting is, ‘What, KT? What?’ It’s speak up, be loud, be confident. So we practice that in meetings. You’ve got to practice it to do it, just like anything else.”

Naturally, much of that confidence is built from successfully applying the things he learns on the field, and that’s something Fitzgerald says the young quarterback is doing. The junior has seen his freshman protégé start to make impressive plays in practice, an occurrence he believes has helped Thompson gain the respect of teammates both old and young.

Fitzgerald knows how hard it was just to be a freshman with no expectation or, really, even a possibility of playing, and he acknowledges that the pressure coming with trying to be a freshman and the backup is significant. Like everyone around him, Fitzgerald hopes it’s not something his team ever has to worry about. So long as health and a small dose of good fortune are on their side, Fitzgerald will continue to carry the sky on his shoulders while Thompson watches, studies and learns from beneath the clouds, the same way Fitzgerald once did behind Prescott.

But, if the time should come to pass the maroon and white mantle, MSU is hoping – and believing – the next man up will be ready for it.

“He works his butt off,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s in here watching film, trying to learn with coaches, just trying to make sure he’s going to be ready. Ultimately, I think he’s doing a very good job.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Familiar Feeling, Quiet Confidence Mark Start Of 2017 Football Preseason

There is a familiar feeling in Mississippi State’s football facility this summer. A team that had more downs than ups last season before finishing strong with back-to-back wins in the Egg Bowl and St. Petersburg Bowl is entering the 2017 season with more confidence than most outside the building believe is appropriate. In fact, most outside the state of Mississippi probably don’t even realize there is any particular confidence inside of MSU’s locker room.

After all, what should a team picked at or near the bottom of the SEC by nearly every media outlet in college football have to be excited about? Perhaps the only player for whom those across the country have high expectations is junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, and the dual-threat star isn’t surprised at all by the lack of respect for his team. And that hasn’t diminished his confidence at all.

“Mississippi State is always someone that’s been doubted,” he said. “It’s always been a program that we play with a chip on our shoulder. We’re always kind of the ‘picked last’ kind of team. I think we’ve just kind of embraced that. We’ve used that to motivate us. It doesn’t really matter what people outside these walls think because we know what we have is special and we know what we can do.”

So, back to that familiar feeling. Every season, every team across the country goes into the year with high expectations for themselves. They expect to win games, or at the very least are making plans to do so. They wouldn’t be playing if they thought they were going to lose everything. However, players can always tell the difference between hoping their team is going to be good and believing their team is going to be good, if they’re being honest with themselves. Whenever teams have those Cinderella seasons, it seems inevitable that players will tell all who listen that they knew from the start what they were capable of doing.

It’s easy to say that after the fact, but often it’s true. In 2014, MSU’s most recent Cinderella season, there was video evidence of such belief. When the unranked Bulldogs were about to run out of the locker room for a game against Top-10 LSU in Baton Rouge, head coach Dan Mullen told his team, “They don’t know what’s about to take this field.” Mullen knew. His team knew. It’s just that no one else did. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve covered MSU since Mullen took over in 2009, and over the years you start to learn how to read the vibes, for lack of a more specific way to put it. Being around the players and coaches before the season, you can usually get a pretty good idea of how the next five months are about to go. I’ve had it in my head since spring practices that the feeling around this team was similar to that 2014 preseason. I didn’t voice it, but I’ve asked players what the mood is like around the team, how they feel. Redshirt junior running back Aeris Williams, great quote that he is, unknowingly confirmed the hunch.

“It feels like my freshman year when I first got here,” he said. “When we were No. 1, it feels the same way. We’ve got a lot of leadership out here and we’ve got a lot of players that are gonna step up and make plays. It’s gonna be a great season.”

There are some similarities in the specifics of the two teams, most notably that both featured one of the country’s best and most dynamic quarterbacks, but for the most part the two teams are built very differently, and the schedules are not at all familiar. What’s the same is the feeling around the team.

Hearing college students talk about chemistry might seem a little more natural in the chemical engineering department rather than the athletic department, but that’s what these players are basing so much of their confidence on – beyond the great deal of talent they believe the roster has.

“Taking last year’s team for example,” Fitzgerald said, “I think that we weren’t exactly very cohesive. We weren’t very together. There were a lot of different cliques, a lot of people that didn’t work well with each other. This year it’s completely different. The second we stepped in the facility in January we knew that if we wanted to be good we were going to have to work together, build that chemistry up and be a team that was all around each other and all about each other. Live and die for each other, that kind of thing. And I think that’s what we’ve become. We’ve gotten really close. We’ve all made good friendships. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody hangs out with everybody. I think that’s really helped.”

It’s that facet that the Bulldogs have worked on as much as anything over the course of spring and summer and now fall. They’re working in the weight and film rooms too, of course, and they’re putting in maximum effort in each rep of practice, as well. And they’re doing that because they want to get better, not just for themselves as individuals, but for the team as a whole. They have a genuine belief, expectation even, that they are going to be great in 2017.

In a sentiment echoing that of the leadership on 2014’s team, no one wants to be the guy who lets the rest of the team down when they know they have the ability to do something special.

“We’re closer this year,” sophomore defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons told reporters. “Being a football team, being a championship team, you have to be close and be one unit. I feel like we came a long way. We worked hard this summer.”

Junior safety Brandon Bryant, like Fitzgerald and Williams, was a redshirt freshman back in 2014 when he watched his teammates take down three-straight Top-10 opponents and ascend to No. 1 in the country for five-straight weeks. He was there for College GameDay, for the Dak hype, for the Sports Illustrated covers, and most importantly, he was there for the moments in the locker room and on the practice fields that helped create those successes.

Whatever that intangible, unspecific commonality is, whatever good vibe is floating around the Seal Complex, Bryant feels it, too.

“This season is going to be special,” he said. “This season is going to be special because we came together this summer. The whole team just bonded together. Everybody just jelled together all as one. I think this is going to be special. This is one of the best feelings I’ve had about a team since I’ve been here.”

“I know,” Williams stated confidently, “that we’re going to have a great season this year.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Five Things We Learned On Day One Of Football Fall Camp

Today – Tuesday, for those of you reading this from the future – Mississippi State opened fall football camp with its first practice of the preseason. In conjunction with this momentous occasion, MSU hosted its on-campus media day with Dan Mullen, some of his staff and many of his players. I’ll have some more in-depth stories from all the interviews later, and we’ll be posting updates and highlights from fall camp as practices go along.

However, in the meantime, we learned a great deal from today’s media session, the main points of which we’ll share here. Of note, there are new rules in place this year that A) allow NCAA football teams to begin fall camp earlier than before and B) prevent NCAA football teams from having two-a-day practices. The number of practices between now and game one remains the same as ever, holding steady at 29, but the time in which teams can have these practices is now bigger. Which brings us to item No. 1…

Mullen Focused on Health in Preseason

With more flexibility on how to run the schedule for the preseason, Mullen took a unique approach to setting the itinerary. Before talking to anyone else, State’s coach got his head trainer and his strength and conditioning coach together to talk about one specific thing: health. He asked them, given the number of available days and total number of practices, what the healthiest possible schedule would be. After receiving an answer, he added input from his coaching staff on how they want to do installations, checked the summer and fall class schedules, and came up with dates that made MSU the first SEC team to kick off preseason practices. Using this week as an example, the Bulldogs will practice in just helmets the first two days, then have a day off, then practice three days in shoulder pads, then have another day off.

Offensive Line Taking Shape

As with any John Hevesy-coached offensive line, veteran players are expected to be able to play most if not all positions if need be. Because of that, older guys moved around a lot in bowl practices and spring practices. Now, it appears MSU is set with having two of its best and most experienced players at the two most important positions on the line. Senior Martinas Rankin appears locked in for left tackle, while junior Elgton Jenkins has seemingly solidified his role as the center. This is, of course, subject to change with all of fall camp to go, but Mullen and Hevesy both seem to like the starting point.

Mullen: “You feel pretty confident about those guys … [Jenkins] is a veteran guy and a pretty smart football player. He’s a guy that can get all the right calls and get everybody in position.”

Hevesy: “You have two good guys that have good knowledge of the game and are leaders for me … The first thing I look for in a center is, can they communicate?

[Jenkins] has got a great knowledge of the game. He’s a communicator. Likes to talk.”

Elsewhere on the line, Hevesy has tentatively switched junior Deion Calhoun to right guard so that he can have a veteran presence next to whichever young player steps up and takes over the right tackle position.

Grantham Outlines Defensive Approach

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the second interview of the day, and as has been the case since his arrival, he was quite candid and clear in his answers to questions. A few things stood out, but we’ll start here with his general approach to running MSU’s defense. First, he outlined a general style of play summed up in three words: fast, physical and aggressive. Those are certainly words you’d here almost no matter who the coordinator is, but they appear to be particularly true in this case, when it hasn’t always been the case. The directive is coming from the top.

Mullen: “I want to have an intimidating defense. I want 11 guys flying to the ball with a chip on their shoulder. Nasty disposition.”

The second thing Grantham highlighted sounded more like something from a Ted Talk by a successful CEO rather than a football coach. Grantham recognizes that all his players are unique individuals, and he wants to get to know them as such. He wants to figure out how each individual person learns and then try to teach them in a manner they are able to respond to. By doing so, Grantham believes he can help them more fully reach their potential first as people and second as athletes by giving them confidence.

Grantham: “Belief is a powerful tool and guys can push through barriers they’ve never passed before.”

Grantham also shared how he runs fall camp, breaking it down into three parts. First is installation of the defense as a whole, then in the middle of the camp they start working on preparing for each individual offense they will face over the course of the season so that the Monday of each game week won’t be the first time they see or hear anything about that team. The final portion of camp is dedicated almost exclusively to preparing for the game one opponent so they can get the season off to a good start.

Defensive Leaders, Starters Emerging

Now, for more specifics on the defense as far as personnel. Plenty is known about MSU’s safeties and linebackers where depth and experience remain bountiful. Defensive line and cornerback, however, are more interesting positions with lots of battles for starting spots and some voids left by departed seniors, particularly along the line. Mullen made note of some leaders there, first mentioning Jeffery Simmons and Cory Thomas on the defensive line, then Tolando Cleveland at cornerback, who is back on a medical redshirt for one final season in maroon and white.

When Grantham was asked a question about structuring defenses to highlight the strengths of his players, a follow-up was asked about who some of those specific players are that he wants to highlight. In answering the question, he gave a good look into some players who may be in the lead for starting gigs as camp and further competition for those spots begins. On the line, he mentioned Simmons and Thomas followed by Fletcher Adams and Chauncey Rivers. At linebacker, he brought up Gerri Green, Leo Lewis and Dez Harris specifically. Then, at safety, he listed off four players, saying the names of Mark McLaurin, Brandon Bryant, Jonathan Abrams and JT Gray.

You’ll notice he didn’t list any corners, but being there in person, it felt like he lost that position somewhere along the way as he worked his way through the defense, rather than thinking he purposely didn’t mention them.

And no matter what Grantham said today, it’s all subject to change based on camp and in-game performance, beside the fact that he said he’s going to rotate heavily. Lots of guys are going to play no matter who the “starters” are.”

Mullen Has Big Plans for Tight Ends

And finally, we got one rather interesting tidbit on Mullen’s plans for more extensive use of his tight ends. Injuries there have prevented much depth from accumulating in the past, but now MSU has as many as five guys they feel good about at that position, offering new coach D.J. Looney a lot of tools to work with. Asked if he studied anyone else in college or professional football for ideas, Mullen actually threw it back to what the New England Patriots did several years ago with a lot of their two tight-end sets.

Mullen’s spread offense is all about mismatches, advantageous matchups and versatility. Having a deep set of tight ends makes all of that a whole lot easier. The example Mullen used when talking about the Patriots was their ability to go from a 10 set (four wide receivers) to a 12 (two wide receivers and two tight ends inside) without having to change personnel. If Mullen has the players to do it, he’s certainly got the playbook to take advantage.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Nick Fitzgerald Invited To Manning Passing Academy, Talks Offseason Work

Nick Fitzgerald was sitting at Starkville Mexican food staple La Terraza with a group of friends when his phone started buzzing. A quick glance told him the incoming call was an unknown number out of Lousiana, so he sent it to voicemail and put his phone back down.

A minute later, his phone buzzed one more time, letting the Mississippi State quarterback know that he had a new voice message. Fitzgerald swiped his phone open to quickly listen while he ate.

“Hey, Nick,” the message began. “This is Archie Manning.”

“I almost dropped my phone,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I was like, what? My buddies looked at me like I was crazy. I was like, y’all don’t understand. So I put it on speaker and set it on the table. Everyone’s jaw just dropped.”

Naturally, the patriarch of the family was calling to invite Fitzgerald to the annual Manning Passing Academy, a summer football camp put on by the Manning family in which the best quarterbacks in college football are invited to serve as counselors. Fitzgerald arrives in Louisiana today to join Archie, Peyton, Eli and all the elite college quarterbacks from across the country.

Following his predecessors Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell, Fitzgerald is just the third MSU passer to be invited to the camp, and he plans to use the time to learn as much as he can from the Mannings, keeping his eyes and ears open for any nuggets of knowledge or helpful hints he can glean from the famous quarterbacks.

“Any time you can be around a family like the Mannings, you kind of just turn into a sponge and try to absorb everything you possibly can,” he said. “So you can hopefully get a little bit of coaching and at the same time have some fun, meet some new guys.”

As for the entirety of the offseason, Fitzgerald has been in Starkville taking summer classes and working out every day. Beyond the usual weightlifting, Fitzgerald says he has also been doing consistent work with resistance bands to help strengthen his shoulder and throwing arm, and putting himself through daily footwork drills has been an integral part of his offseason regimen.

The most important part, however, has been the extra work he and his teammates have put in together. Fitzgerald regularly gets together with receivers, tight ends and running backs to work on passing and timing. He gets together with his lineman to build chemistry and consistency. As groups, they’ve even been joining up to watch and study film.

In a period of the year where the only coach players can work with is their strength coach, Fitzgerald believes that players working together on their own can help them build off of spring practice and improve during the hot summer months even without real practices. And certainly, as one of the new stars of the SEC, Fitzgerald wants to build on his stellar first season as a starter and take both himself and his team to greater heights.

“I just keep working out,” he said, “keep building those relationships with our receivers, keep building trust up, keep building that leadership role and just trying to work hard.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Blair Schaefer Discusses Summer Internship With Entertainment Tonight

A little bit of rivalry isn’t always a bad thing.

Back in December, long before Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team made its run to the National Championship Game in Dallas, the Bulldogs were in Los Angeles for a non-conference tournament. The Women of Troy Classic, hosted by Southern Cal, provided an opportunity not just for MSU to continue racking up wins, but it was a chance for junior guard Blair Schaefer to get a peek at her future.

For some time now, Schaefer has dreamed of a career in broadcasting, and as it turns out, one of her mom’s friends works for The Insider, an L.A.-based TV show. During some down time, Schaefer and her mom went to get a tour of the studio, which happens to share a building with the ever-popular Entertainment Tonight. The hopeful Schaefer asked at the end of the tour if any of the E.T. hosts were there, but unfortunately, she was told, they were not. But then, on their way out of the building, E.T. host Kevin Frazier stepped out into the same hallway on his way out for the day and ran into the Schaefers.

Frazier, as fans of the show likely know, is the most knowledgeable sports fan on E.T., a former ESPN host and a former basketball player himself. After saying hi to the strangers in the hallway, he asked what brought them to town and discovered that not only was Schaefer a basketball player herself, but that she might be playing against his beloved USC that Sunday if they beat SMU first.

Schaefer remembers the joking trash talk that ensued.

“He said, ‘Y’all are gonna lose.’ I said no, we’re pretty good, we’re 14-0. I mean, we’re on a streak right now. I said, if we beat SMU, come watch us play. He said OK.”

And of course, MSU beat SMU soundly, taking down the Mustangs 91-42 and setting up a championship tilt against the Trojans. When tipoff came on Sunday, Frazier and his two sons were sitting courtside to watch. When the final buzzer sounded, the Bulldogs had won 76-72, and the gracious Frazier came over to talk to Schaefer, introduce his sons and even take pictures with the team.

However, watching a game wasn’t the only deal Schaefer and Frazier made that day outside the studio. While talking in the hallway, Schaefer told Frazier about her dream to work in broadcasting and her plan to get a broadcasting internship the following summer when she was off from school and basketball in May.

“When I told Kevin about it,” Schaefer recalled, “he was like oh, consider it done. I was like no, I’m serious. I’m not just saying that and you’re never going to see me again. I really want this. He was like no, I got you.”

So this May, once she finished her classes, Schaefer flew out to Los Angeles for three weeks of working on the set of Entertainment Tonight with Frazier as her guide. Over the course of her time there, she got a peek into every aspect of the production, from editors and producers and cameramen to hosts and writers and researchers. Some days she’d be in an editing bay as segments and interviews were spliced together, and others she’d be with the E.T. online team working events and social media.

But every day, she went to the stage with Frazier and watched her new friend work. The relationship that blossomed led to many discussions between the two as Schaefer was able to get a better idea of exactly what she wants to do one day and as Frazier gave her endless advice on how to make it happen.

“He’s awesome,” Schaefer said. “There are so few people that are so high up in the business that are so genuine. He would go out of his way and do things for me when I feel like I should be doing that for him.”

Schaefer is back in Starkville now, taking summer classes and working out in the gym as she prepares for her senior season of basketball. But while her focus has shifted back to her team and her education, she’s able to advance now with an idea of what she wants to be and what she can do in the meantime to make it happen.

“I need to get experience on camera,” she said, as her plan is to be on-camera talent. “Maybe do a women’s basketball segment at the local news station every weekend or something. Just an update on women’s basketball, because people love women’s basketball here.

“Everyone was saying to go get experience, go get another internship. Just experience, experience, experience. I learned that I really need to get myself out there.”

Lucky for Schaefer, she’s a point guard for one of the best basketball teams in America. The camera won’t have any trouble finding her.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Q&A: Neil Price Discusses Becoming New Voice Of The Bulldogs

This morning, Neil Price was announced by Mississippi State as the new Voice of the Bulldogs, taking over football and basketball radio play-by-play for the retired Jim Ellis and becoming the next in the line of MSU’s most recognized voices. A long-time broadcaster, Price joins MSU after a successful stint on the radio for the Kentucky Wildcats.

Shortly after being hired at MSU, we caught up with Price to talk about his new job. The following is a transcript of that conversation.

Hail State Beat: Let’s jump right in and start with the big news: you’re the new Voice of the Bulldogs. That must be a pretty unique feeling.

Neil Price: Well, it’s been a dream of mine, ever since I started my career, to be the voice of a Division-1 athletic program, and preferably one in the Southeastern Conference because it’s what I grew up watching and listening to on the radio, what I feel like I identify with the most. To see that dream become a reality – I’m not sure that it’s sunk in yet. It’s a cool thing to think about. The fact that it’s at Mississippi State, that’s just an added blessing. It’s a place where I feel comfortable. I’ve always enjoyed going to Mississippi State. I’ve never had a bad experience at Mississippi State, even when the teams I went there with lost games. The people are great. I love the town, love the community. It feels like home to me. I’m excited about all of that and just can’t wait to get going.

HSB: When you talk about being the voice of a school, Jack Cristil is, obviously, a name that comes to mind as one of the greats in college athletics, and he’s certainly a legend around here. Did you ever come across his broadcasts growing up in the southeast?

NP: I heard Jack Cristil toward the end of his career, but what stands out to me is that, if you ask any fan of any team in the Southeastern Conference to name you the three best radio announcers in the history of the league, Jack Cristil’s name is always near the top. To me, that speaks volumes. I’ve heard all kinds of wonderful stories about Jack. Jim Ellis has been kind enough to share some of those with me through the years, and he knew Jack better than probably anybody outside of his family. It is humbling to follow in those big shoes, and it’s the same thing with Jim, now, because Jim’s done a great job. And to do it with the grace that he’s done it with these last six years, that wasn’t easy. He was the guy who had to follow the guy, and you don’t always get to pick when the opportunity is going to come. He did it, and he did it with great professionalism and class. I think there’s a lot to be learned from Jim, too.

I told John [Cohen] this during the interview: if I chase the example set by Jack Cristil and Jim Ellis, I’m going to be on the right path. I’ve got no doubt about that, because people loved them, they were great at their jobs – and Jim still is – and they’re great role models for anybody in broadcasting, not just me.

HSB: So, how is it that you ended up in a profession like this? When did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do and how did it end up happening?

NP: I think the moment that it first occurred to me that I wanted to do this, I remember it was on a trip in east Tennessee with my dad. Dad had a little black and gray Ford Ranger, and we were listening to a Tennessee football game. John Ward’s voice just captivated me. I thought, this is a pretty cool deal that this guy gets to go to the game, he gets to watch the game, and he gets to convey all the excitement of the atmosphere and what’s going on on the field to people like me. That’s a pretty cool job, when you think about it. I think I knew even that early, at that age, that I wasn’t going to be an athlete. My future wasn’t in doing that. This was a way for me to still be involved in athletics and be around my friends who were far better athletes than I was, and have some kind of role that people would appreciate. That’s when the seed was planted, and I was probably in the seventh grade.

From there, it was being the public address announcer at middle school basketball games for our teams, and then doing the same thing in high school and eventually getting into radio at 15, doing the basic stuff: playing music, filling in doing news and sports, and occasionally getting a play-by-play assignment for a baseball game that maybe no one else wanted to do, or get to travel with the high school football crew on Fridays and get to help out with those broadcasts. My big break, in terms of getting the reps, was when I got to junior college. We had a president who was committed to athletics and he thought it was important that the games were on the radio and I happened to be the person that was qualified to do that and had the relationships with the college and the radio station to help facilitate that. I did two years worth of basketball doubleheaders, a women’s game and a men’s game during the season, and I had never had those kinds of reps before. That was valuable. Then, obviously, meeting Bob Kesling. Bob’s at Tennessee now. And has been for the most of 20 years at this point, and Bob kind of got me from that point where I had just put my foot in the door and taught me how to be professional, how to prepare, how to take what I was doing in a small town and get to a point where I could do it on a big stage. I think if you’re looking for the keystone moments, those are the ones that come to my mind.

HSB: This may be kind of a vague question as we finish up, but what’s your style on the radio? What’s your approach to the microphone and the personality that you bring to a broadcast?

NP: I don’t know that I have a term to answer that. I’ll tell you what I strive for. I strive to be conversational. When someone listens to a broadcast that I’m on, my hope is that they will feel like I am talking directly to them. That’s always my intent. I believe that the difference between being a good broadcaster, and taking that next step, is being able to be conversational. I don’t know how to tell you how to do it, but you hope, over time, that’s what you develop. I think that, in some ways, I try to follow the example that Jack Cristil set. You knew that Jack wanted Mississippi State to win the game. But I think Jack was very professional in his approach, and Jim has been very professional in his approach to the job, in that it’s not a lot of yelling and screaming, but when the Bulldogs make a big play, you know it.

What I hope I can bring in the appropriate amounts, and what I have been asked to bring by one coach already on campus, is just to bring some juice. I hope I can do that. If a guy breaks a long run in a football game, you’re going to hear those cowbells ringing in the background and I’m going to give the right level of excitement to go with it. Same thing for a big touchdown catch or a quarterback sack or a slam dunk at Humphrey Coliseum. Picking those moments and punching, and showing the energy and enthusiasm of not only the moment but the people who are there too, and trying to tie that all together in a way that’s pleasing to somebody’s ear.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bulldog Bats Come Alive As MSU Takes Two To Keep Season Alive

“You like that?” Andy Cannizaro called out.
“Love it,” came the reply.

“Gotta wake ‘em up!” Cannizaro yelled back.


Mississippi State’s offense had been struggling. Their head coach wasn’t going to criticize his players, but Andy Cannizaro knew his team had been having trouble at the plate. A team that entered the final two weeks of the season in position to win the SEC because of its explosive offense had suddenly seen the fireworks go dark.

In their last 10 games before Sunday, the Bulldogs had scored more than five runs only once their last 10 games, and eight of those outings had seen totals of four or less. Even in their last 16 games, they’d only broken five three times.

On Sunday morning, MSU was facing the end of its season, playing an elimination game against the University of Illinois Chicago in the Hattiesburg Regional. The Bulldogs had only mustered three runs on six hits in their loss to South Alabama in their last game, and if they couldn’t get better production at the plate, it wouldn’t matter how great Konnor Pilkington was on the mound – their season would be over.

It was early in the day, with a first pitch scheduled for 10 a.m. and team breakfast having taken place three hours before at 7 a.m. Just before the game, when all the bats had been gathered up in a bag and brought to the dugout to be hung up, Cannizaro stopped the manager carrying the bag and grabbed a hold of it himself. With the team watching as he stood at the edge of the dugout, he started taking bats out and tossing them carelessly – and occasionally aggressively – onto the ground. He began by doing it one at a time, and eventually he started grabbing them by twos and threes and throwing them to the floor of the dugout.

On every bat or three, he’d yell some variation of the same thing.

“Gotta wake the bats up! Gotta wake ‘em up!”

At first bewildered, the players eventually joined the fun, laughing and cheering as Cannizaro heaved the normally carefully-handled bats to the ground. The bats won’t be put up until they’ve been woken up, they were told. And as the game went along, each player was instructed to toss their bat back into the pile after the at-bat.

The Diamond Girls in charge of tracking down bats after players get hits were hesitant at first when Cannizaro instructed them, too, to toss the bats to the ground instead of hanging them up like usual.

“No, I’m serious, throw it in there!”

By the end of the game, MSU had racked up 14 hits, the most they’d had all postseason, spread among eight hitters, and they defeated the Flames 5-4 to keep the season alive.

And when, four hours later, the bag was brought back to the dugout before MSU’s second elimination game of the day, Cannizaro again grabbed hold of it and started throwing bats by ones and twos onto the ground while the team looked on.

“Wake these bats up!”

When he discovered someone had taken a picture of he and his bat pile, Cannizaro just smiled and laughed.

“You like that?” he called out.

“Love it,” came the reply.

“Gotta wake ‘em up!” Cannizaro yelled back.

Slowly, starting with Hunter Stovall and Cody Brown after they both went yard in the same inning, the bats were allowed to be hung in their usual place as the game went along. 12 hits, three homers and seven runs later, their slumber had clearly ended, as MSU advanced yet again, this time taking down South Alabama 7-3.

The bats were officially awake.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Bulldogs Defeat UIC To Stay Alive, Advance In Hattiesburg Regional

Sunday morning in the Hattiesburg Regional elimination game, and as it turned into Sunday afternoon, was a nine-inning microcosm of Mississippi State’s season. Highlight plays, eighth-inning scares, weather issues, great pitching, sometimes not-great pitching, last-minute heroics and a win that can hardly be celebrated before attention must be turned to the next one.
The answer to how the Bulldogs won – a question that’s been asked all season with varying degrees of incredulity – is easy enough. In a cliché-ridden season, it’s appropriate that another cliché keeps the season alive. MSU played as a team. They won as a team. Any number of players could be given the credit for defeating UIC, and all would be deserving.

Konnor Pilkington came through when MSU needed him the most, pitching an absolute gem for seven innings before the Flames finally found the ball in the eighth inning. He only gave up four hits in seven innings, throwing 113 pitches and striking out nine, passing 100 strikeouts on the year. He turned the Flames into the flamed.

Hunter Stovall made three game-changing plays with his left hand; the second two coming on back-to-back snags defensively at second base and the first coming at second on the offensive side when he just slipped his left hand away in time to avoid the tag and arrive on base safely. He then used his right foot a few minutes later to step on home and score State’s first run of the game.

One could give Riley Self the credit, coming in late and securing his sixth save of the season, holding onto a one-run lead with the bases loaded behind him. He certainly looked nothing like a freshman pitcher should be expected to appear.

Perhaps Elijah MacNamee deserves the credit for RBI hits in back-to-back innings, knocking in a run each in the fourth and fifth innings to take back and then extend the lead.

And even then, it could have all been for naught if it weren’t for Jake Mangum stealing two bases and racking up three hits in five at-bats. If not for Josh Lovelady showing how a veteran plays catcher when the season is on the line. If not for Cody Brown making a big catch, if not for Ryan Gridley getting a big hit, and certainly if not for Brent Rooker’s RBI double in which he became the first player in SEC history to rack up 20 home runs, 30 doubles and 75 RBI in a single season.

The consistent theme of the 2017 season has been the arrival of the unexpected. No one expected MSU to be this good, to win this many games, to have 20-plus come-from-behind wins. Nobody planned for that when they made their projections, but MSU came through anyway. If the Bulldogs have been raining on everyone’s parade this year, it’s fitting that they kept their season alive on Sunday by scoring the winning runs when the rain was at its heaviest.

Before the game started, head coach Andy Cannizaro’s message to the team was simple: “Play for the guy next to you.”

It wasn’t about one person carrying the rest. It was about all of them carrying each other. Early Sunday, that’s exactly what they did. Another full-team performance to keep the unexpected run going.

“I’m proud of our guys today,” Cannizaro said. “They gave us an outstanding team effort.”

In another four hours or so, weather permitting, they’ll go try it again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Offseason Development Shines Over Course Of In-Season Production For MSU Baseball

There are a great many factors that go into developing a good baseball player. Mechanics, awareness, timing, approach, form, patience – all important things. And to be a good hitter or pitcher, you need just about all of those.

What you also need is a good strength program.

At Mississippi State, it’s Brian Neal who is in charge of making sure every player has the physical build, strength and stamina to use the tools and techniques they are given. As MSU’s strength and conditioning coach, it’s his job to make sure the Bulldogs are prepared, and it’s a job he doesn’t just take pride in, but enjoys fully.

If you get him talking about what goes into developing a good baseball player in the weight room, he’ll say himself that he can talk for hours on the subject and not grow weary. We don’t have enough time for that here, but his philosophy can be boiled down to a pretty straightforward approach. When asked how to develop good hitters, he broke it down as such:

“It’s going to come from the ground up, from the inside out, and from back to front,” he said. “What does that mean?”

Good question, I was just about to ask. Go on.

“Well, obviously, from the ground up: we want to develop lower body strength and lower body power,” he said. “From the inside out, we want to work from the core outwards. From the back to the front, I always say, ‘I want you guys to look better walking away from me than you do walking to me.’ So, as you’re walking away, big calves, big hamstrings, big butt, strong lower back, broad shoulders, big triceps. Your backside should be more developed than you front side.”

The same approach, he said, applies to pitchers, as well, where power coming out of the hand starts from the ground. Developing those areas is something he works with players on throughout the offseason. Even during the season, the Player Development crew is the group of redshirting players who continue to work out with Neal as the season goes along.

If you see “Flex Friday” on social media, that’s their weekly workout of the upper body. It came from what used to be Sleeveless Saturday and was followed briefly by Flannel Friday, in which the participating weightlifters wore flannel shirts to the gym. For Neal, it’s just another way to get guys excited about developing their bodies.

That excitement, it turns out, has carried over to the roster as a whole, aided greatly by the presence of new head coach Andy Cannizaro, whose arms are each as big as a fully-grown toddler and whose bench press prowess is enough to intimidate even the strongest of strong men.

Certainly, the process can’t be done in just one year, but looking at a pair of sluggers who made significant improvements at the plate this year provides good insight into just how important this last offseason was for MSU. Below are some of the 2016 and 2017 numbers for juniors Ryan Gridley and Brent Rooker. The 2016 numbers, of course, include the full length of their postseason run, while each has player has time left to build on their 2017 numbers. Even still, the differences are impressive.

Ryan Gridley

2016: Eight doubles, two home runs, zero triples, .345 slugging percentage

2017: 12 doubles, six home runs, one triple, .461 slugging percentage

Brent Rooker

2016: 15 doubles, eleven home runs, two triples, .578 slugging percentage

2017: 29 doubles, 21 home runs, three triples, .843 slugging percentage

From one year to the next, their numbers have nearly doubled across the board for them both, and tripled in at least one case for Gridley.

For Neal, it’s no surprise.

“They’re unbelievable leaders, unbelievable workers. For those guys to be All-SEC at their positions, it’s no accident. I tell them all the time, it’s like they did it on purpose. They’re that good,” he said. “They’re shutting out the lights at night in the Palmeiro Center, working extra after practice and workouts … It’s easy with guys like that because they’re so focused on the end result and being the best possible baseball player they can be.”

It would be easy for the casual observer to think that such improvements came simply from getting stronger and making some changes at the plate. However, Neal says, that’s not necessarily the case. Using Rooker as the example, he explained what the offseason entailed.

As plenty recall, Rooker neared double-digits last year in big hits that were either robbed at the fence or just short of leaving the ballpark. He didn’t have far to go to get the big numbers he’s had in 2017, and when Rooker got back after the summer, it wasn’t even strength that Neal focused on with him to get those extra few feet.

After all, the multi-poistional player was something of a physical freak already. He can squat 500 pounds, he has a 36-inch vertical and he can reportedly run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. The physical tools were there. Neal just needed to help him hone them.

“He was already strong enough,” Neal said. “So what we wanted to focus on with him was more velocity-based training. We wanted him to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster rate … He’s always swinging a 34-inch bat. That’s going to be constant. So, how can we get him to swing that faster? Adding more strength to him probably isn’t going to help that. But being able to move that 34-inch bat faster through the zone will increase power. We want to be able to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster speed.

“If we got him to a 550-pound squatter, is that going to make him better? Probably not. But if he can move, say, 400 pounds, faster this year than he could last year, and his absolute strength is the same, then we’ve gotten better. We’ve produced more force and produced more power – produced a faster bat through the zone.

“Some of the guys are younger and they need more strength. But with him, because he’s such a freak, he doesn’t necessarily need that. At this point in his career, we’ve got strength, now we need to apply that and be able to move that strength faster.”

The results stand well enough on their own, and the countless awards and honors for Rooker and Gridley and other members of the team speak to the success of both the individuals and the club. And with MSU just starting Regional play this weekend, there is plenty of time left to accomplish even greater feats.

So yes, there’s a lot that goes into becoming a great baseball player, and having an equally great strength coach is a big part of it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment