Sexton battles as MSU advances in Starkville Regional

A modern day warrior

Mean, mean stride

Today’s Tom Sawyer

Mean, mean pride

Though his mind is not for rent

Don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve, a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events

– Rush, Tom Sawyer

——————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When something is required, someone provides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cohen, Stricklin discuss Starkville Regional time changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m the opposite of moderate,

Immaculately polished with,

The spirit of a hustler,

And the swagger of a college kid.”

– Clifford “T.I.” Harris

————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEIFALHPENLKGGX.20160520031755

Mangum being congratulated by Mingione at third base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bulldogs left speechless as Mississippi State crowned 2016 SEC Champion

With nearly 10,000 watching in person, and thousands more following online and through televisions across the country, the final pitch crossed the plate. The strike was called, the dugout erupted and the crowd, as they had been waiting to do all weekend, went wild.

unnamedAt that moment, it became official: Mississippi State won the 2016 SEC Baseball Championship. In the deepest conference in the country, in a league who’s top three teams also happen to be ranked 1-3 in all of America, in a season of competition against a half dozen foes likely to be hosting an NCAA Regional, MSU came out the victor, Dawgs on top of the pile.

“That was freakin’ awesome,” junior third baseman Gavin Collins appropriately summarized as he approached reporters after victory pictures, victory celebrations and a victory lap.

“It was perfect,” team captain Jacob Robson echoed a few minutes later.

It was everything this club of Bulldogs had worked for. The cogs of the machine that this team has become had been falling into place slowly but surely in the last few years. Even once they all found their way to campus, it took some time to get things running properly. Or perfectly, as Robson said.

But once the switch flipped, it never turned back the other direction. MSU won nine out of 10 series in the gauntlet that was their SEC slate. Midway through, when some on the outside wondered if the Bulldogs had peaked too early, the eventual SEC Champs proved it was just the opposite. They got better as the year went along, concluding the regular season with three-straight sweeps to claim the conference title.

All of this from a team that finished at the exact bottom of the SEC just one year ago

“Last to first, baby!” Collins exclaimed. “The amount of work and the amount of time and effort we’ve put in – the amount of sweat and tears in the fall and the spring, it’s all worth it. It’s all worth it, man. We grinded for so long, and it’s starting to show up. It’s awesome.”

unnamed-2To say it’s “starting” to show up is something of an understatement. MSU finished the regular season with 40 wins, owning a 40-14-1 record, including a 21-9 SEC mark. The Bulldogs have the SEC’s leading hitter in Jake Mangum, and he’s just a freshman. They have three of the five finalists for the Ferriss Trophy given to the best collegiate player in Mississippi. To boot, one of those finalists is among the best power hitters in the SEC, and he was batting seventh as MSU won the title Saturday night. That’s how strong the lineup is. All of that without mentioning Dakota Hudson, a possible Top-10 pick in this summer’s MLB Draft.

MSU beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road, beat their rival both at home and at a neutral site; generally speaking, MSU bowled over nearly everyone who got in their way. Woe unto thee who must face this team, the hottest in the country, when the postseason begins.

And because of all that, Saturday’s win over Arkansas – the score was 9-4, by the by – was almost inconsequential for what the Bulldogs will do in the postseason. They had a national seed wrapped up. Whatever the result Saturday, State knew it would be hosting a Regional in two weeks, anyway.

In a way, that made the SEC Championship even more special for those in the dugout. They didn’t need the title, necessarily. They just wanted it. Boy, did they want it. They wanted it for themselves, for each other, for the name on the front of their jersey and for the thousands of fans behind them. When they took the field Saturday night, it was with that passion flaming inside their chests, broiling beneath their jerseys.

“Everything that we’ve done from the end of last year to right now has built to this moment,” Robson explained.

And when that moment came, when the final strike was called and Mississippi State was rightfully declared the Champions of the Southeastern Conference, those stewing emotions exploded in yells of triumph, in hugs and jumps and cheers and handshakes.

They knew it was possible, knew it was what they wanted, and after so much time of working toward it, the dream – one of a few dreams, that is – became reality.

“This – I can’t describe it. That was unreal. I don’t even know what to say right now,” Mangum stammered to reporters as he stared at a spot on the ground with big eyes and a bigger smile. “Goosebumps. I was freakin’ out. This place, I’ve never seen Dudy Noble like that and I’ve been coming here for years. That was unreal.”

unnamed-1If the moment was weird to Mangum, it was surreal for John Cohen. He’s the head coach for the 2016 SEC Champs today. He was a player for the 1989 SEC Champs 27 years ago, the last time MSU won the regular season league title.

The experiences, he explained, couldn’t be more different.

“As a player,” he recalled, “you don’t think about things. You don’t think about how often you’re gonna get to do it. As a player, you just think it’s gonna happen every single year. And it doesn’t, of course. As a coach, you realize, this is a really competitive situation and these moments don’t come along every day. I’m just really proud to be a Mississippi State graduate and to be in this environment and to be able to share this with the Mississippi State family.”

However, Cohen is hoping the SEC Champs he’s coaching are better than the ones he played for. At least as postseason success goes, anyway. As much as he learned as a player, what sticks with him the most from that year is the fact that his Bulldogs lost in the Regional in Starkville as the No. 1 seed. All euphoria from winning the SEC was erased with a loss to North Carolina.

That, he said, is what he’ll be sharing with the team about his experiences, not the fact he won the conference.

“The real lesson is, if you don’t end up in Omaha, it’s not the year you wanted it to be,” he said. “Our kids have bigger goals than winning the Southeastern Conference. It’s just a nice by-product of staying on the journey.”

Moments before he shared those last words in his meeting with reporters after the game, his players had offered the same sentiment. Winning the SEC is great, yeah. Feels wonderful. But that’s not their goal. That’s not the end game.

“I came here to win championships and win a National Championship,” Collins said.

Said Robson, “we’re not done yet. We haven’t accomplished our ultimate goal: win the whole thing.”

If they keep playing like this, the Bulldogs will have their shot.

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MSU men’s tennis riding hot streak into NCAA Round of 16

There’s getting hot at the right time, and then there’s absolutely dominating at the right time. For Mississippi State’s men’s tennis team, it’s a whole lot of the latter as they’ve shot up the rankings and advanced all the way to the prestigious Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

CCDWWLJBGEWUBLC.20160416034529Ranked No. 21 in the country, the Bulldogs blanked No. 16 Illinois 4-0 on their home court over the weekend to secure the trip to Tulsa for the Round of 16. With that dominating win, MSU is now 5-2 in its last five matches, one of those losses coming in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament two weeks ago.

State’s success may seem surprising to many on the outside who saw head coach Matt Roberts have to replace seven of nine players from last season’s team, but those within the locker room had every expectation that this is where they would be, even if it was considered unlikely at best by most in the college tennis world.

“We put in the work,” freshman Trevor Foshey said. “Hard practices throughout the year. We were ready and we knew we could do it. We feel like we deserved this and we knew we could do it. It’s not a huge surprise. We feel like we should be here. We’re happy about it, but we’re still not done.”

Said Roberts after Sunday’s win, “I am so proud of these guys and what they’ve accomplished this season with their backs against the wall. It is unheard of for a team this young to be this successful, but these guys defy the odds. Before Friday, we had only two players with any postseason experience, and our younger guys handled it like veterans.”

Much of the reason for those odds being defied – aside from talent, of course – is the chemistry of the team. It sounds like a coachspeak cliché, but it’s something Roberts and his players genuinely believe to be true. When they arrived in Champaign for the regional last week, they practiced twice per day, but they also went to an iMax movie, played soccer-tennis (a mix of the two sports played on a tennis court) constantly and generally goofed around and stayed relaxed as they prepared for their matches.

Part of that, too, is the feeling that they have nothing to lose. No one outside the team thought they’d be here anyway, so there’s no pressure. They can be who they are, play how they want and take the success as it comes.

“We just had fun,” Roberts said. “We stressed to the guys, just enjoy the moment and don’t think too much about the match. That just led to us playing at a really high level and being sharp. The guys did great. No nerves. The guys just executed well.”

YUIGDXECWHGNMTR.20160410223033On the horizon looms the greatest challenge yet as MSU plays No. 3 North Carolina in the Round of 16 on Friday in Tulsa. The matchup is actually a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament second round when it was the Tar Heels who put an end to the Bulldogs’ season. Revenge isn’t necessarily on MSU’s mind, as only two players on this year’s roster were around for last year’s loss, but the familiarity at least provides another reason for calmed nerves and lessened tension.

Roberts said his team is able to draw confidence from playing UNC closely last season, particularly as the Tar Heels return, for the most part, the same lineup, while State has bolstered its roster significantly in the 12 months since their last meeting – not to mention the upgrade in attitudes and approach MSU has seen.

“We’re not scared of anybody,” Roberts said. “We respect them.”

If MSU wins Friday, they’ll move on to the next opponent. If they lose, they’ll move on to the next season, as well as individual NCAA competition. Whatever the result, they’re a team that’s incredibly proud of how far they’ve come, and even more proud of where they’re going.

In a rebuild done so quickly that many hardly knew a rebuild had even occurred, Roberts and his Bulldogs have made a clear statement that theirs is a program to beware of in college tennis.

“I’m just happy for the guys,” he said. “It’s unbelievable to see how fast they’ve grown and matured and constantly risen to the occasion and come through.”

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Cam Lawrence on finishing his MSU degree and his wild life in Dallas

Since his last snap in a Mississippi State uniform back in the 2012 Gator Bowl, Cam Lawrence has had quite the eclectic journey, despite living in the same city the whole way through.

unnamed-2

Lawrence, second from the left, with Dan Mullen and former Bulldogs at an MSU Alumni event in Dallas two weeks ago

The spring following his last season at MSU, he signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys, though he found himself on injured reserve after two promising seasons and was forced to sit out the final year of his deal in 2015.

The long-haired Lawrence, got engaged, got married and went on his honeymoon, all in less than 12 months. He became the co-host of a hunting and outdoors show, took a spot as resident heartthrob with the Cowboys, and even now, he’s working on his real estate license while finishing rehab from his third and final surgery as he prepares for the next NFL season with a new team.

But perhaps his most important accomplishment – after his marriage, anyway – came in the last week: three years removed from the day he left Starkville, Cameron Lawrence graduated from Mississippi State University. With a 3.3 GPA in business administration, Lawrence now adds “college graduate” to his long and ever-growing résumé`.

Lawrence got the email over the weekend telling him that the final class he took – a distance directed study he completed this semester from Dallas where he currently lives – was finished. The report: he got an A.

“I was fired up about it,” he said. “When I came out in 2013, my dad said, ‘I’ll roll over in my grave if I die knowing you didn’t finish your degree.’ I at least owed him that.

“I just was thinking back to when I came in, 17 years old, as a freshman. It was a lot of work that went into that, playing football and trying to keep my grades up. I finished with a 3.3. I know it’s not the best, but anything above a 3.0 is not too shabby. It was just a huge accomplishment for me.”

A 3.3 will certainly do just fine, and it’s unique to hear a professional football player talk about small numbers and decimals in terms of grades, rather than 40-yard-dash times. Of course, those football measurements will be coming up soon enough.

unnamedWorking out five or six days per week at a nearby training center, Lawrence is nearing the day he gets clearance from his doctor to play again. Once that happens, and now that his contract with the Cowboys has been completed, the free agent will make his rounds (his agent says at least half a dozen teams are interested and waiting for his clearance) and find his new team.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy his time with the Cowboys, of course. Lawrence loved the three years he had with them, and his passion for playing football for Dallas was perhaps only matched by the joy he got from becoming part of the community, taking every opportunity he could to work with charities, attend events and be one of the faces of the Cowboys whenever players were asked to participate in non-football activities.

“There are always opportunities to give back to the city,” he said. “With the Cowboys being America’s Team, the fanbase is just awesome. Any time I got a chance to go do an appearance, sign some autographs, take some pictures, I always took advantage of it. I think that might have paid off for me when I was out there on the field. If you’ve got a fanbase that knows your name, knows your face, knows you personally, being able to make a connection helps a lot.”

However, the year away from football was frustrating, Lawrence admitted, his injury forcing him to watch from afar as his teammates practiced, played and traveled. It was the first fall he hadn’t been on the field in over a decade, a difficult five months for the former Bulldog. However, as much as he wanted to be playing rather than watching, the downtime gave Lawrence the opportunity to do some things he wouldn’t have otherwise had time for.

He got married, of course, to his girlfriend Shelby (“She was a Chi Omega at MSU, so, Hail State,” he said) and even had time for a honeymoon in Hawaii. He was able to fly back to Starkville once to watch his Bulldogs play LSU. He had time to finish his degree.

unnamed-1And most interestingly, the Coldwater, Mississippi native found himself as the co-host of DFW Outdoorsman, an outdoors show created by former Cowboy Marcus Spears on the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate. It is Spears who Lawrence has to thank for the gig, actually. Back when Lawrence was still playing for the Cowboys and when Spears was still hosting the show, Spears called Lawrence and asked if he’d come on as a guest for a dove hunt they were taping soon. Spears hardly had time to finish the question before the Mississippi-grown Lawrence was saying yes.

Later, when the producers of the show discovered they needed a new co-host, Lawrence got another call.

“We heard you’re from Mississippi,” Lawrence remembered them saying, “heard you like to hunt, so would you like to come along and kind of co-host this show?”

Again, the answer was easy. So far this season they’ve taped four episodes, the most recent of which airs soon and features a hog hunt. It isn’t necessarily a long-term plan for Lawrence as he hopes to get back on the field this fall, but the multi-talented Lawrence said he certainly isn’t closing the door on such a career, either.

“It’s been a fun ride,” he said. “I’ve tried to take advantage of the down time I’ve had.”

That’s sort of how Lawrence has always been, though – trying his hand at as much as he possibly can. He played both quarterback and linebacker for his high school team at Magnolia Heights, while also lettering in track and baseball. In 2011 and 2012, Lawrence became the first MSU player in two decades to register back-to-back 100-tackle seasons, all while maintaining that 3.3 GPA, as well as his long head of hair.

That hair, too, even came as something new, as the rules in high school stated that boys must not let their hair grow longer than their eyebrows, their ear lobes or the collar of their shirt. Like his brother (former MSU offensive lineman Addison Lawrence) had done a couple years before him, the younger Lawrence child jumped on the new opportunity when he went off to school.

“I kinda followed my brother,” he said. “The rebellious nature came out in the Lawrence boys once we got to college.”

And to be sure, no degree, job or wife has tamed that rebellious nature. Not completely, anyway.

“I’m still rockin the locks. The flow is still part of me,” he said. “I don’t know if I can take credit for bringing the fad back, but I like to think I was kind of ahead of things. I see a lot more college guys now rockin’ it.”

Long hair, hog hunts and outdoor nuptials aside, Lawrence remains fiercely proud of his latest great accomplishment, finishing school after three years [so far] in the NFL. With his degree in hand, Lawrence is planning to have his real estate license by the end of the summer, with Dallas again in mind. His project for his final class was a market research paper on the Dallas-Fort Worth area (“It’s had explosive numbers in growth.”), and as with anything else, Lawrence couldn’t help getting curious and wanting to be involved.

Football player, real estate mogul, TV host or to-be-determined, whatever Lawrence does next, he will do so as a college graduate, and he’s pretty dang proud of that.

“Getting my degree was pretty important to me,” he said. “I’m not naïve enough to think football is gonna last forever. My dad always said knowledge is power. Finishing up was a pretty big deal.”

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Behind Reid Humphreys multi-faceted success for MSU baseball

This weekend, he batted in the first run, then scored the second, ensuring his Bulldogs a 2-1 victory and clinching the series against Alabama.

Last weekend, he took the mound and earned a save, beating LSU in their own stadium on Friday night to help Mississippi State win that series, too.

UTJJLUXYULLDDMU.20160419225624Playing in 42 of MSU’s 45 games so far in 2016, Reid Humphreys has made his presence felt in any space with room for a presence to be had. Pitcher, outfielder, slugger. He’s third on the team in batting average (with a team-high 39 RBI) and tied for third in strikeouts per inning, all while maintaining a fielding percentage of .983 and slugging a team-high .557. The only question left – and some say they know the answer already – is what can’t the junior star do?

“He is the most talented person I know,” said MSU outfielder and national freshman of the year candidate Jake Mangum. “He could go pick up a soccer ball and go play for somebody. Anything, you name it. He can go do water polo somewhere. It’s amazing. I’ve seen him just throw up golf balls and hit it in the air and it goes really far over a lake. He really is a talented guy.”

In fact, Humphreys was once a quarterback for his high school team, too, with dreams of adding that position to the many he already claims in Starkville. Had he had not had Tommy John surgery before his senior year of high school, it might have become a reality.

That injury, though, only makes what he’s doing now for MSU that much more impressive. Humphreys was barely able to pitch at all his senior of high school, and while it was always in the plans to be both a pitcher and a positional player at State, he hadn’t yet taken the mound for the Bulldogs when this season began less than three months ago.

“That’s the thing that’s really incredible,” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “He really went through some tough times. That’s why I think this progression he’s had has been so neat.”

Said Humphreys, “If you had told me that I’d be pitching in Alex Box Stadium on Friday night a year and a half ago, I probably would have laughed. It was a dream come true.”

OBLKATWNKXMWXQQ.20160403221723About that night in Baton Rouge, though. Perhaps it was some kind of bayou magic, or more likely, it was a result of that knack Humphreys has for being able to do just about anything he wants to with his body. Whatever it was, the junior pitcher/outfielder/hitter did something his coaches had very literally never seen before. Not from him, anyway. Only three people in the stadium full of 10,000 fans, two teams and a horde of media even knew Humphreys had considered trying this: the pitcher who taught it to him, the outfielder who saw him try it out, and the catcher who was on the receiving end of it when the new skill debuted.

But let’s go back a day. During a bullpen session, Humphreys was watching Friday night starter and fellow junior Dakota Hudson throw. Considered an elite prospect for this year’s MLB Draft, Hudson has an arsenal of pitches to choose from. One of them caught Humphreys eye: the cutter.

Casually, with no grand schemes or plans in mind, Humphreys asked Hudson to show him how he gripped the ball for that pitch, requesting a quick explanation on just how he throws it. Considering himself more of a visual learner (Humphreys picked up baseball by watching his older brother and MLB player Tyler Moore play as a kid), the willing student studied Hudson as he threw the pitch, then gave it a shot himself. To no one’s surprise, at least in retrospect, it worked for him.

Then Friday night came. In the bottom of the eighth inning, MSU was up 9-8, but had just given up a grand slam to the home team Tigers. Humphreys was called in from the bullpen, taking the mound with two outs and the bases loaded.

With four outs left to protect a one-run lead, Humphreys probably ought to have stuck with what he was used to throwing – what his coaches were used to seeing him throw. But in the back of his mind was that cutter Hudson had just taught him. Maybe he could pull it off.

Mangum and the rest of his teammates watched from the dugout, none of them knowing the decision Humphreys had just made.

“He came in the game and threw a pitch,” Mangum remembered. “I looked over at [outfielder] Mike [Smith] and I was like, ‘What was that? He doesn’t throw that.’”

IQSEZWEUHPGFEFO.20160403221723If Mangum and his teammates were surprised, it would seem LSU’s batters were, too. Humphreys retired four-straight Tigers in only 17 pitches, first ending the eighth-inning threat and second, ending the game entirely with the Dawgs on top.

“I just think it’s really neat that Reid has really come into his own,” Cohen said. “You want players to be inventive. You want them to create things on their own, because they take ownership in that. He’s really proud of himself. He’s really excited about that pitch.

“What it is,” Cohen continued, “is just a shorter, tighter, harder slider that looks more like a fastball. Just watching on film today, it’s a pretty impressive pitch for him. I just love the fact that he wants the baseball. I just love it when he walks by me in the dugout and says, ‘Hey, if you need to get three or six guys out at the end of this game, I feel really good.’”

The season as a whole has shown what Humphreys is capable of, driving runs in when he’s at the plate and keeping runs from being scored when he’s on the mound or in the outfield. Talents like his aren’t unheard of in college baseball, but they’re certainly far from common, being especially rare to be so effective in all areas.

But that cutter, that literal overnight success of a pitch, that’s the example of what makes Humphreys so special.

“You’ve gotta know Reid,” Mangum said, drawing on years of experience playing against him in little league and high school. “He’s the guy that goes out there and closes a game in the SEC with a brand new pitch without even warming up in the bullpen.

“He’s been that way all his life,” Mangum finally finished. “He really has.”

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Dustin James helping MSU on the track, impacting others outside of competition

He could feel the phone constantly vibrating in his pocket, calls coming in wondering where he was and if he was going to come. He couldn’t take the phone out in the middle of the program, but he didn’t need to, anyway. He knew who was on the other end, and his mind was racing, counting down the moments until he could run out of the room to join her.

At a luncheon honoring outstanding student-athletes (emphasis on student, in this case) at Mississippi State, the track and field star was attempting to keep two promises and be both places he had assured people he would be present. Finally, in a room full of honored athletes, distinguished administrators and over-busy coaches, it was his turn to speak and be recognized.

“They got to me and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Dustin James, yada yada yada, I have to go tutor Debra Ann, do you mind if I go?’”

Dustin and Debra Ann at the library in Starkville

Dustin and Debra Ann at the library in Starkville

Debra Ann, 21 years old, has in very short time become an important part of Dustin’s life, as the pair gets together at least twice each week. Dustin, while competing for MSU’s track and field team, is working on his degree in special education. Debra Ann, whose favorite food is chicken and favorite books are written by Dr. Seuss, has Down syndrome.

Dustin and Debra Ann began working together this semester after he was approached last fall about taking over for her then-tutor who would be busy student teaching this semester. It was one of those tutoring sessions Dustin was determined not to miss when he made his quick exit from lunch, grabbing a Gatorade and a bag of chips on his way to the door.

“The last thing they saw was me running out.”

Their schedule remains flexible, often having to work around Dustin’s track training and competition, but the two generally get together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, working on reading, learning about coins and going on adventures around town, often to the supermarket.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey Debra Ann, where’s the chicken?’ She’ll walk me over there and point at the chicken.”

The bigger point of what Dustin and Debra Ann are doing on those excursions is to help her learn how to handle various social situations, though she’s already quite personable, Dustin says, calling her “super fun and energetic and outgoing.

Working with Debra Ann was something Dustin was initially nervous about, having never worked 1-on-1 with a special needs student before, but the experience is also something he’s deeply passionate about. While many college students are still wondering what to do with their lives, Dustin has known his dream since middle school and has been hard at work ever since to accomplish his goals. He has the notion that perhaps he’d like to be a principal one day, but specifics such as those can be figured out later. What he truly cares about, and what he hopes his career focuses on, is helping people.

“My goal,” he said, “is to, one, graduate, and two, just help students. Help somebody. I don’t have a set goal, as long as I’m in the classroom and I’m able to help somebody.”

His supportive and philanthropic nature, his track coach Steve Dudley says, comes from his parents, and similarly, it’s a family connection that first led Dustin down this path. Growing up, Dustin had a cousin in California who rarely talked, only speaking when prompted. When Dustin’s cousin would come stay with his family on visits in the summer, the two would spend hours every day hanging out together, Dustin naturally gravitating toward him, and the cousin to him.

Dustin’s mother still remembers watching her son before a track meet one summer around the time he was a freshman in high school. A little boy walked up to Dustin before his competition began and just started chatting away. Dustin happily conversed with his new friend, while the little boy’s mother also watched, smiling the whole time. After the conversation ended, Dustin’s mom asked if he knew that the boy had special needs, Dustin replying that he had no clue.

“I didn’t know. I just thought it was a cool little kid coming to hang out. It was fun.”

In high school, Dustin started helping out in special education classrooms as part of his school’s inclusion center. By the time he got to college, he was well on his way to making the needs of others his life’s priority.

03-19-16 MWTR John Mitchell Alabama Relays Dustin James II Photo by Robert Sutton

03-19-16 MWTR John Mitchell Alabama Relays
Dustin James II
Photo by Robert Sutton

Oh, and he was a pretty talented athlete, too. Now a junior at MSU, Dustin is in the middle of the best season of his track career, competing in the 400-meter run and the 400-meter hurdles, setting personal bests along the way. His coaches say the same determination he shows in helping others away from competition is evident when he steps onto the track to run.

“He works very, very hard,” Dudley said. “He has a real vision of what he wants to do in life, and he’s gonna do whatever he’s got to do to accomplish what he wants in life. So many people, kids and adults, talk about what they want to do, but they’re not really invested in the process to be able to get there. Dustin James is not one of those people. He understands there’s gonna be a process and he’s invested in it.”

Dustin takes his training and running for MSU very seriously, just as he does his sessions with Debra Ann, but he keeps the two worlds separate in his mind. He sees the correlations in the hard work required for special education students to grow and learn, and the dedication needed for track athletes to compete and win, but big picture, he knows that one battle is far more important than the other, and that’s how he lives his life.

“Track is a thing where you’re working toward a goal, whereas, in special education, the goal is life. There is no end game,” he said. “The life of the student is so precious, and it doesn’t end. Track will end for me one day. It’s gonna happen. Track ends for everybody. But that goal of life, it just keeps going.”

For now, that goal is focused on Debra Ann who, Dustin is proud to say, has made great strides in her reading ability lately, learning to recognize periods at the end sentences, when to turn the pages and how to pronounce so many of Seuss’s fantastical words. There are many people with similar circumstances to Debra Ann, though Dustin would be quick to say there is no one just like her, but he hopes to impact as many as he can with whatever time he has on Earth.

Said Dudley, “It doesn’t matter if he’s scoring points or not. He’s a person that you want in your program so the other kids can take note of that example.”

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