No. 6 Bulldogs at their best as SEC play begins

Maybe it happened kind of fast, but ahead of hosting it’s first conference home game of the season, Mississippi State women’s basketball is ranked No. 6 in the country. Vic Schaefer is only in his fourth year as the head coach, and most of his players have barely been around half as long as that.

ALJKSPZNNKJQQHD.20151217035130But it doesn’t matter – they’re good. In fact, they’re pushing for great, sitting at 14-1 and suddenly among the nation’s elite, a ride that began when Schaefer was hired, continued in MSU’s NIT run two years ago and took another big step in advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015.

MSU dominated the non-conference portion of their schedule this year, winning the Puerto Rico Classic, taking down a talented South Florida team in the AAC-SEC Challenge and seeing its only loss come in a low-scoring defensive battle on the road against one of the nation’s top teams in Texas.

“It helped us get ready for the SEC,” junior guard Dominique Dillingham said.

And entering SEC play, the Bulldogs appear to be among the best in the conference. They’re second in the league in scoring at 81.3 points per game, one of two teams in the 80s, and in fact they just beat the No. 1 scoring team (Florida) on the road Sunday. Defensively, despite the high volume of scoring, MSU is third in the SEC, only allowing opponents 52.5 points per game.

Sophomore star Victoria Vivians is second in the league in scoring at 17.9 points per game, and sophomore point guard Morgan William’s 78 total assists are also second in the conference.

Those two being sophomores underscores the challenge for Schaefer, as he’s coaching an extremely young team, obviously talented though they may be. The relative inexperience does worry him, he admits, but so far, it’s worked out just fine.

“That’s very difficult,” Schaefer said of the youth on the team. “I think if you ask any coach in this league, it doesn’t matter what sport, there’s a discipline that it takes to win in this league consistently, and you have to win play by play, possession by possession.”

NEHFMCUFKSBTHKR.20151217035130Luckily, Schaefer has a few veterans like Dillingham to provide an example and leadership for the younger players. It only takes two or three players going hard in practice to elevate the habits and work ethic of others on the team, and he’s got those individuals, whether in the starting lineup or off the bench.

He sees it himself every day in practice, but Schaefer was particularly proud when others noticed it in games. Watching the television replay of MSU’s win at Florida, Schaefer heard the announcers praising 6’7” freshman forward Teaira McCowan not just for height, size or strength, but for diving on the floor after loose balls.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Schaefer said. “That speaks volumes to that kid and her selflessness and her willingness to help the team any way she can. And I think we’ve got a whole team full of that.”

It would have been easy for this team, he knows, to come into this season with a high ranking and high expectations and just rest on their past successes and enjoy the praise. He knew things would be different now that MSU has the target on their back, rather than his ladies being the underdogs in every game.

How his team handled the expectations, the people coming after them and the youth on the team was, and to a degree still is, a concern. At the moment, hoever, it appears he needn’t have worried.

“I’ve been proud of our team the last two ballgames in that we’ve been the team who came ready to play,” Schaefer said of the road wins at USF and UF. “I think our kids realize the level you have to play at to have some success, and I was extremely proud of how business-like our kids took these last two ballgames. Their approach was outstanding. Their preparation was good. Their work ethic, the focus, was really, really good.”

There is certainly a long way to go, and the road in the SEC is a tough one. The journey started on the road, and it comes back home tonight, MSU hosting Auburn in The Hump at 7:30. Schaefer is looking for more of the same thing that got his Bulldogs here to begin with.

“It’s our home opener,” he said. “I would hope like the dickens that we’re gonna be jacked up and ready to go.”

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Basketball Bulldogs hitting groove as SEC slate begins

Happy New Year and happy new season, too, as Ben Howland put it. Mississippi State basketball starts SEC play tonight, hosting Texas A&M in The Hump, the start of the second “season within a season” for Howland and the Bulldogs.

While so many of us were away Belking and Christmasing the last few weeks, MSU quietly went on a nice run to end the non-conference slate, going 6-2 in the last eight games and winning the last three in a row.

IVPDLEKEPHXGMPP.20151230165138With a few weeks of news to catch up on and a big game tonight, we’ll run this as more of a notebook-style approach, reviewing some of the newsy nuggets of the day for MSU basketball.

Start of Conference Play

Obvious thing is obvious, but as SEC play begins, the level of competition rises significantly. Of 18 conference games, 12 of them are against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. That provides both an opportunity to boost the resume and a challenge in facing some good teams.

“The level of play with our opponents is really, really ramped up,” Howland said Tuesday. “It’s a great conference. You look around this league and the quality of the institutions and basketball programs and the history of everything … It’s exciting to be part of such a great league, which is part of why I was so excited to be coaching Mississippi State.”

Bulldogs Coming Together

As the start to SEC play approaches, it comes at a time when MSU is playing its best basketball of the season, so far. With several new players, a new style of play and a new coaching staff, it took some time for players to start getting comfortable. But now, it seems something has clicked. Much of it has to do with health, plus the time together and the emergence of Gavin Ware as one of the best forwards in the SEC, perhaps even in the country, based on the early numbers.

“Everybody has come together a lot better here in the last few weeks,” Howland said of the recent 6-2 run. “It’s a combination of the above. I think we’re getting a better feel for how we have to play and kind of giving ourselves a better chance at success.”

Ware Breaking Out, Newman Getting into Groove

Two of the biggest reasons for that success are Ware and freshman Malik Newman. Starting with Ware, the senior is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game (both team highs) and is also tied for the team lead with 16 blocks.

His production is helping MSU score, of course, and State is actually second in the SEC in field goal efficiency, largely due to Ware’s shot selection and goal-scoring in the post as he’s shooting 70.4 percent from the field. Additionally, his success around the rim has opened things up in the rest of the court for teammates, including Newman. I plan to have a more length story on Ware in the near future, but for now, some quick thoughts from Howland.

“We can’t get him enough touches. Part of that is he’s got to keep working hard to seal,” Howland said. “I think he’s getting better at sealing and really demanding the ball inside. People are going to cover down. People are going to try to double him and that opens it up when he kicks the ball back out.”

KVLVXOXERSWSUFC.20151228173139As for Newman, he is second on the team averaging 13.3 points per game. In his last five games, however, he’s scored in double figures every time, averaging 16 points per outing. Since becoming healthy, his game has improved significantly, something Howland has seen very clearly.

“I think he’s shooting the ball real well right now and really getting in a groove where he’s waiting and letting the offense come to him,” Howland said. “He’s creating well for others. He passed the ball well. Part of it is just the experience of getting used to playing at a different level and playing with new teammates.”

Rick Stansbury Returns to The Hump

With Texas A&M coming to town, tonight is the first time back in The Hump for Rick Stansbury, the A&M assistant coach who, as you know, is the former MSU head coach and the winningest head coach in school history. If anyone thought it was going to be awkward at all, it appears MSU has squashed that possibility. The program and the entire department has made a point in the lead-up to this game to show how happy they are to welcome to Stansbury back to the place where he helped build MSU basketball into what it’s known as today.

In fact, as Howland told reporters, there is an addition to the Mize Pavilion honoring three former coaches, and Stansbury is among them, as well as Babe McCarthy and Richard Williams.

“I think I made it really clear how much respect I have for Rick Stansbury and all that he’s given to Mississippi State University and the basketball program,” Howland said. “I’m excited for Rick. He gave his heart and soul to this place and I hope the fans that are at the game will come early and be there to honor him.”

The ceremony honoring Stansbury is expected to take place roughly 15 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. tip.

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Bulldog seniors cement winning legacy with Belk Bowl victory

“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

———————————————–

Some give Dan Mullen the credit. Or Dak Prescott. Maybe Scott Stricklin or even the President of the whole school, Mark Keenum.

Whoever is responsible, nothing now is the same at Mississippi State as it was before. Expectations, experiences, perceptions and praises have all been altered.

QGIPCTSVJQEOEUL.20151231022914When MSU won the Belk Bowl to close out their 2015 season, it wasn’t the end of the road for the Bulldogs from a big picture sense. However, in a very literal sense, it was the final stop for a group who made all those changes happen. The senior class who took that field, some as starters, some as backups and some as injured players in street clothes on the sideline, were catalysts for the revolution and resurgence of Mississippi State football.

The rebuilding had just begun when most of them arrived back in 2011 with MSU coming off its first nine-win season this millennium. Mullen was only entering his third year. Stricklin and Keenum were just getting started, as well.

At the time, most observers were unsure if the success of 2010 was a fluke or a sign of things to come. For many members of that surprise team, it was their first trip to a postseason game. For all who returned, it was a luxury they would come to expect. And for those who entered after, it was the new expectation, even if people on the outside hadn’t caught up yet.

The group who arrived in 2011, and a few more in 2012, helped ensure that no more questions would have to be asked or respect ever again be missing.

“We’re walking out as one of the winningest senior classes in Mississippi State history,” senior offensive lineman Justin Malone said after Wednesday’s Belk Bowl. “When I got here, I was told that we wouldn’t win. That there was no way we could compete in the SEC, that we weren’t good enough, that the team had a history of being bad. In my five years here, we’ve changed it. We were No. 1. My class has been ranked 29 weeks. We’ve done all these things. We’ve had winning seasons. We’ve been to five-straight bowl games. It’s one of those things where we’re just winners. We’ve changed the perception.”

EDKWQUMTOQCABGM.20151230215455No matter what was predicted of MSU, whatever people outside the program thought or critics said, the seniors now, with the staff who brought them in, led the way from the inside, creating a culture not of hope, but of expectation. Before they arrived, playing close games against good teams wasn’t such a bad result, even if they lost. Five years later, there’s no such thing as a moral victory. Just wins or losses – more of the former than the latter.

“They may pick us again to be last next year, who knows,” Prescott said, “but this is a team, a program, a university that doesn’t listen to what people say, doesn’t listen to negative criticism. We just come in each and every day and work hard, give our best. It paid off. That’s exactly what this senior class has done.”

In the entire history of Mississippi State football, in 114 years of competing on the gridiron, the Bulldogs have won nine games or more in a season only six times. This senior class, they did it twice, in back-to-back years, a feat never pulled off in over a century of football. In 16 months, they won 19 games.

And they did it as a group, as a team, as a family. Dak Prescott was the star, that much is obvious. In four years on the field, he totaled 6.8 miles of offense, over 100 touchdowns and three dozen school records. Most careers would be considered all-timers just from breaking one record.

But it was more than Prescott. It was more than Mullen. It was more than any one individual. This group did it together, and even one piece missing could’ve kept it all from coming together.

Years ago, when both were freshmen, Devon Bell’s kickoff ended up in the hands of Taveze Calhoun, two young players destined to push their program to greatness, even if neither knew it. When Prescott was still the holder on field goals, he was taking snaps from Winston Chapman. Further down the line on those plays, Malone, Rufus Warren and Damien Robinson were protecting the kicker from opposing teams.

WDYDNTPZBXOOUXV.20151230205712Ryan Brown, Will Redmond and Kendrick Market watched from the sideline in Charlotte, but all three were among the biggest reasons the Bulldogs were there to begin with. Torrey Dale rushing the quarterback on the line, Darrion Hutcherson converting first downs and Joe Morrow blocking downfield were all among the final moments for a senior class dedicated to the betterment of the program.

This outgoing class didn’t just change Mississippi State football. They are Mississippi State football. They made the program what it is today, a legacy none can tarnish or change. And their impact goes far beyond accomplishments on the field. What they meant to a fanbase in need of someone to fight for them, how every autograph, picture and smile made adults and children alike feel, that is what they leave behind. They showed Bulldogs everywhere that they were part of family, that they were deserving of respect and that they had the ability to truly be great. They changed the Mississippi State world for the better.

Thousands preceded them, and thousands more will follow, but none yet have done as much these legends to wear the maroon and white.

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Dak Prescott enters final game with five years of memories on his mind

And now, the end is near.

YMBUURZSHEPRCPP.20151017201106Dak Prescott’s final song, his encore performance, his last game, ever, in a Mississippi State uniform. December 30th in Charlotte at the Belk Bowl, it’s Dak’s curtain call. He knew it would come eventually, as did anyone keeping track of his career. For better or worse, that’s just how college football works. Coaches may stay the same, though even those often don’t, but players always have the same cycle. They come in as freshmen, anxious to take on the college world. They soon realize they’re not quite ready and careers progress at the same rates of their minds and bodies. Backups become starters, and if they’re good enough, starters become stars.

In the universe of collegiate athletics, Dak has been among the brightest stars of the new age of media and exposure, proudly held up by Mississippi State as their chosen son. He broke records, sure, but what his career has meant goes far beyond the tangible or measurable, though the collections of signed magazine covers in the dens of Bulldogs fans across the state give a good idea of his rank in the hearts of those who call him their own.

At a time when MSU was trying to make a name for itself, trying to pull itself out of the basement of the SEC and back into a spot of national recognition and respect, Dak was the face of the movement, the man putting the world of Mississippi State football on his shoulders while opponents, quite literally, climbed on his back in attempts to bring it all crashing down.

Memories from a collegiate career of friendships and brotherhoods, broken records and bones, football life and real life, are swimming through the head of MSU’s newest legend as he enters his final day.

His journey started almost exactly five years ago when he graduated high school early, enrolling at MSU in January of 2011. When January of 2016 hits, Dak’s time in Maroon and White will be over. The path has been littered with successes and defeats. For every high he’s had, there have been corresponding lows. He’s won more games than he’s lost, and his senior class goes out as the winningest in school history, but the stings of loss are still remembered.

YUBZFAVAQQWGHME.20151025043637When he lost part of his family, that was the moment he realized he had gained a family, too, in the MSU fans who supported him through good and bad. His teams have been No. 1 in the country and completely unranked, picked to win big games and predicted to finish last in the conference.

Whatever the expectation, whatever the result, he carried himself in a manner befitting the hero MSU never even knew it wanted and turned out to so dearly need.

And now, 60 minutes of gameplay stand between Dak and the end of this chapter of his life. In Starkville at the end of the regular season, he had his moment to say goodbye to MSU fans, to take the field at home one last time. In Charlotte, his thoughts have turned from saying thank you to those who loved him for five years. On the road, away from home, in a game considered important but of no particular long-term consequence, Dak is looking back.

At practice to start the week, he looked around at his teammates and coaches on the field, realizing that it really was about to be over. Throughout his career, there has always been a next game or a next season. This time, this is it.

His emotions are inwardly focused now, the memories of practices, workouts and games, of dinners out, afternoons on the couch and trips around the country flood his mind. If he considered his last home game a tribute to his fans, this final appearance away from home is a tribute to the memories.

“I can’t believe it’s here,” he said to no one in particular after that first practice.

GTRKEWSFZPPVGVL.20141011224234Never a selfish person or player, the most important thing about this game, to Dak, is winning. But after five years of thinking of no one but the team, the coaches, the fans and the program, it’s hard for the outgoing star not to see this game for what it is – his last.

“That’s what it is,” he said. “It’s my last game. I want to go out with a win. Obviously, the last game I played didn’t go how I wanted it to go. I want to make sure I bounce back from adversity, stay focused make sure my team is focused and hopefully go get a win for the last game of my career.”

Win or lose, lots of yards or little, it doesn’t matter, not really. His legacy is already set. Dak Prescott is the greatest player Mississippi State has ever seen. The record books back that fact up, but as any MSU fan will quickly say, his dozens of all-time achievements are just a fraction of the story.

Dak will always be a Bulldog, will always be considered part of the Mississippi State family. His legend will last, but today, his time in the Maroon and White comes to a close.

“All of the sudden,” Dan Mullen said, looking ahead, “he’s not going to be there.”

And now, the end is here.

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Bulldogs give back through charities at Belk Bowl

The whole idea of bowl games, at least from the point of view of those participating, is to provide something of a reward for a season of success and a year’s worth of hard work. For Mississippi State, the Belk Bowl in Charlotte is their prize for navigating the SEC and finishing with an 8-4 record in 2015.

FDFOIDXISZUBJDG.20151228171102While finding themselves on the receiving end of so much good fortune, MSU’s players spent the majority of their time on Monday ensuring that others were able to share in their success, as well. Between visits to a food bank and children’s hospital, as well as a shopping spree at Belk, State’s young men found opportunities to pass along their rewards to those who needed and deserved them, particularly in the middle of this holiday season.

Going beyond the typical expectations of team-organized charitable trips, a group of MSU players actually got together and decided to spend their Belk gift cards not on themselves, but on needy children. Each player is given $450 to spend as they wish, and with the permission and help of the Belk Bowl and Belk store, those who wanted to do so – an initial group of eight Bulldogs – were able to donate portions of their bowl gift to children in need of clothing.

For some, like place kicker Westin Graves, it was the type of opportunity he had been looking for.

“I’ve wanted to try and do something for a while,” he said, “but I don’t really have that much money. I feel like God has blessed me, so I wanted to try and give back something.”

On Monday morning before practice, the team split into two groups, one going to the Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte and the other going to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina. Again, the visit provided an opportunity for players to give back in both a personal and constructive manner.

122815_FB_BelkShoppingSpree_KP119At the hospital, the group of players went from room to room, introducing themselves to children and their families, talking with them, taking pictures and signing autographs. In one room, a child named Reese Webb, whose mother went to MSU, posed for pictures with head coach Dan Mullen and All-SEC wide receiver Fred Ross. In another, a young boy named Caleb was presented with gifts from senior captains Dak Prescott and Taveze Calhoun.

At the food bank, MSU players put together over 1,200 backpacks full of goods for those in need.

“It was nice to be able to give back and do that,” Graves said. “It would take a lot of volunteers to do what we were able to do so quickly.”

Of course, not all of the giving was to those the players haven’t met. At the Belk shopping spree, junior receiver De’Runnya Wilson was shopping not for himself, but for his young daughter and son, splitting the $450 down the middle in gifts for the two most important people in his life.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of time before Christmas because of school and football,” he said, “so I’m able to get my daughter and my son gifts here.”

122815_FB_BelkShoppingSpree_KP124However, he conceded the pressure was on to find something particularly exciting for his son after he gave his daughter a trampoline for Christmas.

Other players were looking ahead to the future, using their time at Belk to find suits, ties and professional clothing, instead of the usual shirts, shoes or hats of college students.

Senior Torrey Dale was shopping for ties and dress shirts, in the market for a nice suit to use as he enters the post-graduate world. Like him, senior left tackle Rufus Warren searched for the type of items befitting someone in a professional scene.

“I need something nice to wear when football is over,” Warren said.

The giving and the responsibility seem to come easy for MSU’s young men. If anything the hard part is just deciding what to get, as junior defensive end A.J. Jefferson struggled to pick out a purse for his girlfriend and sophomore receiver Gabe Myles was guided by his girlfriend as he attempted to pick out a few nice outfits. Even Dan Mullen had to be shooed past a pair of colorful Tommy Bahama trunks by his wife Megan who served as expert for all.

“I’m Bear’s personal shopper,” she joked as Wilson searched for clothes for his little girl.

Even if their taste in fashion is off, at least their hearts are in the right place.

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Fred Ross breaking records, setting new standards for MSU in 2015

Walking off the field after watching a Mississippi State football practice two weeks ago, Chad Bumphis was reminded that, by most categories, he’s the best receiver in MSU history. He smiled, acknowledging the truth in the statement, but he quickly admitted that time may be running out for him to enjoy his place in history.

“I don’t know if he’ll break all my records,” Bumphis said as he gestured to a current Bulldog receiver entering the locker room, “but he’s sure going to get at least a few of them.”

XYNYOUYNLXYRPBT.20151114224336Already, Fred Ross – the receiver Bumphis was pointing toward – is on pace for the best single-season in MSU history, and he’s just a junior. It helps, of course, that he has the best quarterback the program has ever seen in Dak Prescott, but it was Ross’s hands that caught a record 81 balls in the regular season, becoming the all-time leader for a single season, with a bowl game still to go.

With 933 yards and four quarters left in the year, Ross could go even further, as 67 yards would make him only the second player in school history to have a 1,000-yard receiving season, and 103 yards would break the all-time record of 1,035 set by Mardye McDole in 1978.

The funny thing about it all: Ross says he’s actually a little behind where he thought he’d be. Coming into the season, he hoped he’d have 1,000 yards and the record all wrapped up before the bowl game kicked off.

“Hopefully I get it this game,” he said at practice for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte this week. “It’ll be fun, I guess, but if we don’t win, it won’t be fun at all.”

As soon as anyone makes a prediction, it’s sure to go wrong, but there is reason to believe Ross will hit the mark, as he’s caught at least 100 yards in his last four straight games. In fact, if he does hit 100 on December 30, it will tie him for the most 100-yard games in MSU history with eight. What’s ironic about Ross threatening so many records so early in his career, is that it was Bumphis himself who was the most vocal supporter of Ross entering this breakout junior campaign.

LHVZVFPGGRYNTXI.20151226233106Injuries sidelined and hampered Ross’s first year and a half on campus, but as his health returned and when injuries struck the slot position late last season, coaches made the move that proved to be the turning point in his career. Co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Billy Gonzales, in need of talented pass catchers at a thinning position, moved Ross from the outside to the inside. The talented route-runner adjusted immediately, having a tremendous impact inside from day one.

Entering 2015, coaches decided to make the switch permanent, giving MSU a formidable inside-out duo with Ross on the inside and fellow junior receiver De’Runnya Wilson on the outside. As evidence has shown, it is immensely difficult to cover them both. As defenses have had to pick their poison, Ross has given them a full dose, excelling during the 2015 season.

Those outside the program may have been caught off guard, but those around Ross every day had no doubt what would happen this fall.

“It did not surprise me,” Gonzales said. “He’s an extremely smart football player. He’s got great ability to change direction. He’s just a really, really good route runner. He can come in and out of breaks really, really good.”

Gonzales went on to say it’s not as if Ross had some breakthrough moment or a point where things “clicked.” He just worked hard. He worked really, really hard, and when that work ethic was paired with his natural abilities, the results were hardly unexpected.

“One thing about Fred he always does,” head coach Dan Mullen said, “you just watch, he does a great job doing his job. He’s gotta block, he blocks. Running routes underneath, catching screens, running the ball, he does that. Going vertically down the field. He just doesn’t worry about doing too much. He worries about doing his job and doing it to the best of his ability. Because of that, you see the success that he’s had.”

SCIBBAJNZDCOTPQ.20151114224151For Ross himself, the hardest thing and the easiest thing about the transition to the inside are the same: facing linebackers. When he’s called on to block, as all receivers under Gonzales are expected to do, he said it’s much more difficult trying to stop massive SEC linebackers than, say, the average cornerback. On the flipside, when he’s running routes and trying to get open, he sees linebackers try to get their hands on him, and he’s typically able to slip on by, presenting an easy and open target for Prescott.

The impressive thing about Ross is how he seems to only get better as he goes, despite increased attention or stiff competition. In the month of November, his most recent stretch of games, not a single FBS player in the country had more catches than Ross’s 41 grabs. Ross also leads the entire SEC in receptions in conference games with 70. In fact, he only needs four catches against North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl to reach the Top 10 in SEC single-season history. Nine catches would vault him all the way up into the top five.

There have been some big moments and breakout games along the way, but Ross’ success is not about one particular instance, one individual teaching point or any specific psychological breakthrough. He’s just worked hard. And, of course, he got healthy.

“It’s a big deal,” he said with a smile.

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Mississippi State coaches, players share excitement for new Star Wars

After practice on Thursday, Mississippi State’s football players were asked to raise their hands if they wanted to go see the new Star Wars that night. Well over half of them looked as if they thought it was a stupid question, because of course they don’t want to go watch Star Wars. The rest of them looked as if they, too, thought it was a stupid question, because of course they want to go watch Star Wars.

“What kind of question is that?” senior offensive lineman Justin Malone asked later.

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz

He fell in the smaller but certainly more excited category of those who have been anticipating this release for years. While the galactic opinions of the players were often less positive, the coaches on Mississippi State’s staff were quietly the most enthusiastic around. One coach, who preferred not to be named, was actually wearing a Star Wars T-shirt to practice Thursday underneath his MSU jacket.

A group of men mostly born in the 1970s when the Star Wars franchise exploded like Alderaan, MSU’s coaches grew up on the battle between Darth Vader and (spoiler!) his son Luke Skywalker.

In fact, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz may have George Lucas to thank for the success he’s had as a football coach. The original Star Wars in 1977 was the very first move Diaz ever saw in theaters, experienced at just four years old. By the time he was seven for Empire Strikes Back in 1980, the little boy in Florida was all-in, collecting the Star Wars action figures and re-living the biggest moments.

As his collection of action figures grew, Diaz eventually had enough to begin using them for his true passion – he lined them up and ran football plays using the characters of Star Wars, the very beginning of his coaching career. Know what they had started, his parents did not.

Of course, the obsession with football, rather than Star Wars, is what continued, and as action figure technology advanced, so too did the coaching technique of the young padawon learner.

“I used to play football with all the Star Wars guys,” Diaz began, “then the G.I. Joe’s came out. They had swivel arms and they could bend their knees, so they became the skill guys. Chewbacca had to play more on the offensive line.”

Diaz is far from the only coach to harbor a not-so-secret soft spot for Star Wars, though. Tight ends coach Scott Sallach, shortly after dodging around support beams while making lightsaber sounds in MSU’s football facility, confessed to an obsession he calls borderline unhealthy.

“If you knew…” he said before sharing the stories.

At five years old in 1977, Sallach clearly remembers seeing Star Wars: A New Hope at a drive-in theater, and the force has been strong in him ever since. When the digitally-remastered re-releases of Star Wars came out years later, an excited adult version of Sallach drove to New York City to see the first one, and while in the movie, his car was towed.

Undaunted, he returned to New York when Empire Strikes Back came out. On that occasion, his car was actually stolen completely. The sacrifices were steep, but it was worth it, he believes.

So here they all are now. Coaches who remember when the first one came out, alongside players born into a world where their fathers plopped them in front of a TV to watch Star Wars as soon as they considered their children old enough. The circumstances were different, but the similarities striking. Malone, a senior in college, first saw Star Wars at age four, just like his coaches did so many years before, each being raised by the Jedi on screen.

Together, they are able to welcome in the newest age of Star Wars, an awakening of far more than just the force. However, more than anything, they just hope it’s good.

“I’m a little worried,” Malone said, “but I’m very excited. I can’t wait.”

“I’m not going to get nervous about it, because I have more important things to get nervous about,” Diaz quipped when asked, “but it’ll still be fun to see.”

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Elijah Staley following dream of becoming two-sport star at MSU

Charlie Ward had it all. Or, at the very least, the former Florida State star did it all. Days after winning the Heisman Trophy and the school’s first National Championship as the senior quarterback and captain for Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, Ward was on the hardwood for FSU’s basketball team as the starting point guard averaging 10 points and five assists per game, leading to an eventual NBA career.

PBFJKUKMNUFIQZV.20150920001014Over 20 years later, it’s Ward who another two-sport star looks to as the model of how to pull off one of college athletics’ most difficult feats: star quarterback and star basketball player. That’s the dream for Mississippi State freshman Elijah Staley, and it always has been, Ward serving as his shining example.

“This is what I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “This has been a goal in my life. It’s something I’m going to keep doing, keep striving to do.”

For whatever reason, many people seem to be against the idea for Staley, and as far back as high school people told him he needed to pick a sport and stick with it. Focus on one, they told him, and he could be a five star. But, he thinks, why not be a five star in both?

After all, he’s 19 years old, full of energy and passion. And really, Staley just wants to have fun. Anyone who has been around him knows it as he’s seen on TV dancing on the football sideline, video-bombing interviews and cheering on the action. Coaches have called his personality infectious and teammates have called him someone they go to in order to have their spirits lifted. Staley is just a college kid enjoying the life he has.

“I’ve just always loved playing both,” he said. “If I’m good enough to play both at an SEC level, then why not? I’ve always wanted to do stuff other people can’t do.”

Staley was a top player in both sports in high school, though that tends to happen with the sizable gap in athleticism between elite high school players and those around them. In college, everyone is good. At a certain level, everyone is great. Players can’t get by on talent alone, only half-dedicating themselves to one sport, let alone two.

When Staley signed with MSU, though, it was with the plan of playing both and fully dedicating himself to each, no matter how much time and effort it took. He redshirted in football during his first year on campus in 2014, and when that regular season ended, he started practicing with the basketball team, as planned. However, a leg injury sidelined not only that entire basketball season, but portions of the football offseason, as well.

Now, as a redshirt freshman in both sports, he’s back to try it again, and this time, it’s going a little better. The 6’7’ lefty finally got on the field in football, playing some mop-up time behind starter Dak Prescott, completing three of his five pass attempts, one of which was a particularly pretty 37-yard touchdown deep down the right sideline. He also ran it a few times, gaining 18 yards on the ground. It wasn’t a lot of action, but it wasn’t nothing, either.

Now that the regular season in football has finished, Staley is making the transition to basketball, a fairly time-consuming process.

unnamedThe last week, for instance, has been one of the busiest of his life. Saturday, he was with the basketball team for their game in Missouri. Sunday, he was at practice with the football team as the Bulldogs prepare for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on December 30. Monday morning, he woke up and had breakfast with the basketball team while reviewing film on their next opponent – Florida State, appropriately enough.

He lifts weights with the football team, and while the basketball team lifts weights, Staley is on a treadmill conditioning for the more-cardio-centric sport. On Tuesday, Staley had his own individual practice with basketball graduate assistants before going to the real practice with the entire team immediately after.

Those individual sessions are, in Staley’s mind, the equivalent of walk-throughs for football, a chance to slowly work through the plays, making sure he knows and is comfortable with each of them. With Travis Daniels, the starter at Staley’s position, out with a concussion, it may be time for Staley to make his debut against the Seminoles one the road tonight. He has to be ready.

And, he hopes, he just about is ready, if he can just get in basketball shape.

“He’s better than I thought he was,” freshman teammate Malik Newman said. “I think once he gets in shape and is able to go up and down the court a few times, I think he’ll earn some playing time. He’s a big body, he can shoot it, he can play in the post.”

But the difference between football and basketball shape, as basketball head coach Ben Howland pointed out, is quite severe. As a quarterback, ideally, Staley stands still in the pocket for a few seconds, throws a pass, then has a breather between plays. At the most, he should never be moving for more than 15 or so seconds at a time. In basketball, the movement, is constant. Opportunities for catching your breath are slim.

Staley is slowly but steadily getting into the kind of shape necessary for the back-and-forth pace of basketball, and as he’s doing so, he’s seeing some benefits in football, too. During football practice Sunday, he noticed how much better he felt, a seemingly unlimited amount of energy inside him. He was comfortable on the field, too. After a couple weeks away from football, he still knew all the reads, knew all the routes, knew where to go and what to do. As MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson pointed out, Staley has been around over a year. He knows what he’s doing.

“It’s not that hard,” Johnson said after pointing out that Staley isn’t the first person MSU has had to play multiple sports. “For him, it’s just a matter of staying sharp and knowing what we’re doing. He just has to maximize all of his reps and mostly maximize his time … It’s been good for him.”

Staley, left, with teammates. Photo courtesy Clarion-Ledger, Keith Warren

Staley, left, with teammates. Photo courtesy Clarion-Ledger, Keith Warren

If basketball training has aided his football stamina, so too has the 18 months of weight training in football made things easier on the court for the 250-pound forward. After taking on SEC defensive linemen in practice every day, it’s not so bad for Staley to bang around in the post against guys who don’t weigh much more than he does, if at all.

And that’s what he hopes to bring to the basketball team – a physical presence. Asked what type of player he is, Staley immediately began describing a scrappy rebounder, a bulldog defender, a big body willing to block out and set screens. Plus, to add a little of that quarterback finesse, he expects to have a reliable low-corner jump shot and excellent court vision.

Right now, Staley is still working his way through in each sport. Just a freshman, after all, he’s where he’s supposed to be in both basketball and football – the learning phase. However, in the few spare moments he has these days, it’s hard for him not to envision a future similar to his athletic role model Charlie Ward.

On the football field, this season’s starting quarterback is a senior. On the basketball court, too, the starting power forward is about to graduate. The opportunity, as soon as this time next year, will be there, and seemingly for the next few years, too, if he can make it happen.

“Man, that’s my dream,” Staley confessed. “That’s always been my dream. I’ve always wanted to be a starting quarterback and then be starting on the basketball team. I know it’s really hard. Some people say it’s unrealistic … But it’s something that could happen. I’ve just got to keep my mind right and my body right.”

In the meantime, he’s bonding with his friends on the basketball team, where senior forward Gavin Ware took him in from day one. He’s continuing his relationships on the football team, where fellow freshman Brandon Bryant is one of his greatest supporters. Staley is doing something almost every high school star fantasizes about at some point, and he’s having a ball.

“It’s very fun,” Staley said with his usual smile. “I love doing it.”

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How MSU baseball assembles top recruiting classes and the story of assistant coach Nick Mingione

Part One: The Evaluation

Nick Mingione, now an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator for Mississippi State baseball, was sitting at a small ballpark in the Atlanta area, surrounded by the parents of high schools kids watching their sons play travel baseball. Back in Starkville, one of the members of the team Mingione was in Georgia to watch had just committed to play baseball at MSU, telling head coach John Cohen he wanted to spend his college years at State.

Henderson, Mingione

Mingione celebrating with the team after a win

The young man had long been identified by the staff as a player they wanted and Mingione was waiting on him in Atlanta to show the new commit how important he was to MSU. When the leadoff hitter finally made it to join his team in Atlanta, he was sprinting from the parking lot as the game had already started. By the time he got to the dugout, he was already on deck, cleats untied without a single warmup swing taken.

However, that travel ball star never made it to campus. He ended up being drafted and signed with an MLB team. However, the events turned out to be far from meaningless for MSU. While Mingione was there to watch the not-meant-to-be leadoff hitter, it was the three-hole guy that caught his eye, a kid from California named Gavin Collins.

Collins hit a towering home run while the new MSU commit was still tying his cleats and excelled as a catcher as the game progressed, leading Mingione to watch every one of his games and practices the next two weeks, following the promising prospect as he studied and recruited the new find. Collins ended up not only committing to MSU, but signing with the Bulldogs and is now entering his third year in the program, having earned a starting job in each of his first two seasons.

That’s just sort of how recruiting works, Mingione says. It’s a little all over the place, something of an organized chaos. He travels the country identifying talent and building relationships, trying to find the next stars to wear Maroon and White, searching for players every way he knows how. His days and nights – at home or on the road – are spent on the phone going through a new-age rolodex of coaches, scouts, players and parents. Some guys are easy to find. Some, like Collins, pop up out of nowhere.

“That’s one of my favorite parts about this whole thing. Each one of those players, they have their own story of how they ended up here in Starkville. That’s so cool to me. Every one of them is different.”

Not all situations involve such clear roads as the one for Collins, though. Some players, Mingione said, coaches hear about for weeks and even months before finally seeing them in person. Names are always flying in, with a finite number of spots available. The pursuit is constant, both in its unending and always-changing qualities.

“It’s like you’re chasing names and chasing ghosts until you actually see them,” Mingione said.

At MSU, under Cohen, the program puts a strong emphasis on information, especially in the evaluation phase of recruiting. Each player the school begins recruiting is asked a series of questions, typically by Mingione, surprisingly little of it having to do directly with playing baseball. What is their GPA? What are their parents’ names and what they do for a living? Who is their favorite pro team and who is their favorite big leaguer? What’s their girlfriend’s name? What are their hobbies? So on and so forth, questions ranging from informational to opinionated, serious to light.

Much of it is for conversational and recruiting purposes, finding things to talk about. But a great deal of it serves as something of a personality test, even if it’s not quite standardized.

“It’s such an inexact science,” Cohen said. “It’s not necessarily just the questions, even though they’re really important. It’s the way they answer the questions. [Mingione] keeps a binder and we will go back and discuss a guy, and he’ll tell me how a guy answered a question, not only the words, but the way in which he answers.”

“There’s a lot of trust and there’s a lot of teamwork,” Mingione said of the full recruiting process. “With recruiting, there’s two different phases. You have to go out and find guys. That’s the evaluation. Sitting there for the long hours in the summer heat, or the March cold, it’s trying to evaluate first. Then, once you find the guy you like, that’s when the recruiting process starts. I love both.”

Part Two: The Recruitment

Mingione, NickMingione, despite being a baseball coach in the SEC, has a nerdy side to him. He loves psychology, is intrigued by the way the brain works and puts a great deal of thought into the types of personalities different people have. Those interests, one can tell by hearing him talk, play a big part in what he does as a recruiter, identifying not just ability, but personality, determining how each will fit in at MSU.

Coaches around the country tease Mingione because he knows the names of players’ girlfriends, but to him, it’s something to talk about. He discusses baseball, of course, but he likes to find out what makes people who they are. Mingione is curious by nature, asking innocent questions of anyone he meets but quickly penetrating through the outer walls of their persona and discovering what is important to people, how they see the world and how they think the world sees them.

He loves people, and he tends to be a good judge of them, too, even if the approach in recruiting isn’t the norm of other college baseball coaches.

“But that’s important to me,” Mingione said, “because I want to develop a relationship with them. I believe that’s what Mississippi State is. It’s this huge tight-knit family that’s built on relationships.”

And that’s the approach of the whole staff in Starkville. Mingione offered the example of a fishing boat, saying that many programs cast a wide net, offering dozens of prospects, hoping to catch at least a few good ones. MSU, on the other hand, patiently sails the waters, eyes out for the big fish, preferring quality over quantity.

“We’re looking down at that big bass, trying to catch that big lunker,” he said, “and we want to do whatever we can to catch that one big fish.”

The process, one that involves every member of the staff and each person involved with the program on campus, seems to have worked. MSU has signed three-straight Top-10 classes, making the core of the team an incredibly talented one on paper. The most recent class was ranked third in the country, featuring the freshmen and transfers who arrived on campus in August.

Of course, they didn’t all sign with State because the coaches ask good questions. While talking about his job as a recruiter, Mingione accidentally slipped into a monologue, delivered with sincerity, that seems to be the short version of the recruiting pitch he presents to prospects and their families.

“Recruiting, in a lot of ways, you’re trying to sell your product,” he explained. “I truly believe, with all my heart, in the product of Mississippi State. I don’t know if there’s a better place. My brain works in boxes. When you go through the checklist of what people might think is important, I believe it starts with leadership. I believe with all my heart in what Scott Stricklin is doing and the vision of the athletic department. I think that’s been proven. John Cohen, I’ve been with him for a decade. When you spend as much time with somebody as you do after 10 years, especially in this sport, you see every side of them. You know their families. They know everything about you. He’s an amazing human being. When it comes time to sit there and talk about John Cohen, I don’t have enough time in the phone conversation because I truly believe in him. Every single day for 10 years, I’ve heard him talk to one of our players about their grades. It’s not just about baseball.

“Then,” Mingione continued, “you go and start talking about Mississippi State, and the baseball part is important. I think our track record is proven. We’re the only SEC school to go to Omaha in each of the past five decades. We’ve had over 50 big-leaguers. Our team GPA has been above a 3.0 for 10 straight semesters. Then, by the way, we have the greatest fans and the best atmosphere in all of college baseball to put on top of everything. It’s like, why wouldn’t someone want to come here?”

It’s a strong pitch, and Mingione delivers it well.

Part Three: The Coach

Nick Mingione and John Holland-5.2.15-LSUNick Mingione The Coach is a direct result of Nick Mingione The Man. The same person who seems as if he’s never gone a day in his life without laughter has had every reason to pack up the metaphorical shop and give up. Growing up in Florida, Mingione has been providing for himself since around the age of 13. Baseball got him through college, then life got him through baseball.

For the first seven years of his coaching career, Mingione made a total of $36,000. Not his annual salary, but his gross income for most of a decade in which he lived without health insurance or a provided benefit of any kind.

In the beginning, working as a volunteer coach at Embry Riddle, he also put an area youth team through workouts on the side, being paid not in cash, but by the team’s coach giving him room and board in one of the many apartments he owned around town. After getting onto a meal plan at the school, Mingione had a roof to sleep under and food to eat, even if he had no money for anything else in life. Before that, Mingione had been sleeping on his coach’s couch, folding up the blanket every morning so it looked less like a bed and more like the living room it was supposed to be.

Sure, he’ll say now, still smiling as he confesses the truth, it was rough. But it was worth it. He was doing what he loved and still loves. Mingione was born to coach. True story, he says: his teammates on his little league team when he was 12 referred to Mingione as “Coach.” Making it official years down the line was just a formality.

“Nick’s story is so unique,” said Cohen, who hired Mingione while still at the University of Kentucky. “What he has had to overcome is inspirational in a lot of ways.”

There are still hard parts to it all even today, of course. Mingione might not be able to pull it off if it weren’t for his energy and passion in all things. A devoted family man who is also a committed recruiter, the balance can be difficult. He’s on the road constantly, and when he’s home, his wife Christen knows that any dinner can be interrupted at any second by a phone call he has no choice but to take.

The balance works, Mingione said, because of the family atmosphere fostered by Cohen. State’s head coach is always making sure Christen and their son Reeves are involved with the activities of the program. In fact, when Christen was still pregnant, Cohen and his wife threw a baby shower at their own house for the Mingione family.

“That’s what makes Mississippi State different,” Mingione said. “They’re able to be a part of it. If we are traveling, we have a road trip, they’re right there in the middle of it.”

What matters the most, Mingione believes, is how supportive Christen is of her husband. While he says he would expect every coach to say their wife is the best, he firmly believes Christen to be the best coach’s wife around, an incredible and loving supporter, in his words.

“I couldn’t do this without her,” he said. “As soon as the recruiting classes are ranked, the first person I call and congratulate is my wife. She’s spent all the nights with me gone and all the times when we’re in the middle of dinner and I have to take phone calls. She knows the boys by their names.”

Even their son has worked himself into the game, as Mingione said baby Reeves sealed the deal with a recruit last weekend, playing on the floor with the young man’s mom, helping the family along the path to eventually deciding to commit to MSU.

“The dad said that was the deal-maker,” he shared with a smile.

Everything that Mingione does is as part of a team, something he is quick to point out any time compliments or credit are sent his direction. Praise is constantly deflected in the name of the program and the school, and he’s certainly right that the might of Mississippi State baseball is based upon the whole, not any individual part.

However, the man running the program has no reservations about calling Mingione one of the key cogs in the system.

“There are not a lot of guys who can do what Nick Mingione can do,” Cohen said before turning an eye to the future. “I have seen Nick mature into a hurricane who encompasses so many different areas of expertise. There’s no doubt in my mind, he is going to be a great head coach. Is it next week? Is it next year? Is it five years? I don’t know, but there’s no question that Nick Mingione is going to be a great head coach one day.”

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The Top 12 Reasons to Go to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl

Surely you know this by now, but in case you haven’t heard, Mississippi State is playing in the Belk Bowl against North Carolina State in Charlotte, North Carolina this year, the program’s first appearance in the bowl. With the team in town December 26th through gameday on the 30th, and with many fans likely staying through New Year’s Eve, a compilation of reasons to go to the Belk Bowl and things to do while there seemed like a good idea.

i-d6JCLpb-X2I had actually never been to Charlotte in my life until last year, but now in the last 14 or so months I’ve been through three times, as the SEC Network headquarters are located in Charlotte. I had pretty much no expectations, good or bad, going in, and it turns out Charlotte is an incredibly cool city. Clean, nice, cool uptown (not downtown) and with a lot going on for anyone, families and single young adults alike. Check out the website www.charlottesgotalot.com to see what I mean.

Anyway, here are the Top 12 Reasons to Go to the Belk Bowl, or something like that. (Tickets available here!)

Carrie Underwood

Do we really need to expand on this? The seven-time Grammy winner will be performing for the price of free at 1:30 eastern time at the Belk Bowl Fanfest on game day.

Fanfest and Fan Central

Speaking of the FanFest, that event begins at 10 a.m. on gameday, the 30th, and is basically a big party with food, live music (did I mention Carrie Underwood?), face painting, cheerleaders and the school bands. The night before, Fan Central is the big Belk Bowl Eve party at EpiCentre, a quite-large complex full of restaurants, shops and revelry, which also feature bands and cheerleaders and the usual excitement. Check out the EpiCentre website here http://epicentrenc.com where you’ll see there’s a lot going on.

NASCAR

If you are even mildly into racing, and really even if you’re not, the entire experience of NASCAR-related activities in Charlotte is pretty neat. The Charlotte Motor Speedway featuring the Richard Petty Driving Experience is cool, as is the NASCAR Hall of Fame. If you want the whole shebang (shabang?) check out the Racing Insiders Tour http://www.charlottesgotalot.com/all-events/racing-insiders-tour

Last game for Dak and the seniors

The Belk Bowl will, very literally, be the last chance to ever see Dak Prescott and the entirety of the senior class play for Mississippi State.

Kobe

He’s famous enough to just go by his first name, right? As the Kobe Bryant farewell tours goes around the country, it will hit Charlotte for a game against the Hornets on the 28th. The Hornets also host the Memphis Grizzlies on the 26th and the Los Angeles Clippers on the 30th.

MSU’s bowl game reputation

The Fair Lady Underwood

The Fair Lady Underwood

Over the last half-decade, State fans have earned a reputation for traveling to support their team, even outside of football when they packed out the stands in Omaha for the College World Series. That’s a respect MSU would like to maintain.

Cowbells allowed

#CLANGA

Tacos

Seriously, under the events tab for the week MSU is there, the EpiCentre website has three different items listed relating to tacos, including Taco Tuesday at Vida Cantina. Charlotte even has a restaurant called Cowbell (maroon and white sign, too, how perfect?) that has a full taco menu. People I trust in Charlotte strongly recommend the restaurant and bar as a whole, while I’ve also been told Cabo Fish Taco and Krazy Fish (1/2 off tacos from 4-6) are places worthy of a visit.

Museums

Beyond food, nightlife and NASCAR, Charlotte has a thriving arts and culture scene, headlined by several museums and nature centers. Discovery Place, a science and technology museum, looks particular cool and family friendly. Check out their website here: http://www.discoveryplace.org The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Charlotte Nature Museum also come recommended.

Tailgating

One more chance to fire up the grill and stuff yourself on dips before the meat is actually ready. If you plan to tailgate, make sure and check out the Belk Bowl’s page on policies here http://belkbowl.com/fan_guide/travel_to_the_game/tailgating/

Bowl game rubber match

After the 1963 Liberty Bowl (an MSU victory) and 1995 Peach Bowl (an NCSU victory), Mississippi State and North Carolina State are 1-1 against each other in the postseason. Winner takes the lead. Currently, the Wolfpack lead the all-time series 3-2, so MSU can tie things up before the two schools have a pair of regular-season games in 2020-21.

Uptown convenience

The team is staying at Hilton City Center in Uptown, if there are rooms available and you’d like to reserve them, though staying at any of the area hotels is convenient. There are over 200 restaurants within walking distance of the hotel, and Bank of America Stadium is walking distance, as well, so pack your best holiday sweater for the short jaunts around town.

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