Sexton taking hold of spot in starting rotation

We wrote in this space late last week about how well sophomore pitcher Austin Sexton has been doing for Mississippi State’s baseball team, then he went out Saturday and threw a complete game, nine innings of dominance to give him an unblemished 3-0 record.

EHRHPQXFGOZTBIU.20150315023047Sexton now leads all MSU starters with a 2.12 ERA and is holding opposing batters to a .181 batting average in his five starts. Through his 29.2 innings pitched, he’s got 32 strikeouts and has only given up 19 hits in 105 batters faced, just seven runs total. The young [and rising] star has cemented himself in the weekend rotation, but if he’s being completely honest, as he was after Saturday night’s win, none of this was really supposed to happen.

Asked if he felt in the offseason and preseason that a year like this was coming, Sexton smiled and admitted, “No, not really.”

Not that he expected to be bad, of course, but he then launched into the explanation of what happened and why things changed. Turns out, it had almost nothing to do with the preseason. The key for Sexton is a bullpen session with pitching coach Butch Thompson days after the first weekend of games, when Sexton only made it two innings into his first start before being pulled.

“Coach Thompson is one of the best coaches in America regarding pitching and I can’t say enough about what he’s done,” Sexton told reporters. “Originally, all I threw was four seam [pitches] … The first start, I threw two innings that game, and the next bullpen we had, he said, ‘Let’s switch it up and go to a two seam.’ And that’s made, obviously, the biggest difference for me. I can’t thank him enough. It’s been amazing.”

In the two innings before that bullpen session: two hits, one run and one walk allowed.

In the 20 innings after the switch to a two-seam grip: 30 strikeouts, three wins and the Saturday spot in the rotation secured.

Head coach John Cohen has seen the difference, as well, in preseason Sexton and in-season Sexton. MSU’s skipper said most players are either 10 percent better or 10 percent worse than practice once they get on the mound in a game. Sexton, however, “is probably significantly better than 10 percent better,” Cohen said.

“His change-up, his ability to throw the fastball to the glove side is just huge,” Cohen continued. “The thing about Austin, too, that I admire, is he just keeps getting better. He gets better as the game goes along. He doesn’t hit that wall that a lot of starters do.”

IIVSZVPFGNAPZTJ.20150308000834And that’s why Sexton was able to make it through the entire game Saturday. As Cohen said, he was just as good, if not better, in the ninth inning as he was to start the contest.

In a part of the season during which MSU has had some struggles out of the bullpen, a starter going the whole way is huge for State. Sexton is also a perfect example of what the relievers need to do, according to Cohen.

To hear the coaches and players say it, the best thing a pitcher can do at Dudy Noble Field is throw strikes, force swings and contact, and don’t walk anyone.

“That’s what Austin did,” Cohen said. “It was just a clinic in, ‘I’m gonna make you put balls in play and I think we have one of the best defenses in the country. I’m gonna let three runners in the outfield run to the baseball. I’m gonna let my catcher stop the ball for me. I’m gonna let my infielders make plays.’”

Cohen continued, ”Austin just absolutely went out there and did what we needed him to do … We needed a strike-thrower and that’s what we got.”

Sexton’s ability and stability has helped create something MSU hasn’t had in a few years: a consistent starting rotation. Between Sexton, senior Preston Brown and sophomore Vance Tatum, State’s current weekend starters have an 8-1 record, a combined ERA under 2.50 and 97 total strikeouts. They’ve face over 300 batters and only given up 64 hits.

All indications are that Sexton ought to be a Saturday staple for the foreseeable future, and that’s just fine with his team.

“It’s really fun to watch and it’s fun to play defense behind,” outfielder Jake Vickerson said. “With him, you know you’re always gonna get a competitor.”

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Bulldog Bites: The French Waffle at Restaurant Tyler, baseball updates and postseasons beginning

FOOD STUFF

The worst thing about our collective rush to get to work in the mornings isn’t that we miss valuable time with loved ones, that we forget to brush our teeth or that makeup is hard to put on while driving (I assume). It’s that we don’t get to properly enjoy breakfast. And I mean really enjoy it.

unnamedIt’s one thing to wake up early enough to make some eggs or drive through your favorite coffeehouse for a latte and a scone. It’s a whole ‘nother world of syrupy satisfaction to eat a big, heavy food-coma-inducing plate of pancakes with hash browns, bacon, eggs or even a few pieces of fruit (who are you trying to impress with that single bite of watermelon, anyway?) on the side.

Maybe that’s why weekend brunches have become so popular. It’s nice, when we have the time on Saturday and Sunday morning, to really enjoy a meal cooked for us by someone else and that’ll stick to your ribs far after you decide later that afternoon that you can skip the gym today.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, according to commercials for breakfast foods. I assume advertisers to be completely trustworthy, so I’ll take their collective word for it.

The same idea is relevant all over the place. In baseball, for instance, I’m told by those in the know that Friday nights are the most important game in a series. Or Thursdays, if the series starts early. Whenever the first game is, that’s important, and everything is easier with an opening win.

The whole point of both is that it helps to get off on the right foot, start the day on a good note. That really applies to most things in life, but we’re talking about pancakes and pitchers right now.

While I’m ethically barred from picking favorites on the baseball team, I’m fully allowed to choose my top breakfast items in town. And the choices are plenty. Any Sunday morning, dining rooms are full at The Veranda, The Grill and Restaurant Tyler, as well as the tables at several other of Starkville’s breakfasteering establishments. As they should be. And while all are worthwhile journeys to make, one stands alone in my stomach’s eye for creativity and digestive excitement.

The French Waffle at Restaurant Tyler is my Holy Grail of breakfast carbohydrates. It’s a Belgian waffle dipped and pan-fried in French toast batter, topped with butter, candied pecans, maple syrup and caramel sauce, joined on the side by my choice of crispy bacon and buttery cheese grits. Excuse me while I roll my tongue back into my mouth and take a sip of coffee to jolt my brain back into reality.

If it sounds good, it tastes even better. And there aren’t many better ways to start a day that don’t involve winning lottery numbers.

Not the French Waffle, still immensely tasty Restaurant Tyler brunch item

Not the French Waffle, still immensely tasty Restaurant Tyler brunch item

Certainly, we can’t each such items every day. I’m a big breakfast guy in spirit, but I would physically become a big guy, too, if I ate pancakes as often as I wanted. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat a good (if not healthy) breakfast with some semblance of regularity. If nothing else, it’s nice to take just a couple minutes to ourselves in the morning before we take on whatever the day has for us.

Having a good meal gets you ahead to start the day, just like winning a Friday night game gets you ahead to start the series. We’ve got a lot going on, and it’s easy to skip steps along the way, but both as breakfasters and baseballers, it’s worth making the extra effort and taking a little time away from other things to be present both in the mornings and on Friday nights.

Plus, everything is better with maple syrup.

SPORTS STUFF

Baseball: Hey, big weekend ahead! This week marks the beginning of SEC play for Mississippi State, which is kind of a big deal. MSU hosts Alabama, a team similar to the Bulldogs in a few ways, having started the season ranked but taken the hit on a few non-conference losses along the way, as well as missing some action due to weather. The Tide are now 9-6, while MSU is 15-4, and Friday’s game (important like pancakes!) will be the 389th meeting of the two schools.

For ‘Bama, the player to keep an eye on this weekend is sophomore rightfielder Casey Hughston. He leads the SEC in batting average (.500), hits (30) and doubles, while tying for the league lead in RBI (21).

As it concerns MSU, the good news is that the pitching rotation seems to have more or less settled itself, as John Cohen had hoped it would do. Junior Preston Brown (Friday), sophomore Austin Sexton (Saturday) and sophomore Vance Tatum (Sunday) are the expected starters. It will be interesting to watch MSU’s bullpen after two mid-week games against Western Kentucky put a few more arms into action than coaches may have liked.

Now, on that note, it’s worth mentioning the guy who will be catching those pitches. Sophomore catcher Gavin Collins is finally back in the lineup for MSU, and was actually a little ahead of schedule in doing so after hand surgery shortly before the season. Josh Lovelady has been outstanding filling his spot the last several weeks, but getting Collins back into the lineup both at the plate and behind the plate is a big win for MSU.

IIVSZVPFGNAPZTJ.20150308000834One more player we should talk about before moving on to another sport: Austin Sexton. The sophomore pitcher has gotten better and better with every outing, and even within outings Cohen says Sexton gets better with each passing inning. He’s now 2-0 on the year with four starts under his belt and his 25 strikeouts are third-most on the team. With 20.2 innings under his belt, Sexton has only given up 11 hits and six earned runs, holding opponents to a .155 batting average. And as Cohen has said, he’s only getting better.

Softball: Big series this weekend, but an even bigger win last Sunday. In walk-off home run style, MSU beat No. 9 Georgia in Starkville for a huge victory. Sophomore catcher Katie Anne Bailey was the hero then and she sort of has been all season. Bailey is batting a team-high .387 with a .435 on base percentage, and she’s got four triples in her 29 hits.

This weekend, MSU hosts No. 19 Texas A&M for a three-game set on Friday (5:30), Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.), all broadcast on SEC Network+. The Bulldogs are 18-5 overall.

Tennis: Alright, so let’s talk about the women’s tennis team. I’m planning to write something more extensive on them soon, but they’re doing incredibly well. At 11-3 and No. 41 in the country, it’s their highest ranking in almost a decade. This weekend, they host top-15 squads Auburn (Friday at 4 p.m.) and Alabama (Sunday at 1 p.m.), which are big opportunities. Winning one would be good for MSU, if they could pull off winning both, they’ll vault into the top 25 and be in great shape going forward.

On the men’s side, State is 11-3 and 2-0 in the SEC after beating Alabama and Arkansas last weekend. They’re on the road this weekend playing Florida Friday and Auburn Sunday.

Basketball: There’s nothing going on this weekend, as the men’s team finished its season Wednesday (more on them soon) and the women are off this week waiting to hear their NCAA fates.

However, on that note, MSU will indeed hear about their postseason plans on Monday night. The selection show begins at 6 p.m. and MSU has plans for a watch party in Starkville that night beginning at 5:30. As you have likely learned by now, starting this year, the 1-4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament will host the first two rounds, meaning there are 16 host slots open. The Bulldogs are and have been ranked in the top 16, but with an RPI in the upper twenties, they may be on the outside looking in for one of those top four seeds. We’ll know for sure on Monday evening.

QRCLJROYWCLEQIX.20150122025226Track and Field: There’s some intense competition happening this weekend as four of MSU’s track stars will be in Arkansas for the NCAA Indoor National Championships. Erica Bougard, Ebony Brinker and Rhianwedd Price will represent the women’s team, while reigning National Champion Brandon McBride will be there on the men’s side.

McBride, in fact, has since broken his record he set when winning the title last year and is one of the favorites to win the 800-meter weekend. Bougard, who won the National Championship in the pentathlon as a sophomore, is at nationals for the fourth time in as many years and was recently named the SEC Co-Field Athlete of the Year.

Golf: The men’s team is off this week after a rough outing at the Tiger Invitational, while the women are also enjoying spring break after placing seventh at the prestigious Darius Rucker Invitational in Hilton Head over the weekend.

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Seth Heck pulling quiet heroics for MSU baseball

Tuesday night’s come-from-behind win for Mississippi State over Western Kentucky was sort of the perfect Seth Heck moment.

BUBQYAZUDNOJXRG.20150223233915Heck, MSU’s senior shortstop, has quietly been one of the most consistent performers in world of college baseball since his arrival last spring. The operative words there are quiet and consistent. Heck, in a fitting feat for his laid-back west-coast personality, has done the difficult: he’s become a hero without the headlines.

The bottom of the ninth inning on a rainy Tuesday was an excellent example. Heck’s Bulldogs had jumped out to an early lead in the game, only to see it erode and then disappear completely as the night wore on. WKU had tied it up and then taken a lead by the time their nine innings of batting were finished, holding a 5-4 lead as the top of the ninth concluded.

So when Heck stepped to the plate as the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the ninth, the fate of the game rested on what he and the batters in line behind him were able to do right then, right there. If the team won that night, the Bulldogs were righting a slightly off-course ship just in time for SEC play. If they lost, it was their fourth such disappointment in five games.

All that pressure, and the cool-headed Heck did what he always does – he got on base, a leadoff single. From first, Heck slowly worked his way around the diamond as batters came and went, finally reaching home on the second of two wild pitches. Heck’s hit and Heck’s run scored were the only hit and the only run scored at all in the ninth for MSU, but they were all State needed. He had tied the game and, for the time being, saved the day.

However, the headline on MSU’s website now reads “JOHNNY WALKOFF! HOLLAND COMES THROUGH IN CLUTCH FOR 6-5 WIN”

Yes, the Bulldogs won, and yes, junior infielder John Holland was deserving of all praises and headlines after driving in the game-winning run in the bottom of the tenth inning. And yes, as always, Heck was the Bruce Wayne to someone else’s Batman, doing all the work with none of the glory. He’s the man behind the mask, the one who everyone likes, but never gets the credit. Heck is the hero MSU deserves and needs, but he still doesn’t get his metaphorical name in the sky.

To find quotes from Heck’s head coach about him requires going pretty far back in the archives. Not that John Cohen isn’t proud of his shortstop (he is) or doesn’t think he deserves more attention (he believes that, too), he just isn’t asked about him very often. The only reason Heck was even speaking to media this past weekend was for the purposes of this story.

That’s all fine with Heck, though. If he got more attention, sure, that’d be neat. If no one says another thing about him, he’ll be fine and keep on playing without a worry.

Now, this isn’t to say he’s completely ignored, of course. He was named the SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year last season, and this certainly isn’t the first or last story to be written about him.

Specifically, within his team, his place is known. He was voted team captain for the 2015 season and his production has shown why he’s the only player the coaches have started every single one of MSU’s 18 games this year.

He’s second on the team with a .397 batting average and his 68 at-bats are 13 more than the next closest player. Heck’s 27 hits are tied for seventh in the entire SEC and he’s reached base safely in 47 of his last 48 games dating back to 2014. In that same 2014 season, Heck led all SEC shortstops with a .986 fielding percentage, only committing two errors all season, though he didn’t make the cut for first or second-team All-SEC, appearing only on the all-defensive squad.

In 2015 so far, he’s got nine games with multiple hits, including five of his last six, a stretch where Heck stepped up while his team has struggled. As MSU’s leadoff hitter, he’s batting an incredible .621 when leading off an inning (such as the ninth inning in Tuesday’s game).

“Each at-bat is different in what it calls for,” Heck says. “I’m just trying to go up there with confidence and know that if I put my best swing on it, I’ll be successful.”

To that end, he’s been pretty prosperous.

Heck said he goes to into every appearance with a plan, sometimes based on the pitcher, often based on the situation, though no matter the time, he’s relying on himself and his swing. Or, sometimes, his lack of a swing. He’s been walked 13 times and the six times he’s been hit by a pitch are the second-most such instances for any player in the SEC this season.

Maybe that’s part of it, though. He’s not flashy. He’s not hitting home runs, 25 of his 27 hits are singles and he’s only stolen one base. He doesn’t have many highlight plays at shortstop because he makes it look so easy. But at some point, the numbers are impossible to miss. Whatever style he’s using, he’s getting things done, and MSU is the group who benefits.

That’s why they call Seth Heck ‘The People’s Player.’

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Schaefer confident in MSU fans and hosting in NCAA Tournament

Vic Schaefer had a lot of things to talk about after his team lost in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament Friday night. A thumb injury to his star freshman Victoria Vivians was certainly worthy of discussion. The big game by his senior Martha Alwal could have been a happier subject. The scoring drought late in the second half that led to the loss and the scoring burst by an injured Kentucky player that compounded the problem are two of the less enjoyable but still timely topics.

FPPIUMQHVBYQZAS.20150217201943From here, though, the biggest one was not about the immediate past, but about the not-so-distant future. Namely, the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State is in, for sure. But the question Schaefer and every other Maroon-clad person in Little Rock were asking: will MSU get to host?

The 1-4 seeds in the Tourney will be hosting this year, and Schaefer thought going into this weekend that his Bulldogs had already locked up a top-four seed, and thus, the chance to host. In fact, he told reporters earlier this week he thought winning in the quarterfinals would launch his team up to a three-seed.

The seeding is important for many reasons, including the level of competition faced throughout, but Schaefer’s concern is a bit more personal.

Three years ago when he took over, Schaefer promised Alwal that if she bought in, he’d get her to the NCAA Tournament before she graduated. In her senior year, Alwal is about to see that promised fulfilled.

Now, while he never made such a promise to this group, Schaefer is determined to deliver a similar prize to the MSU fans who turned out to support his team all year. He wants to host, and more than anything, he wants to do it for them. After Friday’s game, Schaefer’s greatest lament wasn’t missed shots or bad screens or anything like that.

“The Bulldogs traveled tonight,” he said. “We had so many people in the stands. I’m so disheartened and disappointed for them.”

This was in the middle of his opening comments, before any question had been asked. Schaefer knew it seemed like an odd thing to focus on, but he wanted the reporters in the room to understand.

“For those of you who don’t follow us or don’t know,” he continued, “we have been drawing fans at a tremendous rate. 7,300 on Sunday and averaged almost five thousand fans a game in conference … So proud of my fans for providing a great atmosphere.”

11031137_997378346956894_6308646148349222395_nHe’s right to brag, though. MSU has set multiple attendance records this season, and the interest has gone far beyond the walls of Humphrey Coliseum. Restaurants across Starkville had patrons glued to the TV the last time MSU played Kentucky, a double-overtime affair in Lexington just a couple weeks ago.

Perhaps the greatest sign that this team had arrived and was relevant was the upset reaction from MSU fans online after Friday night’s game. It was near 11 o’clock on a Friday night and Twitter, Facebook and message boards were buzzing with the results of the game, some fans upset and bemoaning the shortcomings, others equally upset but assuring themselves it would be alright.

In a weird way, the complaints were a really good sign for Schaefer’s club. You don’t get those unless people care, unless they’ve become emotionally invested in the outcome. After all, this was just the SEC Tournament. A win would’ve helped MSU with seeding, but it was an otherwise superfluous event. The fact people were so upset by it showed that the results mean something to them.

Schaefer has seen the interest spike, and the support has had an impact and helped his teams win games they weren’t able to a year or two ago. He thinks that support could turn into something MSU has never seen before.

“I’m telling you,” he told reporters Friday, “if we could host, I really believe there wouldn’t be an empty seat. I just feel like we sell it out … Our fans are so infatuated and in love with our players, and rightfully so. Our kids play their hearts out.”

However, setting aside emotion and ticket sales, the more direct conversation will remain for the selection committee. It’s up to them if MSU hosts, though Schaefer thinks he’s got a good case there, too.

They’re 26-5 overall, 11-5 in the conference, and as the head coach pointed out, “we’re two free throws from being 13-3 in the league.”

Even without those free throws, MSU finished in sole possession for third place in the nation’s toughest conference.

“I think that warrants a top-four seed,” Schaefer shared.

He also made the point that, while his RPI is in the twenties, two groups of educated voters across the country – the AP and Coaches poll voters – have consistently kept MSU in the top 16 the majority of the year.

“I know they don’t look at that,” Schaefer said of the selection committee’s process, “but somebody needs to. Those aren’t two groups of idiots voting.”

The selection show is March 16, and while Schaefer will be happy to make the tournament either way, he’s certainly hoping to reward the home crowd. Whatever happens, he’s sure of at least two things when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re going to get there,” Schaefer said. “It’s going to be a great run.”

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Peng, MSU golf playing 2015 season for lost friend

This weekend, Mississippi State’s women’s golf team will be competing in South Carolina as part of the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. When each player takes the course, their hat will have the initials HDJ stitched on the side.

Just over one month ago in Taiwan, days before MSU’s season began, Hong Ding Jun was killed when his TransAsia Airways flight 235 crashed into a river after engine trouble struck shortly into takeoff.

As far as away that event seemed at the time from Mississippi, it had a sad but pronounced impact on a group of young women in Starkville.

CYLBUOMSGQPYYZP.20131001203906Jun, whose initials were soon sewn onto the caps of MSU’s golf team, was the lifelong friend of Jessica Peng, State’s sophomore star from Taoyuan, Taiwan. The pair were best friends as children, even tending to a community garden together, and as Peng’s golfing career took off and she traveled the world, eventually landing in college in Mississippi, the two never lost their bond or closeness.

In the days following the wreck, Peng couldn’t help asking the natural question.

“I fly all the time,” she told coaches and teammates. “Why hasn’t it happened to me?”

Her coach Ginger Brown-Lemm, along with teammates, has been a big part of the healing process over the last month.

“I think when kids are young they don’t’ realize their mortality at all,” Brown said. “We fly all over the planet, particularly international kids … You learn life lessons every day, and this was a big one.”

Just as golf was the reason Peng had flown across the world to begin with, it was in the middle of golf that she received the news about her friend. Following the end of a qualifying round at Old Waverly Golf Club, Peng opened her phone to enter her stats on the app they use to keep track of their progress. When she finished filling in the numbers, she checked her messages. That’s when the hardest news of her young life hit.

“She was quite upset,” Brown recalls, “so as everybody came in from their round, she was our focus. I think it was an automatic kind of thing for us. I don’t remember who brought it up, but it was just a natural progression into saying, that’s it. That’s who we will make sure we honor and who our work ethic continues to elevate.”

Peng’s teammates told her, this season is for him.

It’s a difficult thing to receive news like that and be halfway around the world, completely unable to do anything, disconnected from the family and friends associated with the memory of a lost loved one.

Had she been able, Peng likely would’ve flown home that day to grieve with those who knew him. But just as the show must go on, so must school, golf and life, as difficult as it can be to think about such things in that situation.

OQWUARMUKUIAQNH.20141022214956The best comfort Peng has had has been her new collegiate family, her two coaches and small group of teammates who have surrounded her with support. People hailing everywhere from Florida and Mississippi to New Zealand and South Africa have been her sisters for the last two years, and it’s they who were able to comfort her that day and every day since.

“I think that’s the critical piece,” Brown said. “Golf has been a huge part of her life. Probably the biggest part. For us to already be an established family for her here was pivotal in her getting through the bumps and bruises and trying to get her head around it. She couldn’t understand for quite a long time. But she’s so superior mentally that she’s been able to process through it and still play incredibly well anyway.”

And that’s part of it, too, the playing. Playing incredibly well, at that, as Peng is one of the top players on one of the top teams in the country. The Bulldogs have goals of winning a National Championship, and that’s a plenty realistic aim, far from just a dream.

Having something like that to channel her grief into has been beneficial for Peng, an outlet not all who grieve are so lucky to have. Her teammates around her, they tell others, have been moved by her courage and focus.

“I think we all want to pull for something and somebody,” Brown said. “The other girls on the team are inspired by her functioning at such a high level and it affects them in a positive way. As tragic is this was, we often learn from really hard lessons.”

Golf was a forgotten concern in the immediate wake of the news, but as time goes on, it has become the vehicle for honoring and remembering a treasured friend. Whatever Peng and MSU do this season, it will be done for HDJ – Hong Ding Jun.

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Schaefer, Bulldogs confident entering SEC and NCAA Tournaments

Teetering on the line between hosting and traveling in the NCAA Tournament according to projections, the questions to Vic Schaefer this week about his team made sense. What do you need to do in the SEC Tournament this weekend to make sure you’re a top-four seed? What must be done to prove your team deserves to be a host?

“I don’t think we need to prove anything,” Schaefer answered. He shrugged his shoulders, held his hands up and offered half a smile, saying, “I just don’t think we have to do anything else.”

ZVTMGAQGFUMAYUY.20150113211749In fact, MSU’s women’s basketball coach said, he thinks any wins at the SEC Tourney this weekend will just serve to make his Bulldogs an even higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. Schaefer might be biased, but he’s got some credence to his arguments.

Mississippi State finished third in the dominant Southeastern Conference, behind only powerhouses South Carolina (No. 2 in the country) and Tennessee (No. 6). The Bulldogs are 26-5, ranked No. 11 in the country and have left a path of methodic domination along the way. Records in wins, scoring, attendance and the like have been set on a seemingly weekly basis.

“How are you gonna have the third place team in the SEC, and not be a top-four seed? That’s crazy,” Schaefer told reporters. “It’s impossible.”

Just this week, Schaefer was named SEC Co-Coach of the Year, while three of his players accounted for four spots on All-SEC teams.

And the kicker?

“We still haven’t played our best basketball. We’re still not playing great,” he said. “If we can get it going and get it together, I like our chances.”

If what he’s done to this point is “not great,” then the postseason ought to be a fair bit of fun for MSU. Even without playing what is necessarily their best basketball, this team has advanced quickly from the start of the season, helped by senior Martha Alwal returning to form after injuries slowed her early on. The development of Victoria Vivians, the freshman All-SEC guard, as she’s gone from talented to talented and intelligent on the court, has been a catalyst all season.

It’s a process that began nearly three years ago when Schaefer took over at MSU, though he concedes even he wasn’t quite sure things would happen this fast. In the course of one year, it looks like his Bulldogs will go from hosting the WNIT in 2014 to hosting the NCAA Tournament in 2015. Quite the rapid ascension.

“It’s hard to really put your arms around,” Schaefer said when asked if he’d had a chance to look back the incredible regular season. “I believed this day would be here when I took the job. I’m not sure we thought it would be here this quickly … It’s pretty special.”

EYTDZHIEXLOZSLW.20141208211435Of course, as he later said, he doesn’t quite have the time to process it right now. Perhaps, he mused, he’ll have a day this summer when he’s sitting on the bay with a fishing rod in hand and he can really sit back and appreciate what’s happened. But until then, it hasn’t fully sunk in.

For the senior Alwal, it’s been a similarly difficult and rewarding journey, and one that wasn’t always easy under Schaefer’s hard-nosed guidance.

“You worked really hard and the wins were never there,” she said of her first few years on campus. “It was like, why are we doing this? Now the wins are here … I’m so proud of him. He’s turned this program around completely and he’s finally getting recognition for that.”

As all involved parties made sure to point out, though, where they are now isn’t the intended end of the road. They’ve not yet achieved everything they want, not even close. They want championships. They want to make a run in the postseason. They want to go from up-and-comers to respected stalwarts in college basketball.

More than anything right now, they want to win games this weekend in the SEC Tournament, then they want to host games in the NCAA Tournament.

It was a touch symbolic that Schaefer turned 54 on Monday, the day after MSU’s last game of the regular season. It was the start of a new year for him and a new season for his team.

Moments after the final buzzer following the win over Ole Miss to close out the season, Schaefer opened his press conference the same way he typically finishes it.

“Praise the Lord and go Dawgs.”

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Wells, others, impress at MSU Pro Day

The idea of going through a job interview and having the whole process watched and critiqued by hundreds is a bit strange, but it’s the way football players get matched up with their employers.

11050230_993704883975327_5624833903653678737_nOn Wednesday, Mississippi State held its on-campus Pro Day with all 32 NFL teams in attendance looking for their next stars. In this instance, there were plenty of strong candidates among the 20 Bulldogs who participated in a variety of tests and measurements.

“This is a great opportunity for our guys,” Dan Mullen said. “We have every NFL team represented here today, and it is exciting for all of them to come look at our prospects. Our senior class is walking out the door having been to four, and in some cases five, straight bowl games. Most of the guys that are here working out are college graduates and have earned their degree. This is a great opportunity for them to live a dream and move on to professional football.”

NFL Combine participants Preston Smith, Benardrick McKinney and Josh Robinson were the headliners, but several of their former teammates made fast impressions on the scouts and coaches in Starkville Wednesday.

11044535_993705247308624_4134620286078834481_nPerhaps more impressive than anyone was Matt Wells. The linebacker/safety measured in at 6’1” and 222 pounds, while clocking a 4.4 second 40-yard dash, though some scouts had him in the high 4.3 range. His 35” inch vertical (tops for the day) and 9’10” broad jump (second-best) added to the idea that he is an extremely athletic player. Several teams made an effort to find him when the day was done.

“He did great,” Smith said of his old defensive teammate. “We always knew he was fast, but we wanted everyone else to realize he was fast. That shoots him up the board.”

In terms of performance, cornerback Jamerson Love might have had the best day of any. The speedy corner clocked a 4.38 on his first 40 and followed it up with a 4.37 on his second run, according to nearby scouts. That was the fastest time of the day and 9’11” broad jump was also tops among all participants. The only thing he didn’t beat everyone in was the vertical jump, where his 34” was just barely behind Wells.

As for brute strength, defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls and running back Nick Griffin tied for the high with 26 reps each on the 225-pound bench press. Each drew the attention of those watching, and Griffin’s day was particularly impressive. Despite being on the large end of the scale for running backs, he still delivered a 34.5” vertical and 9’5” broad jump, each among the top performances regardless of position.

Offensive linemen Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Clausell all put up over 20 reps on the bench press, as well, though their showings in positional drills were likely the most important factor.

Of note on the pass-catchers, slot receiver Jameon Lewis made a number of impressive catches, while tight end Malcolm Johnson created a bit of a buzz among those watching with his performance in route-running and agility drills. One of those pass-catchers, tight end Brandon Hill, also worked out with the linebackers, a position he previously played in high school, and showed well both in size and versatility. He was joined there by former tight end and current linebacker Christian Holmes, whose 32” vertical and 9’8” broad jump were impressive.

Jay Hughes at safety and P.J. Jones at defensive tackle rounded out the defensive side of the ball, while receiver Robert Johnson showed off agility in positional and cone drills.

11034204_993705183975297_7912034181221782144_nOf the three NFL Combine participants, only Robinson chose to do any of the drills over, running a 4.61 40-yard dash, a significant improvement from his time of 4.7 seconds in Indianapolis.

While Smith and McKinney didn’t run timed and measured drills, they did take part in a wealth of positional exercises. Despite Smith being a lineman and McKinney being a linebacker, each of them worked in both sets of drills. Smith is on the big end for a linebacker and McKinney on the small end for a lineman, but each has the versatility to do either well in the right scheme, and the reviews from scouts were favorable.

“I wanted to do it to help myself and make myself a little more marketable to NFL teams,” Smith said of his choice to participate in linebacker drills, too.

Beyond just being good and potential first or second round picks, Smith and McKinney are perfect examples of what Mullen has been building at MSU. It’s the first time under Mullen all 32 NFL teams have been to Pro Day in Starkville and they turned out in droves to watch a bunch of guys no one else wanted when they were looking for a school to go to.

Are recruiting rankings that bad or does MSU develop that well? It’s “probably a little bit of both,” according to Mullen, but it’s certainly unique that the two biggest stars Wednesday, and all three of the Bulldogs invited to the NFL Combine, were relative afterthoughts in the recruiting process.

“Mississippi State was my only offer,” McKinney said, “so I have to thank Melvin Smith for recruiting me. I have a lot of respect for Coach Collins, because he made me the linebacker that I am today. He always told me to be the best linebacker in the SEC.”

Said Preston Smith, “I wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, but Mississippi State gave me a chance. We want to show that stars do not define players. Hard work does. All stars mean is that you are the best player in high school, but you have to perform at the next level, too. The stars do not mean anything once you step on the field. The coaching staff here has helped me a lot. They believe in us and they want to make sure we are the best players we can be.

11050729_993706023975213_1618475771423030826_nFollowing the workouts, the players spent the majority of the rest of the day in meetings with the coaches and scouts who watched them all morning, and discussions with teams will begin to heat up over the coming weeks in advance of the NFL Draft in April.

For Mullen, he’s just glad his guys got the chance to show what they can do.

“When you see the opportunity our players are having, it shows how we develop our players not just on the field, but physically,” Mullen said. “We take a lot of pride in that. I think that shows a lot of younger guys that if they come here and work their tail off, they can be successful.”

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“Moonlight” Tatum becoming a star for Diamond Dawgs

Sometimes the stories are hard to find. In other instances, the top performances are a bit more obvious.

“The star of the show tonight is Tatum,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said as soon as he walked up to the gathered reporters Sunday evening.

SHYNOISNUKVJVNI.20150302011443Vance “Moonlight” Tatum, to be more specific, was the subject of conversation, the burgeoning star of MSU’s pitching staff. The sophomore left-hander has been impressive each outing early on in the season, but his destructive display of force on the mound Sunday was as impressive as any of the best performances over recent years for the Bulldogs.

Tatum began the season in the bullpen, but after a strong first outing, he earned a role as a starter. Doing so Sunday, he struck out eight of the first 10 batters he faced. During one stretch, he retired 13-straight batters. He got his team to the ninth inning having only allowed one hit, and his pace of setting down batter-after-batter helped the game reach that point in barely two hours.

By the end of the night, MSU beat Samford 6-2 and Tatum had 12 strikeouts, two hits and two runs in eight-plus innings of work.

“I really had a good feeling at the beginning of the game,” Tatum said. “The last couple starts I’ve built up the endurance a little bit and finally had a good feel for all three of my pitches.”

Those three pitches: fastball, slider and the change-up he began using later in the game when Samford batters started thinking they had him figured out. More impressive than the assortment of pitches, according to Cohen, was how he used them. Sure, each is good, but even better is the placement. Part of what makes Tatum’s fastball so consistently hard to hit is that he can throw just about anywhere on the plate.

As Cohen told reporters after the game, a lefty who can get a fastball inside on right-handed batters is quite the weapon.

“When you can throw that fastball in on right handers and freeze right handers the way he was, I think that’s a difference maker. We’re really impressed with what he’s done and the progress he’s made.”

11000285_1047448391936997_8026747193529409957_nOver the course of the first three weeks, Tatum has pitched 18.2 innings, giving up only five hits and two runs, while tallying 25 strikeouts and holding batters to a dismal .085 batting average.

The question now is what to do with him. Put him on the mound, obviously, but as a starter or out of the bullpen? Tatum has had two starts in his three appearances, but that’s also been with MSU playing four games in a weekend.

Cohen conceded he’s got some difficult decisions to make, as the rest of the staff has been great, too, but he says it’s a good problem to have. Oddly enough, while Cohen didn’t expect it, it’s an issue Tatum had hoped he would be able to give coaches.

Back in the fall, each player was told to write down their goal for the 2015 season. Tatum’s? He wanted to be the Friday night starter for Mississippi State baseball.

Said Cohen, “We essentially told him before the year we wanted to start him in the bullpen and see what happens, and he has just made a statement. We love it when our players don’t make statements with their mouths, they make it with their performance, and he has certainly shown us in a starting role that he is up to that challenge.”

Whatever his role is, Tatum said he’ll be happy. He just wants to pitch. However, Friday night would be an appropriate time slot for the pitcher nicknamed “Moonlight.”

He earned the moniker back in high school, and in fact, it was one of his current teammates who gave it to him.

The week before joining Team Mississippi as a sophomore in high school, Tatum had one of the worst outings of his young career.

“I might have gotten out of the first inning,” he jokingly remembers.

The game in question began at 9 a.m., so the young pitcher decided it must have been the early time slot that messed with his game. When he got to Oklahoma to play for Mississippi in the Junior Sunbelt Classic, he told the team’s pitching coach that he only wanted to pitch at night.

“Whatever you do,” Tatum told his coach, “please don’t pitch me in the morning time.”

COEQKHTVLYMOBLT.20140308070042Shortly after arrival, Team Mississippi had one of those morning games Tatum was so eager to avoid. Taking Tatum’s request into account, the coaches put someone else on the mound, a right-handed junior named Myles Gentry – the same right-handed pitcher who is now a junior at MSU with Tatum.

It was that day when Gentry came up with the nickname he still hears almost every day.

“It was a real early game, 8 or 9 o’clock, and I ended up having to pitch,” Gentry said, “and I guess I was kind of salty about it because it was so early.”

“They didn’t really like me,” Tatum jokes now.

“Typical left-handed guy,” Gentry cracked about high school Tatum.

But the combination of creativity and bitterness turned into inspiration for Gentry.

“The nickname just came to me: Moonlight. He pitched that night and did real well, so we stuck with it,” Gentry recalls. “I started calling him that, and then everybody else went with it.”

At the same time, Twitter had just started to become a thing. Needing a handle for the new form of social media, Tatum went with his new nickname and styled himself @Moonlight_Tatum on Twitter, the name he still has today.

Of course, as Cohen has learned, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is now. Moonlight can pitch.

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Bulldog Bites: Catfish and eggplant at Little Dooey, Mullen’s contract extension and notes from around MSU athletics

Food Stuff

This will eventually circle back to food, I promise, but let’s talk about Lent for a moment. It’s a Christian observance, though its principles are solid for anyone, and the intent is to make sacrifices in the name of penitence, as well as to build good habits and learn new disciplines for the betterment of one’s life and soul. For some, it’s giving up a bad habit. For others, it’s walking to work instead of driving. Some give up coffee (a terrifying proposition) and others pledge time to community service.

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Whichever of the limitless directions one goes, the idea of making a determined effort to help the greater good tends to be a common endgame, and a nice one, at that. It applies to all parts of life, really, be it spiritual, physical or somewhere in between.

In this world of athletics, we see it all the time. Just this week, many of Mississippi State’s baseball players took it upon themselves to go work on their game during their down time Wednesday. School was canceled because of the weather, so they had a surprise day with no responsibilities, and instead of playing in the snow like all their fellow students (and me), they went indoors at the Palmeiro Center to put in some extra work. Their head coach John Cohen only knew it happened because he saw all their cars lined up in the parking lot when he walked out of the office.

The same happened for MSU’s football team this summer, when team leaders Dak Prescott and Benardrick McKinney led voluntary sessions that amounted to nearly being full practices. The whole team showed up, no coach telling them to do so, and we have since seen the results.

The football players could have relaxed by the pool and the baseball players could have spent the day riding sleds and building snowmen. Countless other athletes in all kinds of sports have had similar opportunities and made the same decisions. It can be difficult to be a student-athlete, but they know how many people are depending on them. Sacrifices are often easier to make when you have something to believe in and someone to fight for bigger than yourself.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to pontificate on philosophy and religion, so I’ll get to the point: food. Many who observe the Lenten season also follow the rule dictating that meat is not to be eaten on Fridays, an oftentimes difficult challenge in the south. No chicken, no beef, no pork. No ox, lamb, goat or any associated creatures of the land.

However, fish is perfectly acceptable, and tends to be a top alternative. And that brings us to one of my favorite meals in Starkville: fried catfish po-boys at The Little Dooey.

Dooey’s is famous for their barbecue, and rightfully so, but judge me not when I say that the pulled pork covered in the family-recipe sauce is not my top dish at Little Dooey. It’s worth the price (and then some), to be sure, but man, that crispy, hot, fried catfish filet stuffed between a couple pieces of warm bread with all the fixins is difficult to beat. Me personally, I like to add some of the mild and sweet barbecue sauce the Wood family has been making for generations.

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Courtesy: LittleDooey.com

Now, this particular plate is great on its own, but to make it a full meal, we need a side, and once again we’re going to pick an underrated but altogether delicious item from the menu: fried eggplant. It’s a Lent-friendly choice, as there is no meat of any sort, and if you’re someone who doesn’t really like vegetables, well, this doesn’t exactly taste like a vegetable by the time the cooks in the kitchen deep fry it and you at the table dip it in ranch dressing. (I never promised we’d be healthy, just that we’d follow the rules.)

Waffle fries, baked beans, coleslaw or potato salad – good choices, each of them. But if I’m going all out, there is no side I’d rather have than the fried eggplant, a homemade, southern and more tasty relative of the Bloomin’ Onion.

So, should you find yourself looking for a Friday lunch or dinner in Starkville over the next few weeks (or anytime, really), you could do far worse and would have trouble doing much better than catfish and eggplant at Little Dooey’s. Sacrifice is meant to create good, but it can taste good, too.

———————————

Sports Stuff

FOOTBALL: Let’s the start with the biggest news of the last couple days. Dan Mullen and Mississippi State announced a contract extension through the 2018 season, extending Mullen’s deal back out to the maximum allowable by state law in Mississippi. Mullen will make $4 million this season and the full financial package escalates over its life and averages out to $4.275 million per year.

WFBQUHQFOMPLUWA.20150226192708The numbers represent both a big raise for Mullen and huge investment by MSU in the man who led the football program to No. 1 in the country for five weeks in 2014. The agreement was made official last night at the annual Night in Maroon event held in Jackson where Mullen was welcomed to the stage as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ played. According to pictures, Mullen then grabbed a guitar and air-played the lead.

Also of note: MSU announced this week that it’s on-campus NFL Pro Day will be open to the media (not public) next Wednesday. It’s the first year under Mullen the event has been open and I’m told NFL Network will be in attendance.

BASEBALL: Depending how soon you see this, John Cohen’s club might already be playing. Because of the weather, game time was moved up to 4 p.m. today and tomorrow’s doubleheader will now begin at 11 a.m. MSU has Arizona and Samford in town, probably the two toughest teams its played in the 9-0 start to the season.

Pitching news: Cohen expects Preston Brown to start tonight, and believes the Saturday doubleheader will be a combination of Austin Sexton and Lucas Laster, though who pitches against which team has yet to be decided. Sunday is more up in the air, though Cohen said Vance Tatum could be the guy there if he isn’t used out of the bullpen on Friday or Saturday.

Injury news: Cohen told reporters there is “a very good chance” that first baseman Wes Rea is back this weekend, a return that could possibly send John Holland to third base after the emergence of freshman Ryan Gridley at second base. Cohen also hopes to have outfielder Michael Smith back this weekend or next. Catcher Gavin Collins caught a full bullpen session with no pain on Thursday, according to Cohen, and now it’s just a matter of getting him ready to hit. He may be back before his target date of SEC play. Then, on the mound, Cohen said pitchers Myles Gentry and Paul Young – two of the more talented arms on the staff – are close to returning, as well.

This team could look a lot different in a few weeks, which says a lot as they’re currently undefeated at No. 13 in the country.

SOFTBALL: While we’re still waiting on snow to melt here in Starkville, Vann Stuedeman’s team spent yesterday visiting Hogwarts at Universal Studios in Orlando. Her 13-2 Bulldogs are in Florida for the Citrus Classic where they’ll be playing some big-name teams in Minnesota, Georgetown, Maryland, Notre Dame and Indiana. MSU opens conference play next week when they host Georgia in Starkville.

MEN’S BASKETBALL: Talking to Rick Ray and his team after Wednesday’s loss to Kentucky, they seemed optimistic about the rest of the season, and perhaps they should be. They frustrated and stayed with the No. 1 Wildcats (probably the best non-NBA team I’ve ever seen in person) for the first 30 minutes of the game, leading UK coach John Calipari to concede the Bulldogs stopped every game plan they had and he eventually had to tell his team to try something new. That something new worked, of course, but there were good things for MSU to take from it.

Now, MSU has a three-game stretch to finish the season in which they can end on a good note, starting tomorrow in South Carolina. That game will be on SEC Network at 5 p.m. Saturday evening.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Speaking of playing big-time conference foes, Vic Schaefer’s team ran into a tough night at South Carolina Thursday, dropping the contest to the nation’s second-ranked team. MSU returns to Starkville Sunday for its last game of the regular season when it hosts Ole Miss. That game will be on FSN at 1 p.m. for those watching from elsewhere, but State is already expecting a big crowd at The Hump, as they probably should.

Looking ahead, last night’s loss didn’t help, but MSU is in position to possibly host in the women’s NCAA Tournament in a couple weeks. Scott Stricklin mentioned in his weekly column (an idea he almost certainly stole from me) that MSU will be hosting a watch party for the Selection Show, and it’s then that they will find out if they host or not.

TRACK AND FIELD: This weekend, the indoor season wraps up for the women’s squad as they’re already in Lexington for the SEC Championships. They’ve spent most of the year in the Top 20, and both the men’s and women’s team have put up big numbers both as individuals and as teams.

A reminder that MSU is hosting the outdoor SEC Championships later this spring, an event MSU has been making preparations to host for months on end now.

GOLF: The new-look men’s team finished in the Top 10 in its first event of the year earlier this week in Mobile, and they’ll be back on the course on Monday in the Louisiana Classics in Lafayette.

As for the 3rd-ranked women’s club (golf pun!) they’re off this week, but next week they play in something called the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Don’t know how all these teams are traveling to islands and theme parks and I got left out of the fold. Earlier this week, Ginger Brown-Lemm’s team pulled a second-straight Top-10 finish to start the year.

TENNIS: Both the men’s and women’s tennis teams begin SEC play this weekend after fairly successful non-conference slates. The men, at 8-3, head to Alabama later this afternoon to play the Tide, then they host Ole Miss next Thursday for their home SEC opener.

The women, who are on a roll under coach Daryl Greenan, take their 9-1 record to Vanderbilt today and Kentucky Sunday, before hosting Missouri and Arkansas next Friday and Sunday.

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Freshman Ryan Gridley stepping up for Diamond Dogs early on

Sitting at an undefeated 7-0 but staring straight at a tied game and a possible first defeat, Mississippi State needed someone to step up on a frigid Sunday night against Alabama A&M. A veteran player, a team leader, someone.

BHOXOWKTJJQANEO.20150215222631In the bottom of the eighth inning, MSU got the performance it needed, but from a seemingly unlikely spot. True freshman Ryan Gridley stepped to the plate with a runner on base and calmly delivered the game-winning hit, an RBI single to knock in the go-ahead run, putting the Bulldogs up 2-1, the eventual final score.

To hear his coach talk, though, that wasn’t even the most impressive thing Gridley did. His defensive play at second base to end the top of that inning was even better.

“I didn’t think the play of the game was the hit he got,” John Cohen said. “I thought it was the line-drive laser he just sat on and let hit him right in the chest, calmly picks it up and throws it right to first base. I thought that was the play of the ball game. A lot of people don’t notice those things, but if you don’t get in front of that ball and it gets to the outfield somehow, it’s gonna change the nature of the ball game.”

Whichever is the play of the game, Gridley made them both and MSU emerged from its second week of play with an unblemished 8-0 record. Plenty has gone into that, but Gridley’s hot start has a lot to do with it. Having started six games and played in seven, the freshman infielder is batting .529, with a .640 on-base percentage. He’s got 10 runs, nine hits, eight RBI and seven walks to his name, as well.

And the thing of it is, he wasn’t even supposed to be playing. But after senior captain Wes Rea went down with an injury, the lineup had to be shuffled and Gridley stepped up at second base.

“Every time one door closes, another one opens,” Cohen said. “A lot of people have flown through those doors, and Gridley is one of them. He has taken advantage of that opportunity.”

He’s taken such an advantage that it might be hard to keep he and his skills out of the lineup down the road. As Cohen described him, he talked about a player who is able to slow down the big moments, slow his heart rate and focus on exactly what is happening and what he needs to do. Along with the mental focus comes a great deal of natural talent, too. Arm strength, speed, awareness – Cohen rattled off the highlights.

The most important thing, Cohen went on to say, is Gridley’s ability to take coaching and “not try to do to much,” which coaches observed is a rare quality in a freshman.

Perhaps his most exciting play of the weekend, Gridley’s inside-the-park home run on Saturday is a good example. When it happened, he really wasn’t aware of what was going on until he was already halfway to third base and saw the signal from assistant coach Nick Mingione that he better keep going.

Gridley walked reporters through the play on Sunday evening.

“Honestly, it was a bad swing by me to begin with,” he said. “No strikes, first pitch of the at-bat and I swung at a slider out of the zone. The coaches teach us to run everything out of the box, so I figured I’d better bust it. I was running and I never heard anyone say ‘out,’ so I was like, I might as well just keep running. Then I saw Coach Mingione pointing me home and I thought, it must be safe. I got really lucky.”

Both lucky and safe. Impressive, to boot. One of many impressive things he and his teammates have done early on, putting up big numbers at the plate. As a team, MSU leads the SEC in runs and on-base percentage, while tallying the second-highest number of hits, steals and RBI.

Those around the program expected the offensive to deliver in 2015, and so far, their predictions were right.

“We knew it,” Gridley said. “In the fall, you could see the hitters. There are so many different pieces of our offense. There’s speed, there’s power, there’s guys who can do it situationally. Every single piece you need is in our lineup.”

XFIHCCVFLOJAKZU.20150214213807Gridley and teammates Seth Heck and Jacob Robson make up three of the top four hitters in the SEC through two weeks, both in batting average and on-base percentage. The hot bats have been coming top to bottom in the lineup, and MSU has done most of it without three of their best hitters. Rea, sophomore catcher Gavin Collins and junior outfielder Michael Smith are all on the mend from minor injuries. Add those three back into what’s already a potent offense…

“When those three guys come back,” Cohen said, “I think it changes the dynamics of our lineup.”

Then add to those hitters a slew of talented pitchers and big performances by many of them (including record numbers of strikeouts by some, and two saves in one day by senior Trevor Fitts) and Cohen has both a confident and dangerous group. Dangerous for the other teams, of course.

The ceiling? Gridley thought Sunday’s close win in below-freezing temperatures gave the answer.

“No untested team is gonna go out there and win the whole thing,” he said. “You’ve gotta battle to the very end. Those are the games that you know you have a tough team, you know you have a team that can take it all the way.”

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