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Mississippi State Builds Momentum Before SEC Play

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Mississippi State this year has been thrust into an unprecedented situation in college baseball and endured a whirlwind first month of the season. Now, with Southeastern Conference play beginning this weekend, the Bulldogs seem to be finding their footing.

After the shock of coach Andy Cannizaro’s resignation Feb. 20, less than a week into the season, due to off-field transgressions, the Bulldogs have gone 10-3, including a 3-0 weekend at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston, annually one of the best nonconference tournaments in the country.

Pitching coach Gary Henderson, who spent eight seasons as head coach at Kentucky, was elevated to interim head coach after Cannizaro’s resignation and has helped the Bulldogs (10-6) stick together through an uncertain time.

Forming an identity was one of Henderson’s paramount concerns when he took over the team. He identified four pillars he wanted the Bulldogs to represent – honesty, integrity, competitiveness and being men, not boys.

“If you’re going to be successful, that’s what it has to be in our game,” Henderson said. “So many things go wrong, so much failure (in the) short term. If you handle it in a mature way, then you’ve got a chance to bounce back. If you get stuck in it, then it’s just not going to work for you.”

Mississippi State was always going to have a difficult start to the season. Because of the work being done at Dudy Noble Field, the Bulldogs scheduled their first 11 games on the road, including a series at Southern Mississippi and a true two-week road trip through Texas that ended with the Shriners College Classic.

That was part of the price of the $55 million renovation to make Dudy Noble Field the best college ballpark in the nation. Cannizaro prepared the Bulldogs to embrace a “Road Dawgs” mentality, complete with a set of spiked shoulder pads modeled after the movie “Road Warriors.”

But the season got off to a poor start as Southern Mississippi swept Mississippi State on Opening Weekend. The next day, rumors began to circulate that Cannizaro’s job was in jeopardy. Cannizaro had been one of the rising young head coaches in the game, handpicked by John Cohen to succeed him at Mississippi State when Cohen was promoted to athletic director in November 2016. Cannizaro’s downfall was as swift as his rise and his resignation shocked the sport.

The Bulldogs didn’t have much time to be shocked. They had a game to play Feb. 21 at Jackson State, where their road trip got off to an inauspicious start. The PA announcer at Jackson State mistakenly announced the Bulldogs coach as Nick Mingione, the Kentucky coach who spent eight years as an assistant coach on Cohen’s staff at Mississippi State whose name was quickly thrown out as a possible successor. But following that hiccup, Mississippi State got down to the business of playing baseball. It was 3-2 on the trip when it got to the Shriners College Classic, where it turned a corner. The Bulldogs swept through the tournament thanks to a strong effort from their pitching staff, which allowed just five runs over three games.

Righthander Jacob Billingsley said being on the road and away from Starkville was good for the team.

“Just getting out of there and worrying about us and what matters in our program,” Billingsley said. “We did a really good job of turning the corner this weekend.”

Mississippi State returned to Starkville for its home opener March 6 and beat New Mexico State, 9-1, in front of 7,179 fans, two weeks to the day after Cannizaro’s resignation. It was the start of a 4-1 week at home for the Bulldogs – their final tune-up before welcoming No. 14 Vanderbilt to town to open SEC play.

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In some ways, Mississippi State is getting back to a sense of normalcy and can start building some momentum. In other ways, the situation remains anything but normal. “The New Dude” is open, but Dudy Nobel Field will remain a construction zone the rest of the year with work continuing on the renovation. Mississippi State’s schedule is set up so that the construction can continue in blocks the rest of the spring, which will result in a couple more extended road trips. And the team remains in the nearly unprecedented situation in college baseball of an interim head coach taking over during the season.

Henderson said he has been pleased with the way everyone around the program has handled the situation.

“It’s just been a very unique experience,” Henderson said. “The kids have handled it and the coaching staff, really happy and proud of the coaching staff. We’re on the same page and really proud of how our kids, parents and fans have handled it.”

Center fielder Jake Mangum said the players have rallied behind Henderson and assistant coaches Mike Brown and Jake Gautreau.

“We’re 100 percent behind Henderson, Brownie, Gautreau,” Mangum said. “Those three guys have led this ballclub, I cannot speak highly enough of them. What they’ve done for this club, it’s been awesome.”

Cohen will have to embark on a high-profile coaching search after the season. With the opening of the new stadium, expectations among the fan base are high and interest in the job will be significant. Early speculation naturally pointed to Mingione and Auburn coach Butch Thompson, both former Mississippi State assistants who have quickly found success as Southeastern Conference head coaches, but Cohen has proven adept at hiring head coaches so far – his hires of Cannizaro and Joe Moorhead for football were widely praised in the industry – and will cast his search wider than his former assistant coaches. It won’t be an easy process, however. In the last two years South Carolina, Stanford and Texas have all made coaching changes that ended with strong, but not splashy hires and resulted in several prominent head coaches getting contract extensions to stay at their current jobs.

All of that will play out in the months ahead. In the meantime, the Bulldogs are focused on improving this spring. Mangum, an All-American in 2016, is back to full health after playing part of last season with a broken hand and is hitting .348/.423/.420 with seven stolen bases. Preseason All-American lefthander Konnor Pilkington is off to a strong start on the mound and is 1-1, 1.17 with 35 strikeouts and one walk in 23 innings. The Bulldogs often play four freshmen in the starting lineup and while they are off to solid starts to their college careers, there are also growing pains that come with such a youthful lineup.

There is still room for improvement, but already Henderson has seen progress this season. And the Bulldogs understand they are still growing.

“We’re starting to click and we can still get better, that’s the best part,” Mangum said. “We’re starting to click, we have a lot of places we can get better and I think we’re going to be a good team this year.”

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