Bulldog Bites: Cappe’s Steakhouse, Signing Day, strikeout records and more

Pick one: chicken and dressing, country fried steak, or pot roast.

Now pick two: broccoli and rice casserole, purple hull peas, cabbage, sweet potato casserole, turnip greens, or green beans.

Blue plates are a nightmare of single-serving proportions for the indecisive, while serving as growl-inducing daydreams for those whose bellies have pushed breakfast into the realm of forgotten memories.

1379582_180928072094434_1294264511_nIt was, somehow, my first lunch-time trip to Cappe’s Steakhouse. I’d been plenty for steak dinners. It’s one of my dad’s favorite places to celebrate life’s victories. But I had never made it for the blue plate I’d heard so much about.

Side note: why is it called a blue plate? Meat and three and I understand. Not subtle, but accurate. But why blue plate? It’s not as if the color of the plate affects the food.

Anyway, finally, I went, and I sat down, and I looked at the menu, and my mind started to melt with the Thursday options. If I had to guess, they make a mean country fried steak. But I was also eyeing the sweet potato casserole, and that seems like it would go better with chicken and dressing. The broccoli and rice casserole sounds good, too, but that’s a really casserole-y meal and this isn’t Thanksgiving.

“Are you ready to order or do you need a minute?”

“I definitely need a minute. Maybe two.”

We’re sitting here so close to National Signing Day and I can kind of relate to the teenagers who have to decide where they’re going to college to play football. I mean, it seems easy to those who support a specific school, but that’s a huge, life-changing decision. Not totally dissimilar from picking vegetables for a blue plate.

It’s true, though. I’d have been happy with any of those sides (I went with green beans and sweet potato casserole and was quite pleased), just like college football’s future stars would be happy at any number of schools.

But it’s a decision that has a great deal of impact on the rest of your life (college, not cabbage). Our choices decide how the future plays out. Life is a journey through wilderness, not a maze to be solved. When we pick a direction, we don’t often get to retrace our steps and start over. Especially not in the tight window allowed for college athletes to figure out their futures.

What will you get your degree in? What position will you play? Will you make it to the NFL? Who will your friends be? Who will you marry? What will your kids be like?

Truthfully, in some moments, it’s easy to wonder, will anyone remember you were there?

When your life and legacy are hidden in the fog of the future, it’s easier to think solely about the present, focus on the now. But decisions have to be made. And while my green beans aren’t yelling at me to eat them or tweeting at me angrily when I pick the peas, the young men making those all-important decisions are being pulled in every direction by many who claim to care about them, and some who really do.

In making those decisions, it seems the wisest course is to decide what’s important to you.

What you hear most often, the advice most regularly given, is the same thing I like so much about Cappe’s at lunch: go somewhere that feels like home. Wooden walls surround wooden tables covered in checkered plastic tablecloths that you’re led to by people who refer to your group as y’all and bring you plates full of starches, carbs and surprisingly flavorful bowls of veggies. That blue plate is grandma’s house at Sunday lunch. It’s warmth is more than a temperature.

So, the question becomes, what feels right? Home is something different to everyone. Each person is as unique as any option on the menu. I can’t tell anyone where to go to school or what side dish to choose (though I do recommend the sweet potato casserole). The best advice I can give to the young men making decisions like this is to go with what feels right to you, what you like and what you’re looking for.

My favorite professor once said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

After making my final decisions and placing my order, our server asked if I wanted a cornbread or a roll. Turns out, not all choices are hard.

“Cornbread, please.”

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Sports Stuff

AZZIRMAJUMYDNNY.20150206025559BASEBALL: Of note this weekend is the inaugural Fan Day John Cohen’s club is hosting. It runs 10:30 a.m. to noon in the Palmeiro Center and will be followed immediately by the Maroon-White scrimmage. A week out from the season-opener, MSU is aiming to make the intra-squad scrimmage as much like a real game as possible for fans, players and coaches. Call it a dress rehearsal.

Oh, I almost forgot. The second annual Baseball Cowbell Yell is on Tuesday night at 6:30. Myself and Bart Gregory are hosting, but don’t let that stop you from coming. The captains of the team will speak and we’ve got several other things planned for the event. The first 2,000 students get free T-shirts, too.

FOOTBALL: Hey, did you hear Signing Day was Wednesday? Yeah, you probably did. Anyway, MSU signed 22 new players and it’s easily the best class of Dan Mullen’s time at MSU, at least according to rankings (which he advises against trusting just yet). There are a good dozen links I could share, but this is a good starting point and has a link to more coverage of MSU’s big day. Included here is video of Mullen’s press conference, bios of the signees, a breakdown of the class and a few other tidbits: http://www.hailstate.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=16800&ATCLID=209866189

MEN’S BASKETBALL: This weekend, Rick Ray’s team is on the road at Arkansas (on SEC Network tomorrow afternoon) and is coming off an impressive stretch the last couple weeks. MSU is 4-2 the last six games, which includes two road conference wins after going nearly two years without any. Most recently, State went on the road Tuesday and beat Tennessee, an impressive performance. Several in the SEC have called MSU the most improved team in the conference and it’s showing, especially now that I.J. Ready and Craig Sword are [mostly] healthy. They’ll be back in Starkville on Tuesday night against Alabama.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Speaking of good basketball teams… Vic Schaefer’s team is holding steady in the Top 20 and is now 22-3 on the season. The Women’s NCAA Tournament begins at host sites this year, and while MSU likely wouldn’t be a host if the season ended now, a strong finish could potentially get the Bulldogs in position to host in the NCAA Tourney just one year removed from hosting in the WNIT.

They play next on Sunday in The Hump at 2 p.m. on SEC Network, hosting Schaefer’s old school: Texas A&M.

WOMEN’S GOLF: Ginger Brown-Lemm’s team was featured on the Golf Channel’s website this week, which is kind of a big deal. Check out the link here (http://www.golfchannel.com/media/college-central-top-ncaa-womens-storylines/ ) and watch the video as MSU is considered one of the top storylines in college golf this year. As they should be. If you’ve ever wondered which MSU team would be the first to win a National Championship, the women’s golf team might be a good bet. As many strong teams as MSU has playing in the spring, this one might be the best.

SOFTBALL: The ball is soft, the team is not. MSU opened its season last night, run-ruling Mississippi Valley for the 8-0 victory. More impressive than anything was the performance of sophomore pitcher Alexis Silkwood. She faced 19 batters and struck out 15 of them, a career high in Ks for her, while she only allowed one hit. Alison Owen smashed a lot of records the last two years, but they may not last longer than the time Silkwood has left on campus.

TRACK AND FIELD: I have a feeling I’ll be repeating this a lot from week-to-week, but Steve Dudley’s teams continue to dominate. The women’s squad won the New Balance Invitational over the weekend, which is a really big deal. It’s a prestigious competition and they owned it. Noteworthy for the women: Ste’yce McNeil won the 60-meter hurdles at the invitational in 8.25 seconds, the third-fastest time in school history.

The men’s team finished fourth, which would be a headline in itself had the women not done so well and stole their thunder. MSU hosts the SEC Championships later this spring and it seems like it’ll be an event worth putting on your calendar.

TENNIS: If you haven’t picked up on the theme, MSU’s spring sports are pretty good. For the 57th-straight week of poll releases, the men’s tennis team is in the Top 30, checking in at No. 28. Considering the rankings go all the way to 75, that’s quite an accomplishment. Currently at 5-2, the men host Samford at noon and New Orleans at 5 p.m. on Saturday in doubleheader action.

The women’s team moved to 4-1 last weekend with a win over UAB, making head coach Daryl Greenan already the third-winningest coach in school history. The ladies are off this weekend and head to Rock Hill, S.C., for two matches next weekend, but they’ll be back in Starkville on Feb. 19th against Samford.

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Signing Day live thread: Scouting reports on MSU football’s signees

JXZWKBVAGWGMZWV.20150127213629As part of the National Signing Day festivities, we’ll be sharing scouting reports on each of Mississippi State’s football signees from the coaches who recruited them and will work with them on campus. We’ll start ahead of time with the signees who enrolled in school early in January, counting toward the 2014 class, and this page will be updated all morning on Signing Day as signatures and faxes roll in for the 2015 class. The most recent signees will be listed at the top, so scroll down to find anyone you may have missed.

Make sure to visit HailState.com for full bios and statistics on each signee.

Leo Lewis – LB, 6-2, 231 pounds. Brookhaven, Miss. (Brookhaven High School)

Manny Diaz says: “Just an instinctive linebacker. Great feel for the game. Great athleticism, explosive, carries a big pop. He can go sideline-to-sideline.”

Tony Hughes says: “One of the premier linebackers in America. By some, the No. 1-rated linebacker in the country. Runs well, physical player in the box. Seems to have a great upside and would be someone that has the possibility of playing and contributing early.”

TD Moton – DL, 6-3, 310 pounds. Shreveport, La. (Woodlawn High School)

David Turner says: “I saw him the spring going into his junior year. Big, athletic guy. He’s kind of a freak for a guy his size. He committed to us as a junior, then flipped, then ended up coming back, so we’re glad to have him. You can’t ever have too many of those big athletic guys inside. He’s raw in terms of football and he’s a young man that really when it came down to it, went with his heart. He wanted to be at Mississippi State. Enjoyed his experience here when he was a junior at one of our ball games. Looking forward to having a chance to get him in and develop him. Big, athletic guy that can do some things inside for us.”

John Hevesy says: “Good kid. Athletic defensive lineman. An inside guy that’s very athletic, great use of hands, can run.”

Jamal Peters – DB, 6-2, 216 pounds. Bassfield, Miss. (Bassfield High School)

Tony Hughes says: “A highly-recruited athlete. No. 1 player in the state of Mississippi. He has excellent speed, excellent size and is projected as one of the top safeties in the country. A dual athlete that plays on offense, he can run the ball, he can catch the ball. He’s played safety, outside linebacker, corner. Very, very excited to get him in the program. Feel like one day he’ll be a difference-maker.”

Traver Jung – LB, 6-4, 215 pounds. Greeneville, Miss. (Holmes Community College)

Manny Diaz says: “Big-time athlete. Great length, great range, adds a lot of versatility into your defense. Can really do a lot of the same things that Matt Wells was able to do in the defense. A guy that will be looked at to help us out early on.”

Darryl Williams – OL, 6-3, 304 pounds. Bessemer, Al. (Bessemer City High School)

John Hevesy says: “Center who played in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game. I think he’s the third-ranked center in the country. He fills a need at the center position for me and can hopefully come in and contribute early.”

Keith Joseph – DL/LB, 6-4, 226 pounds. Pascagoula, Miss. (Pascagoula High School)

Brian Johnson says: “He’s a second-generation Bulldog, his dad played for the Dawgs. A very, very good defensive end. I think his biggest attribute is his motor. He plays with relentless effort and has a great passion for the game. He can get to the quarterback and make plays using his speed off the edge. Looking forward to him being a great addition to the program.”

Dontea Jones – WR, 6-4, 235 pounds. Louisville, Miss. (Louisville High School)

Scott Sallach says: “Big, athletic guy growing into the position. He’s gonna be our type of guy who can do a lot of different things. Just a big body, gonna keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Great kid.”

Justin Johnson – WR, 6-4, 224 pounds. Birmingham, Al. (Hoover High School)

Billy Gonzales says: “JJ is a big, big athletic kid. Another kid that came to Big Dawg Camp, impressive for a big man. I don’t want to make comparisons, but he’s in the mold of De’Runnya Wilson as far as being a guy that can come in out of breaks for that big guy with athletic ability. A guy that has attributes, is strong to the ball. Comes from a program where they didn’t throw a lot, but that’s OK. He knows how to win. He’s a veteran as far as winning, three championships.”

Nick Gibson – RB, 5-11, 197 pounds. Birmingham, Al. (Pinson Valley High School)

Greg Knox says: “Very versatile. Very similar to the mold of Malik Dear. Hard-nosed runner. Tough, very physical. Great change of direction, great pad level. A good open-field runner, good out in space.”

Chris Stamps – CB, 6-1, 170 pounds. Vicksburg, Miss. (Warren Central High School)

Deshea Townsend says: “Long corner. Reminds me of Taveze Calhoun. Played on the offensive side of the ball, really good receiver. Attacks the ball well in the air. Good size.”

Greg Knox says: “He’s a great cover guy. Tenacious, hard-working kid. Really reminds you a lot of Taveze Calhoun. Tough kid. Going to work hard and give you everything he’s got every time he lines up on that field. Tremendous worker.

Anfernee Mullins – DL, 6-4, 245 pounds. Aliceville, Al. (Aliceville High School)

David Turner says: “Anfernee is a long, athletic guy. Came to camp and did a great job. Had a chance to watch him play basketball and I love watching D-linemen who play basketball. He’s a really good athlete, quick-twitch, he’s long, athletic, explosive.”

“He’s from Alabama, but he’s a typical kind of Mississippi kid. Small town, he’s got a chance to really develop. Right now he doesn’t have a clue. Small school doesn’t have a lot of resources, but they did a really good job over there with what they had. I think he’s going to have a really good chance to develop and be a really, really good player. Excited to have him.”

Farrod Green – TE, 6-3, 215 pounds. Wesson, Miss. (Wesson Attendance Center)

Scott Sallach says: “Kind of in that Gus Walley type of mold. Big widoeut who’s going to grow and get bigger. People will be surprised by him as he gets in the program and develops. Played basketball and has only played football for a couple years.”

Keith Mixon – WR, 5-8, 175 pounds. Birmingham, Al. (Shades Valley School)

Billy Gonzales says: “Mixon is explosive, that’s the first thing you think about with him. He worked with [running backs coach] Greg Knox at camp, then he came to me and I had a chance to see him in one-on-one drills. Explosive. I don’t think anybody could really hold him when he wants to run. Very explosive athlete. Can put his foot in the ground and has great top-end speed.”

Mark McLaurin – DB, 6-2, 210 pounds. Collins, Miss. (Collins High School)

Tony Hughes says: “He may be the sleeper of the class. Plays every position for his high school. He’s definitely a winner. He led to his team to the state championship. He can play safety, he can play corner, he can play outside linebacker. On offense, he’s played quarterback, receiver, running back, kick returner and is also an upstanding young man in the school and community. He’s somebody that we’re really, really excited to get in the program.”

Fletcher Adams – DL, 6-2, 260 pounds. Brandon, Miss. (Brandon High School)

Fletcher is kind of the wild-card in this that’s everybody has known about him, obviously having his brother Nelson here. Not as tall as Nelson, probably a little bit more athletic. He’s got a motor, he goes hard, competes. That’s the thing that sticks out with him. He just competes and goes hard. He loves to play the game of football. He loves slamming into people. Comes out of a great program and has been well-coached. I can’t wait to get him in here and see what he can do. Really excited, really fortunate to get him.”

“He had a lot of people recruiting him. I think the idea of playing with his brother really appealed to him and I think his parents are comfortable with us and what we’ve done with his brother. They know he’s going to be in good hands and going to be well-coached and come out of this with his degree. Can’t wait to get him in here and get started and see where he’s gonna fit in. He could start out at end, could go inside. We’ll wait and see whatever’s going to be the most comfortable. He might have a chance to help us quick.”

Maurice Smitherman – CB, 5-9, 178 pounds. Adamsville, Al. (Minor High School)

Deshea Townsend says: “Maurice is a speedy guy, really good ball skills. Great work ethic, great kid.”

Jonnas Spivey – WR, 6-1, 181 pounds. Bay Springs, Miss. (Bay Springs High School)

Billy Gonzales says: “He’s kind of a long, rangy athlete. He came here for camp this summer and did a fantastic job. He’s a really, really strong competitor, but has natural ability. Kind of deceptive speed, kind of deceptive in his moves, but a really smooth, fluid athlete that again is a really strong competitor.”

Kendell Jones – DL, 6-4, 255 pounds. Pinson, Al. (Clay-Chalkville High School)

David Turner says: “Long, athletic guy. Came to camp a bunch of times and I told him early in the process, I think we were the first ones to offer him, I said, ‘Man, you’re going to have everybody coming at you.’ And here’s a kid that committed in June. Really excited about him. A long athletic guy from a great program that won the state championship and he was a vital part of that.”

“Really good family, strong family because he had a lot of people coming in. But this was where his heart was. He stuck with Mississippi State and we’re really glad and excited to have him as part of the family. I think he’s another one that’s gonna develop and have a chance to be a really good player. Played end, probably going to be an inside guy, but we’re not sure yet. We’ll see based on his body and how much weight he gains.”

Tim Washington –LB, 6-3, 183 pounds. Yazoo City, Miss. (Yazoo City High School)

Manny Diaz says: “Tim has great upside, great length, a frame to get a lot bigger. He has natural play-making ability, good feel on rushing the quarterback. Guy can help you out in a lot of different ways.”

Greg Knox says: “Tim is a rangy-type linebacker. Good size, good ability, has a good frame to put weight on. In the mold of a Benardrick Mckinney type guy to come in under-sized but grow into the size you want him to be.”

Alec Murphy – RB, 6-1, 225 pounds. Nixa, Mo. (Nixa High School)

Greg Knox says: “He’s a bigger-style power back. More of a downhill runner. Very explosive, very strong, very physical, hard downhill runner.”

Nick Tiano – QB, 6-5, 230 pounds. Chattanooga, TN. (Baylor School)

Brian Johnson says: “A really big, strong arm. Talented guy. Obviously the leader of his team, had a great senior year. Can make all the throws and he’s a really physical runner between the tackles. We’re excited to get him on board and look forward to him having a great career here.”

Harrison Moon – OL, 6-4, 276 pounds. Chattanooga, TN, (Signal Mountain High School)

John Hevesy says: “A tackle who fills a need with the graduation of a couple of them. Tall, angular kid. Athletic, great athletic ability, arm length, all the things we want. Fills that tackle position and as he gets bigger could play inside.

Malik Dear – RB/WR, 5-9, 226 pounds. Jackson, Miss. (Murrah High School)

Billy Gonzales says: “He’ll be back and forth with me and [running backs] Coach Knox. He’s a kid that came to camp and I had a chance to evaluate in person. When you look at him, you see how thick he is, but how smooth he is. He was one of the faster guys I ever timed here at camp. Unbelievably soft hands, can accelerate, top-end speed, with quickness where he’s able to plant and get north and south without losing speed. Those are all the attributes that you’re looking at with him.”

Greg Knox says: “A very dynamic player. Good speed, good agility. Very explosive out in the open field, can make plays. Good hands, good route-runner. Kind of an all-around athlete.”

Donald Gray – WR, 5-9, 185 pounds. Memphis, Tenn. (Copiah-Lincoln Community College)

Billy Gonzales says: “Donald is another explosive athlete. If you talk to some of the players already on campus, our strength coach, he’s explosive and has a great work ethic. He has a desire to be great. He made some big plays and had some big games in his junior college career and we’re excited about him.”

Johnathan Calvin – DL, 6-4, 250 pounds. Jackson, Miss. (Copiah-Lincoln Community College)

David Turner says: “He’s jumped in and got himself acclimated. Guys have been telling me he does a great job with drills. Every year, if you look at what we’ve done here, we’ve kind of had to take a junior college guy to fill a need, and he’s the next one in the bunch.“

“He’s a blue-collar guy, just a hard worker. I had a chance to see him as a high school player and kept up with him as he’s gotten bigger and stronger. Coaches rave about him at Co-Lin. Really glad to have him. He’s another young man that really had a lot of people recruiting him and he chose Mississippi State. He’s a Mississippi kid, got a lot of people here that he knows. I think we’ll be able to plug him right in. If you look at the need right now with Preston Smith leaving, there’s a void right there. There’s going to be a bunch of guys competing for that position and I expect him to be one of them.”

Deddrick Thomas – WR, 5-9, 170 pounds. Memphis, Tenn. (Memphis Central High School)

Billy Gonzales says: “Deddrick is a start-and-stop guy. He came to Big Dawg Camp and showed up, was really impressive. He’s got slot attributes, but he’s got receiver abilities to be an outside receiver, too. Extremely excited about him.”

Martinas Rankin – OL, 6-5, 300 pounds. Mendenhall, Miss. (Miss. Gulf Coast Community College)

John Hevesy says: “The top-rated JUCO offensive tackle in the country. Great kid, great family. He fills a spot we need at tackle. He can come in and contribute and play. He’s athletic. Size-wise, everything I’m looking for.”

Michael Story – OL, 6-4, 290 pounds. Ripley, Miss. (Ripley High School)

John Hevesy says: “Athletic kid. Graduated high school early. Had him at camp and you saw the athletic ability. Really, he’s got the ability to play all three positions – tackle, guard or center. We’ll see as his future goes on what he brings to the table. He’s very athletic, very strong, very intelligent kid. Played the North-South All-Star game in Mississippi and coaches had great things to say about his work ethic. He has everything we look for in a lineman.”

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Adventures with MSU baseball, delivering season tickets in Starkville

We’re standing in a sitting room next to a spacious open kitchen, surrounded by pictures of hunting dogs and statues of rabbits, talking to three women as they offer us food, show us pictures and tell us stories mostly about their husbands who are off hunting at the moment.

“My grandson is going to be so upset he missed y’all,” the owner of the house tells us.

She’s taking a picture of four MSU baseball players. Not with them, but of them. Standing in her house. Still in her robe (it’s only 8:30 a.m.), she doesn’t want to be seen on camera. But she needs proof that she’d met the boys, that these four SEC ball players really were in her home.

“Do y’all hunt?” she asked. “It’s the last day of the season.”

Wes Rea immediately stepped forward. “Yes, ma’am.

“I have to show you pictures of the buck my grandson got.”

And she showed us. It was big. Very much deserving of the praise from a proud grandmother.

“It looks surprised,” Jacob Robson said, in reference to the deer, not the grandson.

Wes scrolled through pictures on her phone (the rest of us looking over his shoulders) while she went to get the iPad for her more extensive collection.

She’d never met us, these strangers who knocked on the door of her beautiful country home on Saturday morning. But she invited us in immediately, and probably would’ve made us a full breakfast if we’d said we were hungry.

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unnamedThere’s something welcoming about homes around Starkville, and most homes in Mississippi towns, really. Southern hospitality is certainly part of it, but it’s a little more subtle than that. The fact that you know the door is probably unlocked, though of course you knock out of courtesy. The fact that when a truck full of strangers pulls up in someone’s driveway they look for their robe or their glasses, not a phone to call the police.

“Oh, y’all don’t take any pictures of me like this,” was one lady’s first response after opening the door.

Mississippi State’s baseball team was driving around town in groups delivering tickets to the locals who bought season tickets for the 2015 season. It’s a tradition head coach John Cohen values and has his team perform every year.

“This is a small investment of your time that pays huge dividends for us, for our program and for the university,” Cohen told the team in the locker room before they left for deliveries. “You’re giving a special experience to these people.”

Cohen made the point that if one were to draw a circle around Starkville with a 50-mile radius, 150,000 people live inside it. That number is over one million at some other schools, yet it’s MSU with all the attendance records and a new stadium on the way.

“It’s amazing how these people come out here and fill this stadium,” he continued. “It’s a family thing.”

It’s a unique experience for the people getting the tickets, and it’s an adventure for the ones delivering them. I rode with Wes Rea, Gavin Collins, John Holland and Jacob Robson on Saturday morning as they worked a portion of the South Montgomery route, Rea behind the wheel of his truck.

Our first house was actually one I knew and had spent half my afternoons after school growing up playing various games in, but unfortunately they weren’t home.

“There’s lights on,” Rea observed. “Just go in there, Bob. See if someone is home.”

At the risk of terrifying Mrs. Angie, I decided to let it go.

“We could just hoop in the driveway until they get home,” Rea suggested.

House No. 2 was a similar story.

“I delivered to these guys last year,” Robson said. “They had two wiener dogs that ran out from the garage as soon as we knocked.”

No wiener dogs today, no one at home.

At house three, we had our first winner.

“Well hello, Mr. first baseman.”

Mr. Stewart was excited to meet the guys (Wes in particular), though he needed to get a cap to wear before he took a picture. He told us he’s a fairweather fan when we asked if he’d be there for first pitch on February 13th. Not that he only goes when the team is good, though. He’s more concerned about the actual weather.

“I’ll go to every game, as long as it’s above 40 degrees.”

I’d argue that 40 is far from fair, but I don’t want to talk him out of using the tickets he now had in his hand.

At stop No. 4, the lady of the house answered the door, another robed host welcoming her guests.

“Really, you wouldn’t believe me, but I’m typically up much earlier than this,” she said.

No excuses needed for a bunch of college dudes in their sweats.

“I think my husband is out in the yard working with the kids,” she told us. “Y’all go out back and see them.”

There’s that easiness to Starkville, inviting strangers to come out back like we were friends from down the street.

One more house, this one another empty home. Or asleep, perhaps, but not answering the door either way.

By this point, we’d worked ourselves a fair way down South Montgomery, well past the city limits to places where the plots of land were as big as some blocks in town.

Here we found our final stop, three women enjoying Saturday morning with coffee and a quiet house, the rest of the inhabitants out hunting.

“Y’all come inside. It’s cold out there.”

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5-for-5: Getting to know MSU women’s basketball

So, you may have heard this, but Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team is pretty good. As a way to help the interested MSU fans who would like to hop on the bandwagon but don’t know much about the team, we’ve put together five lists of five things to help you get to know one of the best teams in the country.

ZVTFZFLGIAVZXQW.20121130195724Five Quick Facts

  1. MSU is 22-2, the best start to a season in school history.
  2. Of those two losses, MSU avenged one of them last night by beating Vanderbilt.
  3. MSU has an interesting mix of youth and experience, featuring five freshmen, four sophomores, one junior and four seniors.
  4. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in turnover margin (+8.0) and are second in scoring (77.4 points per game), blocks (4.91 per game) and three-pointers made (133). They are holding opponents to 54.3 points per game.
  5. State is currently ranked 18th in both Top 25 polls, but had reached as high as 14th during the undefeated start to the season.

Five Names to Know

  1. Vic Schaefer – MSU’s third-year head coach had to be pried away from his longtime job as an assistant at Texas A&M, but Scott Stricklin was able to get him after the Aggies won a National Championship. He builds his team around defense and is renowned as a recruiter, as evidenced by his current roster.
  2. Martha Alwal – the senior forward is MSU’s all-time leading shot blocker (a title she earned long ago) and has been in and out of the lineup this season due to injuries and other happenings, having appeared in 18 games but only started in three. When healthy, she’s an All-SEC forward able to block, rebound, score and run the floor.
  3. Morgan William – Victoria Vivians (more below) got all the hype coming out of high school, but the freshman William might be the most exciting player to watch. As Schaefer said, “If there’s anybody quicker than Morgan William, I’d like to see them.” Coming off the bench, William (a point guard) is actually MSU’s second-leading scorer with 9.4 points per game and leads the team with 3.7 assists per game. She might be most famous now for her game-winning shot against Ole Miss in Oxford last week.
  4. Dominique Dillingham – the sophomore guard from Texas was impressive as a freshman last year, and this year she’s blown up. Pound-for pound, she likely has more impact on the game than anyone for MSU, doing a little bit of everything. She’s top three on the team in rebounds, steals, blocks, minutes played and assists, and she’s one of only three players to start all 24 games.
  5. Victoria Vivians – you’ve likely heard of the freshman phenom who leads all SEC freshmen in scoring. She’s already got her own display in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame for her incredible high school career. Like Dillingham, she’s a guard at or near the top of just about every statistical category MSU has. It would be an upset if she doesn’t finish her career with a handful of records.

EYTDZHIEXLOZSLW.20141208211435Five Personality Traits

  1. Vic Schaefer ends every interview by saying “Praise the Lord and go Dawgs.” That’s how you know A) when he’s done talking to you and B) where his passions lie.
  2. The team has a lot of fun. That’s a cliché, but a very true one. They dance, they sing, they joke and they generally act like [lovable] goofballs whenever they get the chance. They even got Amy Tuck to rap the first verse of Rapper’s Delight a couple weeks ago.
  3. As loose as they are, they have the ability to flip the switch almost immediately when practice or a game starts.
  4. With all of the coaches combined, there are six National Championship rings sitting on the bench of every game. It’s a staff of people who have put in a lot of time.
  5. They’re all very attached to their fans. Meet and greets, luncheons, autograph and picture sessions – the coaches and players interact with fans every chance they get and know many of them by name.

Five Statistical Leaders

  1. Minutes per game: Dominique Dillingham, 28.6
  2. Points per game: Victoria Vivians, 14.5
  3. Blocks: Martha Alwal, 48
  4. Rebounds: Breanna Richardson, 142
  5. Steals: Dominique Dillingham, 50
Victoria Vivians

Victoria Vivians

Five Ways to Be Involved

  1. MSU has remaining home games on February 8th (Texas A&M), February 15th (Florida) and March 1st (Ole Miss).
  2. Before games, MSU hosts Bully’s Kidz Court in the Mize practice pavilion.
  3. After games, the team sets up for autographs and pictures on the court.
  4. The program hosts luncheons for fans and the team, with two more scheduled for February 5th and 24th at 11:30 a.m. and the cost is 12 dollars, getting you a full meal, drink as Schaefer and some players speak.
  5. Their booster club is called Courtside Fanatics which has a heavy involvement with the team.
  6. Tell your friends, loved ones and strangers in line at Taco Bell about Mississippi State basketball.

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Bulldog Bites: Sport meets food, and highlights from around MSU athletics

I’m not exactly sure what the connection is between sports and food, but it’s definitely there. Perhaps it’s that both are physical indulgences with varying degrees of punishment and pleasure. Maybe the excitement of sports just makes us hungry.

courtesy USA TodayWhatever drives it, the element of fellowship can’t be left out, the opportunity to gather with people of like mind and interest. As divided as cities, states and countries are these days, eating and watching sports are two universally agreed upon things. Left wing, right wing – doesn’t matter, ‘long as you got chicken wings. It’s part of why sports were so big a part of integration. It’s part of why food is often the gateway to new cultures and people around the country and world.

People can’t resist gathering together for the things they love and enjoy, even if they’d have never spoken to those around them under any other usual happenstance. Live music and church services draw crowds for much of the same reason. Jesus himself expressed the value in fellowship, and at least a few of his stories involve having something to eat.

We do a lot of things on our own now, independence being a quality with more and more necessity in the modern world. But sports and eating are inherently social activities. Whether it’s watching a game or eating a steak, few experiences are as good alone as they are when shared with others.

When you can combine the two? Heaven. Or, at least, Heaven on Earth. You can’t think of football without thinking of tailgating before the game. I can’t think of Mississippi State baseball without seeing smoke come off the grills in the Left Field Lounge. Football gets the glory, but the Super Bowl isn’t just the biggest day of the year for sports – it’s America’s biggest day for food.

Sport and food go together like peanut butter and jelly, or ball and glove, whichever analogy you prefer. And that’s the idea here in this column. It’s hard to keep track in the spring months when so many sports are going on, and it’s hard for me to do justice to so many of the good eats and good people in Starkville.

So, why not combine the two? Every week, I’ll post a column with a short little something about food and people around town, in addition to a rundown of every sport in action at MSU and the news of the week for that team. If you’re only interested in the culinary side, feel free to ignore the sports. If all you want is information on your favorite teams, have no guilt in skipping past the food. Based on experience, however, I get the feeling at least a few people have interest in both.

If we presume sport to fall under the category of “Cheer,” it seems that the great author J.R.R. Tolkien offered wise words to the means of our happiness.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Eat well, and cheer hard.

—————————————

Baseball: A few basebally-y nuggets of info as they’ve begun preseason scrimmages, now two weeks away from the season opener: John Cohen has a ton of two things – pitchers and outfielders. Sophomore Reid Humphreys has made the switch to outfield and has had one of the hottest bats on the team. Second only, perhaps, to newcomer Michael Smith, another speedy outfielder who has been on an absolute tear at the plate. As this rate, it’ll be hard to keep either out of the lineup.

On the mound, several arms have been impressive, but the most noteworthy may be Trevor Fitts. The senior has moved into a relief/closing role after spending the last couple years as a starter, and it seems to be a good fit. He looked impressive in one inning of work on Tuesday.

Jack-White-and-John-CohenSpeaking of Tuesday, as you likely saw, Jack White showed up at MSU’s baseball scrimmage a couple hours before his concert began at The Hump. White has been an outspoken baseball fan over the years, and several members of MSU’s team are fans of White, as well, even if not all of them were familiar with his work.

After presenting White with a game-worn MSU jersey, head coach John Cohen walked back to the dugout to see the pictures. He wanted to tweet one as soon as he could (“Got to get my followers up. I’m all about the retweets.”)

He then conceded, “I’m going to get so much street cred with my daughters and I don’t even know who he is.”

Men’s Basketball: Rick Ray’s team lost an entertaining game last night, Ole Miss winning 79-73. It was a streaky game for both teams, but the most impressive individual player on the court had to have been MSU’s Craig Sword. The junior guard, who has been recovering from back surgery, went off for 27 points in 32 minutes, shooting an impressive 10-of-13 from the field. Ray said Sword was actually almost a medical scratch at game time, making the performance even more impressive.

Next up, MSU hosts LSU on Saturday at 1 p.m. in a White-Out game where the first 500 people get free T-shirts.

Women’s Basketball: They’re dominatin’. Vic Schaefer’s team beat Auburn on Monday to move up to 21-2 on the season, now ranked No. 18. They host Vanderbilt tonight for a White-Out game. The first 500 students get free T-shirts, I hear. I’ll have more extensive goings-on about them tomorrow morning.

Track and Field: If you’re not keeping track (get it?), I’d recommend doing so. Steve Dudley’s teams have had a handful of National Champions the last few years, and this spring’s squads are as good as any he’s had. More here (http://www.hailstate.com/SportSelect.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=16800&SPID=11004&SPSID=90942&DB_OEM_ID=16800 ) but the 18th-ranked women’s team has already broken multiple records and the season has hardly begun. MSU is in New York this weekend for the quite-prestigious New Balance Invitational.

Men’s Tennis: At 3-1, MSU is 23rd in the country currently, just a hair into their first season with new head coach Matt Roberts. This weekend, the Bulldogs host three matches – a doubleheader on Friday against Rice (1 p.m.) and Jackson State (6 p.m.) and a Sunday match against No. 48 Texas Tech at 11 a.m.

Women’s Tennis: MSU’s women’s squad is doing well, too, sitting at 3-1 as they head into a light weekend back at home, hosting UAB on Saturday at 11 a.m.

Of note, head coach Daryl Greenan will get his first chance to see one of his best players in action. Jasmine Lee, a sophomore newcomer from Taiwan, is considered one of the top players on the team and makes her debut Saturday. She’s got the talent to be a star in the SEC.

Softball: By this time next week (roughly) Vann Stuedeman will have begun her fourth season at MSU. Time flies when you’re making NCAA Tournaments, it seems. The Bulldogs host Mississippi Valley State as Stuedeman puts her undefeated record against Mississippi schools on the line. They’re doing their final tune-ups and finishing preseason practices now.

Football: There’s a big game in the NFL this weekend called the Super Bowl and MSU has three representatives. KJ Wright has emerged as a defensive star for the Seahawks (recently signing a big new contract with Seattle) and fellow MSU linebackers Chris White and Deontae Skinner are both playing with the New England Patriots. Neat that all three were on the same team in 2010 when White won the Conerly Trophy as the best collegiate football player in the state of Mississippi.

Also of note, invites to the NFL Combine are slowly trickling out, so those are worth keeping track of. Preston Smith and Josh Robinson are both reportedly attending, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a couple more receive invites, too, especially Benardrick McKinney.

Finally, MSU announced their plans for football signing day activities, including a two-hour live show online in the morning and a two-hour party at DawgHouse Sports Grill in Starkville that night. Full details here: http://www.hailstate.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=16800&ATCLID=209866996

Oh, and Dan Mullen apparently spent most of yesterday hanging out with potential future Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Mullen is a big political junkie, so I imagine he got a kick out of that.

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An SEC family: The story of MSU’s Julia Echols and UGA’s Taylor Echols

Saturday afternoon, a group from Mississippi State’s softball team went to a home men’s basketball game, dressed up, held signs and cheered for … a senior guard on the Georgia squad.

unnamedThey painted the signs in maroon to avoid controversy, says senior outfielder Julia Echols, but it was her brother Taylor they were there to see.

10 years ago at their home in Georgia, Julia and Taylor Echols were in middle school and played basketball before dinner every night when the weather allowed. A little under a year older than Taylor, Julia was able to win games for the majority of their childhood, but eventually little brother caught up.

“I was bigger than him until about fifth grade, so I would own him all the time,” Julia said. “But then he got taller than me. We’d always play right before dinner and my mom said I’d run inside and complain that he was cheating, when really I couldn’t get a shot over him because he grew like five inches in one year. After fifth grade it was over.”

The two kept playing basketball as they grew older, but it was a bit more serious for Taylor, while Julia was excelling in softball. That didn’t stop them from cheering each other on in high school basketball, of course, when their respective boys and girls teams would play back-to-back and each would watch the other play.

Julia, the first to graduate, initially enrolled at nearby Georgia, having earned her way onto the UGA softball team.

The next year, Taylor followed big sister to Athens, but when he tried to play basketball, he found out the roster was full. They didn’t have space for any more walk-ons.

CXXCGQCGQAPPHXI.20140224225639It was the following year when things changed for both. Julia transferred to Mississippi State, joining first-year head coach Vann Studeman’s softball team. Taylor got the call and found out the UGA basketball team had space for another walk-on. Seven tried out, and Taylor made the cut as a sophomore.

Now, they’re both seniors, both Bulldogs and both happy to be where they are, even if they don’t get to see each other as much.

“We text every other day,” Julia says. “We Snapchat a lot. I’ve been calling him a lot lately congratulating him because he’s gotten a lot more playing time recently. I’ll text him and joke with him about how he’s a big shot now because he walked on a few years ago and now he’s playing a lot.”

Said Taylor in the visiting locker room at Humphrey Coliseum, “I miss her a lot during the year when I can’t see her as much, but I know she loves it here. She loves the girls and the coaches and everything, so I’m happy for her.”

It’s worked out for Julia and Taylor, but what of their parents, Lee and Kim, who are trying to support two SEC kids and athletes at the same time? After all, it’s thanks to them that their children have such athleticism. Both were impressive athletes in their time, and dad even played a couple years of college ball.

“Everyone’s always joking with us about being the dream team family,” Julia admitted.

But it’s hard to keep track. Between basketball and softball, that’s close to 100 total games a year between their two kids, most of which are going on at the same time.

unnamed-1Sometimes, the schedules have come close to working out. In 2012, for instance, Taylor and UGA played a game in Oxford on Saturday, while Julia and MSU had a home series in Starkville, allowing the proud parents to go back and forth across Mississippi over the weekend.

They nearly had the perfect set up last year when UGA played MSU in basketball in Starkville. Unfortunately, Julia’s softball Bulldogs were on the road in Florida. As it turns out, an ice storm would have kept mom and dad at home anyway.

Finally, it was this week that it worked out perfectly. UGA played basketball in Starkville again, and this time it was a couple weeks earlier. Softball season had not yet begun and Julia got to go watch her brother play in her own place, and she got to sit with her parents while she did it.

“That’ll be the last game I ever get to see him play,” she said, “so that was pretty special.”

It was even their mom’s birthday on Sunday, so it really did work out perfectly.

unnamed-2Then, of course, there were Julia’s teammates at MSU. They’ve been hearing her talk and brag about her brother the basketball player for the last three years (“I always make them turn the TV on and watch when he has a game.”), so they were excited to be able to cheer for him in person, even if it did mean slight compromise from a fan perspective.

Taylor’s senior season will go on, and Julia’s last campaign begins in just over a week. She won’t get to see him play again, but if they’re lucky, Taylor will get to watch little sister in the postseason. Either way, they’ll represent both their school and their family as they go on, the name Echols stitched on the back of their uniforms.

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Jay Hughes shares stories from NCAA autonomy convention and voting

Change in the landscape of collegiate athletics over the last several years has gone from desired to inevitable to, now, finally happening. The NCAA held a conference on autonomy over the weekend, the results of which you’ve likely heard. The five “power” conferences have been granted exceptions and new opportunities to do things previously unallowable.

Such changes include the ability to cover what’s called the full cost of attendance for student-athletes, the guaranteeing of four-year scholarships, advancements in concussion safety and a host of other sports-related items.

Jay Hughes at SEC Media Days in July

Jay Hughes at SEC Media Days in July

The news is important to Mississippi State and its athletic programs, but before breaking down the changes it will have in Starkville, it should be noted that these changes happened, in part, because of people in Starkville. MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin was a voting party as proposals were presented, as were the athletic directors from each school of each of the five conferences.

Where it gets more exclusive is the inclusion of the people these decisions would affect. 15 student-athletes, three from each conference, were selected to represent the voice of their fellow students. MSU safety Jay Hughes, who just finished his senior season, was one of those 15, chosen as one of three from the SEC.

A fifth-year student in the middle of graduate school, Hughes was an educated and experienced representative who spent a great deal of time researching, studying and preparing himself to vote on matters related to his peers and the future of collegiate athletics before arrival. The subject matter he was ready for. His experience with the NCAA, a little bit less so.

As is easy to do, Hughes had allowed a less-than-rosy perception of the NCAA to exist in his mind. It’s frustrating, he acknowledged, to see the billions of dollars made across the country off of people like him, “but all we’re getting after the game is a box of chicken.”

After three days in Washington D.C. working with and around his governing body, his opinions changed.

“Looking from the outside in, you would think it’s a bunch of uppity guys that have never played sports before,” he said. “Now that I had a chance to experience it, it really seems like they are for the betterment of the student-athletes. They really care.”

Hughes got to D.C. Friday, where he and the other 14 student reps met, ate and almost immediately began discussions on the issues they’d be voting on the next night, as well as speaking about in front of the full convention. Naturally, certain issues were more important to the group than others, such as concussion protocol, which Hughes said was a passion of the student-athlete group.

Some proposals, such as guaranteed four-year scholarships, were a bit more divisive. The athletic directors were heavily in favor of the seemingly pro-student item, but the student-athletes themselves were, at best, evenly split. The proposal was accepted, but Hughes was one of the students who voted against it. As it turns out, all three SEC representatives agreed on that subject.

“If you’re not performing and you’re not helping the team, then what is exactly is your purpose? It’s harsh, but in the real world, if you’re not doing your job, you’re going to get fired,” Hughes explained. Though he did say he understands the view of the other side, sharing that some student-athletes “thought it would be the coach’s fault if a player didn’t perform … saying that by cutting a student-athlete’s scholarship before they get their degrees hurts their chance to graduate and be successful in life.”

Both sides have their merit, which is why so many were brought in to discuss the pros and cons.

Other topics included the possibility of an early signing day in December for high school football players, which Hughes said he likes the idea of, but thinks would put even more pressure on recruits from coaches to sign early while they’re trying to focus on their senior season of high school football.

The big item on the agenda, of course, was that of the full cost of attendance scholarships. In other words: more money for the student-athletes. As you’d imagine, that was agreed on nearly universally by the S-A representation. The new ordinance will allow schools to provide for extra money beyond the usual coverage of full scholarships that had included room and board, books and the like. Now, those student-athletes will be provided with income to cover “miscellaneous expenses” as decided on by each school.

It’s a huge deal,” Hughes said as he gave the example of teammates of his who, in the past, haven’t had enough money to pay for gas to go home for Christmas.

“We talk about this as players all the time, but there’s never anything we can really do about it,” he said. “We’re selling out all these football games, but all we’re getting after the game is a box of chicken. This helps all student-athletes on full scholarship.”

Hughes himself will never be a benefactor of any of the decisions he helped to make, but he’s pleased knowing he had a hand in helping those who will come after him.

Plus, he’s aiming at a future in athletic administration, and he’d love to work for the SEC if the opportunity ever arises. Spending a weekend with athletic directors, presidents and commissioners wasn’t a bad way to get his foot in the door.

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Resurgent Bulldogs aiming for SEC winning streak

It took longer than Rick Ray wanted, but something has gotten into his team lately. Mississippi State’s basketball team started the season strong, but soon fell into a slump lasting up until, roughly, a week ago.

After starting the season 5-0, MSU went on a tough 2-9 stretch before seemingly righting the ship. But the resurgence actually began in the ninth and final loss of the midseason slump, a game the Bulldogs dropped on the road at Texas A&M.

FJGERBBJXVMSRRP.20150103042135Sure, they didn’t win, and it extended their road losing streak (now snapped) by even more, but Ray has been saying ever since his Bulldogs returned from the Lone Star State that something clicked with them in that loss. One thing, he said, is that they realized they could compete and play against a good team, losing a close 74-70 game. The other is that they finally got whatever was in their heads out and played loose and confident again.

The result of that game – losing – was not indicative of the reaction the team had to it, he said. Since then, State has won two-straight SEC games and snapped a two-year road losing streak in the process.

Most recently, MSU downed Auburn 78-71 on the road Wednesday night.

“We did what we wanted to do defensively in the first half,” Ray said. “In the second half, it got away from us for a little while. We knew they would put their head down and drive and it is hard to defend a team playing out of desperation. But we came out with a sense of urgency ourselves and really played with the mind-set and mental toughness we needed to play with to win a game on the road in this league.”

Beyond confidence and comfort, the catalysts as MSU has suddenly looked like the team Ray expected them to be all year have been junior forward Gavin Ware and sophomore point guard I.J. Ready.

In particular, Ready has looked like the team MVP, there being a noticeable difference when he’s on the court or off. In the last three games, Ready has amassed 47 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. With Craig Sword still not 100 percent after offseason surgery, Ready has taken the mantle as the Bulldog responsible for creating offense.

LJYYHAEIZFLBTGG-1.20150109162325In these two SEC wins for State, Ware has combined for 29 points and 24 rebounds. Against Auburn alone, Ware pulled in 17 rebounds and put up 16 points.

“Gavin had a great night and did the things that we need him to do every night,” Ray said.

Ware has stepped up and become both the presence in the post and the leader of the team that Ray needs him to be, both of which he made a concerted effort in the offseason to improve on as much as possible.

As for Ready, Ray says “I.J. is such a calming, steady influence out there. You know he is going to make the plays you need him to make.”

That presence, the charisma and his confidence are the things that had Ray excited when he initially signed Ready out of high school two years ago. As Ray put it then, Ready knows how to win.

The entire team, it seems like, has been a series of cogs in a system that just needed something or someone to push it into action. The success of Ready and Ware has opened things up for guys like Travis Daniels, Fred Thomas and Sword to start getting significant stat lines.

The strong defense has finally started leading to easy offense, like Ray had been wanting it to for so long.

One success has led to another has led to another has led to another and it looks like MSU has broken the slump and started playing the kind of basketball they knew they were capable of for so long.

When Georgia comes to Starkville Saturday afternoon, State will have a chance to make it three-straight. They call that a winning streak.

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Dak is back: Prescott announces his return to MSU for senior season

For someone who began work on his Master’s degree this week, it made sense Dak Prescott would deliver news as someone who appeared to have come to a decision in a rational and mature way.

ZZZHBYLSXMDREIO.20140925210704Dak is back, he announced. Mississippi State’s quarterback is returning for his senior season, a decision he said he came to a while back, well before he received his draft grade from the NFL Advisory Committee.

His goal now is, in part, to get better as a quarterback, but his primary focus is on winning games at MSU in 2015.

“I think this another year for Mississippi State to compete for a National Championship,” he said. “We want to be a team that competes consistently year in and year out … We have the ability to do that.”

While coming to his decision, Prescott told reporters, he looked at the NFL Playoffs and saw so many teams with quarterbacks who got their degrees and stayed in school when they didn’t always have to. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and even Andrew Luck. Each benefitted from another season in school, and Prescott hopes to do the same.

“Developing as a quarterback takes a really, really long time,” MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said. “There’s constant evaluation, constant improvement that can be made.”

Of note, Prescott intends to improve his accuracy, decision-making, footwork and leadership skills in 2015 as he gets more and more reps.

Though, as Mullen pointed out, just about all of those are areas he improved in over the course of the 2014 season, particularly his ability in the pocket.

Prescott’s announcement was expected, but it’s one that sends a surge of optimism and hope through the program and the entire fanbase. Prescott was the face of a 2014 season that brought, literally and figuratively, the highest highs in the history of Mississippi State football. While there are 100-plus players and coaches who deserve credit, Prescott was the leader as MSU ascended to No. 1 in the country for the first time in school history, stayed there for a month, and beat three-straight Top 10 teams to get there.

He could have left now and gone down both as an immediate legend and the greatest quarterback in MSU history, statistically speaking. But his meaning to MSU and those who support it goes far beyond on-field performance. Prescott gave State fans something to believe in. Most who wear maroon and white would tell you that if a game in the past was in question, or a miracle was needed to win, they often expected to come out on the bad end.

Prescott is one of the few, if not the only, of those they’ve supported for over a century who gave automatic confidence to those who watched him, as well as those who played with him.

MSU has quarterbacks behind Prescott with SEC experience and high star ratings, but it’s for those intangible reasons that Dak’s return means so much.

“The best recruiting job of all,” Johnson said, “is getting a player back of Dak’s caliber.”

Looking ahead to his senior year, Prescott is the centerpiece, but he’s far from the only piece. In his announcement, Prescott ran down a list of linemen, running backs, receivers, defensive stars and talented coaches who make up what he expects to be a team that can win the SEC. After finishing second in the conference in 2014, it’s not an unrealistic goal.

Prescott isn’t one who enjoys talking about himself, and he constantly deflects and downplays the praise he receives. But while he won’t say it, he knows how much it means to MSU to have him back for one more year.

The way he carries himself is how his head coach Dan Mullen knows what to expect from his star pupil.

“His maturity and how he handled everything,” Mullen said, “showed how he’s gotten to where he is now and the type of future he’s going to have.”

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On Scott Stricklin, David McFatrich, and the MSU mold of coaches

Introductory press conferences, for the most part, are going to sound roughly the same in college athletics. All of athletics, really. And the job descriptions for any head coaching vacancies will read similar, as well. Proven winner, hard worker, good recruiter, so on and so forth.

TGHXTQTQHJFRVHS.20100507195929When Scott Stricklin started looking for a new volleyball coach at Mississippi State, those were some of the qualities he wanted. And when David McFatrich was introduced as the person who best met those standards, he offered necessary but familiar refrains of competing in the conference, hitting the ground running, etc.

All things important, if not also expected.

But beneath the coach-speak and the standard-rule qualifications, McFatrich is yet another window into the brain of Stricklin and an example of the type of coach he (and others) have found fit for MSU.

When Stricklin introduced his newest hire, he didn’t mention recruiting, championships or other typical press conference fare. Stricklin talked about the Mississippi State mold.

“We want coaches who are smart, who have a great work ethic, who are competitive and who have an intensity that rubs off on other people,” Stricklin said. “We want charisma, that ability to lead people … I don’t think there’s any question we found a guy who fits those traits, and many others.”

Some of those qualities are more common than others, but they’re all important to Stricklin. The mold seems clear when you look around. People with relative youth, who are high energy and intense. Looking across the department, there are few coaches, if any, who aren’t intimidating in their own fashions. There are also few who don’t have the ability to be charming and personable whenever they like.

And intelligence seems to be one of the big keys. Stricklin wants smart people at MSU, people who can be creative and know how to do more with less. After all, while the school’s budget is growing, it remains one of the smallest in the uber-competitive SEC. MSU has to have somebody who won’t be held back by that.

After introducing McFatrich, Stricklin was chatting with reporters about Dan Mullen, his football coach who was on ESPN for a coaches film room broadcast of the National Championship game. He was talking about someone who found a way to maximize resources, identify talent and build something by being smart with what he has.

“I tell people all the time that Dan is a really bright guy,” Stricklin said. “They don’t always know what I mean, but that was a good example.”

Around the different sports, Stricklin has coaches with English degrees, backgrounds in applied mathematics, experiences and education across the spectrum of learning and culture.

It’s not just pure intelligence, though. Stricklin isn’t just handing out jobs to any coach who scores high on an I.Q. test. He’s looking for someone who does things differently, uses that intelligence for creativity. When he was in the process of hiring Mullen alongside then-A.D. Greg Byrne, Stricklin saw in Mullen someone who had a niche and who was doing things other people in college football weren’t doing at the time.

With McFatrich and the volleyball program it’s the same way.

“We want to do things maybe a little bit differently than everybody else,” McFatrich said. “[Players] might be trying something they haven’t done before, haven’t seen before.”

Scott Wetherbee, Senior Associate Athletic Director under Stricklin, spearheaded the search for the new volleyball coach and went into it understanding what he was supposed to be looking for, what Stricklin wanted and what fit the new and growing Mississippi State mold of coaches.

It came down to a few different things, Wetherbee said. Integrity first and above all else. But then, high energy. Similar to Vann Stuedeman, the softball coach Stricklin hired who hasn’t met a heart rate she couldn’t raise and has been to three NCAA Tournaments in three years at MSU.

They were looking for “a go-getter, someone to roll up their sleeves,” who would attack problems and come up with their own solutions, rather than let someone else deal with it. Similar to baseball coach John Cohen, whose mantra of F.I.O. (Figure It Out) is about getting things done and done well with no excuses.

Following qualities of personality, Wetherbee moved to the bottom of the résumé` – references.

“We look at what other people are saying,” Wetherbee said. “Scott believes a lot in calling other people. Are there any red flags anywhere? Everywhere we turned, it was all positive.”

When Stricklin announced the hire of women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer two-and-a-half years ago, that’s part of what he talked about. Every person in college basketball he contacted spoke highly of Schaefer, who now has MSU 18-1 and ranked Top 15 in the country midway through his third season.

And finally, Wetherbee said, came that last and important qualifier: be different, be unique.

“[McFatrich] runs a different kind of offense that nobody in the SEC runs,” Wetherbee said. “That’s our niche. We have to do things a little different here to make an impact.”

At the coaches convention in Oklahoma City a few weeks back, Wetherbee and Senior Associate A.D. for women’s sports Ann Carr met with around a dozen candidates over the course of a single day. McFatrich was one of the last they spoke with, but he was one of the first to stand out.

“Ann and I both looked at each other,” Wetherbee said, “and thought, he’s got a lot of energy. He’s somebody Scott would enjoy having a conversation with. We’ve gotta get him to campus.”

unnamed-1Doing so proved to be big in getting McFatrich to join MSU. The new head coach at State said he loved it as soon as he arrived, and he quickly saw the department-wide success Stricklin and his staff are building in Starkville.

“Every time I turned around, every person I met, it was good. In fact, it was great,” McFatrich said. “I felt an incredible amount of momentum and excitement from everybody … For two days, I was blown away.”

Then the announcement came and the obligatory press conference followed on Tuesday afternoon. David McFatrich has been introduced as the new leader of MSU’s volleyball program.

So here Stricklin is with his new coach, a man who fits the mold he and others have been shaping for the better part of the last decade at MSU. Does that guarantee success? Not at all. But, in a place where nearly every single program is on the way up and more teams than ever have been competing and winning in the postseason, a coach who fits the Mississippi State mold is a good start.

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