Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Bulldogs Begin New Season Against Ranked Raiders; 31st Year for PDS

It is Opening Day for a new team and brand-new coach. It also begins the closing act for this current stadium.

So this won’t be a routine opening for the 2017 Diamond Dogs and their first-year Coach Andy Cannizaro. But then who wants routine? Even the weather is out-of-February normal; a Friday high of 70 degrees and sunshine on Dudy Noble Field.

“I know one thing,” Cannizaro said. “We’ll be ready when those lights come on and the best fans in college baseball show up. I’m excited to get this thing cranked up.”

Of course Cannizaro is excited just to arrive at the ballpark daily and has been since former coach-turned-athletic director John Cohen hand-picked the Louisiana State assistant to take over. It’s been a fast, often frenzied process since the November hiring…and a unanimous hit with everyone involved.

“I think my nature is to be a positive, high-energy guy,” Cannizaro said. I’ve been that way since the day I was born.”

Now after weeks of scrimmaging Cannizaro can apply his energy into coaching real games. Though, he’ll have to contain himself just a few hours longer. Texas Tech and Western Illinois get to ‘open’ 2017 on Dudy Noble Field with a 1:00 game. The home Bulldogs finally take to their own field around 4:00 against the Red Raiders.

Saturday’s schedule has Mississippi State meeting Western Illinois at 3:30, assuming the 1:00 game goes fast. Parking priority does go to the 1:00 men’s basketball game. The host school has a Sunday twinbill against Western at noon, then Tech at 3:00.

State has announced 3/4s of the opening weekend rotation. As said all along, sophomore LHP Konnor Pilkington (3-1, 2.08 in 2016 with 11 starts) will throw the first pitch of the season. Sophomore transfer RHP Peyton Plumlee gets the ball Saturday.

Coach Gary Henderson hasn’t picked who to start in Sunday’s first game, but will go with soph RHP Ryan Cyr (1-1, 1.04) in the second. Cyr was a primary reliever last year with one start, now he contends for a SEC rotation role.

Fans are cautioned not to read too much into this first weekend’s selections, other than Pilkington’s lead Dog status. “Starting pitching for us is an ongoing battle every single day and every single weekend,” Cannizaro said. Freshman LHP Graham Ashcraft and others continue to contend for weekend duty as well, and of course somebody has to start the midweek matchups ahead.

Pilkington is getting an immediate challenge. Texas Tech is coming off a first-ever College World Series season and 45-21 record. They are tabbed third by Big12 coaches in the preseason vote, their highest projection since 2000. Tech is a consensus top-25 in all polls, the highest #14 by D1 Baseball, with 17 lettermen and three all-Americans returning from the Omaha team.

Cannizaro has known Tech coach Tim Tadlock since high school when the latter was winning junior college national championships at Grayson C.C. “To be able to start my head coaching career against him is going to be a really cool opportunity.”

Western Illinois is the sixth-place pick by Summit Conference coaches after an injury-riddled season left the Leathernecks at 11-19 and missing the conference playoffs. This team does return seven position starters and most of the pitching staff is healthy again. Lefthander Preston Church and catcher Adam McGinnis are projected as leading draft prospects this coming June.

Mississippi State and WIU haven’t played since 1975 when the SEC Bulldogs swept a three-game series to open the season. That was a dozen years before the current campus stadium opened in 1987, without a name of its own. Only in 1998 was the Polk-Dement Stadium label applied.

Really veteran fans can recall that opening day…because it was delayed by days of rain until Sunday, March 1. A crowd of 4,040 saw those Bulldogs win 4-1 while a redshirting transfer outfielder John Cohen watched. The 30 clubs since have won three regular season conference championships, including 2016’s epic and unexpected run to the title.

This stadium has hosted ten NCAA regionals with wins in 1990, 1997, 2000, 2013, and 2016; and super regionals in 2013 and 2016. What PDS@DNF is most famed for of course is hosting the largest campus baseball crowds ever.

All of them, with the most recent record re-set in 2014 as 15,586 watched an extra-inning comeback win over Ole Miss. Mississippi State also owns all campus NCAA Tournament attendance records.

But after three decades and so many changes to the sport and the sports market, change is a touch overdue. Mississippi State will begin official construction of an unprecedented college baseball palace in June, though some preliminary electrical work is already underway. The concrete hulk core will be replaced entirely by a state-of-art stadium incorporating everything Mississippi State and consultants knows to suit the tastes of today’s fans. Of future fans, too. Completion is due in time for 2019’s opening. Most of 2018’s pre-SEC games will be played away as part of the process.

Little of this matters to the 2017 team of course. After being presented as defending SEC Champions the heirs to that ball club begin their own campaign for a crown. Outside expectations are cautious. A record dozen Dogs off the title team signed professional contracts for one thing, most notably the core of the weekend rotation.

Pitching is even more a ’17 question after losing four arms to surgeries. So despite the presence of rising sophomore all-American outfielder Jake Mangum, veteran outfielder and slugger Brent Rooker, and what all expect to be a stout bullpen, none of the top-25 polls show Mississippi State. Not yet.

Cannizaro understands the lack of ranking respect in that sense. He also isn’t concerned. The new coach is just too, you know, excited.

“I haven’t played in seven years. The fact I get to be on the field in uniform helping young players become better is a dream come true for me. This is the perfect job, to be a Division I head baseball coach, to be the head coach here at Mississippi State.”

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