Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Cannizaro Wants Packed House for SEC-Lead Showdown with Tigers

He challenges himself. He challenges his team. So why shouldn’t Andy Cannizaro challenge Bulldog baseball fans?

The Diamond Dog coach just has.

Minutes after Mississippi State completed a neutral-field victory over Ole Miss, and completed the first regular-season sweep of the ancient rivalry in two decades, Cannizaro’s mind was already looking to the weekend. A potentially-pivotal weekend for these Bulldogs and the entire SEC for that matter as Auburn comes to town.

So, “We’re excited to get back in front of our home fans. I want the place to be packed,” Cannizaro said. No, wait, he wants more. He wants Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium, campus and community both at full-Bulldog blast.

“I want it to be rocking. I want to see barbecue smoke and grill smoke all over the outfield. And let’s try to beat our Super Bulldog crowd from two weeks ago.”

That crowd for the record was 13,691 on, of course, the ‘super Saturday’ of Mississippi State’s annual spring sports-fest. It was the eighth-largest official count ever at DNF.

So Cannizaro has set a very high target for Bulldog baseball boosters to hit. Then again, the first-year coach keeps raising bars for the ball team. Usually and somehow the Dogs have done it.

Certainly this squad qualifies as the surprise of the 2017 Southeastern Conference season. Maybe the entire NCAA considering what Mississippi State (29-14) has scratched and scrambled its way through to stand alone in first SEC place today. Tuesday’s victory in Pearl (before a sellout gate of 8,536 by the way) did not count in the league standings but it ab-so-lute-ly counted on both sides of the Bulldog-Rebel divide.

For one thing, combined with taking all three of the conference contests played in Oxford back in March, this gave State a four-game sweep for the first time since 1997. Or, three whole coaching tenues ago. Or, put in an even more historical perspective, Cannizaro is the first first-year Bulldog baseball coach to sweep all regular-season meetings with Ole Miss since R.P. ‘Doc’ Patty…back in 1948.

The old ‘Doc’ is also the only first-year Mississippi State coach to have won a SEC baseball championship. Cannizaro’s club has a long, hard grind between today and that title. Yet the way this team keeps rising to challenges, from all directions, makes such a feat possible. Even, practical?

Surviving Alabama’s bids at three upsets over last weekend was another step in the process. The expedited nature of the series also allowed Cannizaro to toss a fresh twist at his team. This keep-grinding skipper game his guys a…break?

“I gave our team Saturday and Sunday off. Which those guys never get during the college baseball season, an entire weekend off!” Cannizaro said.

The Bulldogs responded with what their coach called an “outstanding” Monday practice focused on basics. Just basics. Ground balls, fly balls, batting practice, running bases. “A lot of fundamental sound things. I thought the practice got us geared up to play well.”

Mississippi State played well enough, again, to knock off the rival. There was more to winning another Governor’s Cup (now seven out of eleven played since 2007) than met the eye. Though neither rival had anything to really ‘lose’ in the good-RPI meeting on a neutral field, the Rebels had more to gain in NCAA terms and just plain pride points.

The Bulldogs spoiled that. Freshman Denver McQuary gave a solid five-plus innings in his first college decision, which because it was against the rival the Mississippi native will savor forever. League- and in some categories NCAA-leading slugger Brent Rooker had the big blow with his three-run homer, and then scored the icing run as well in the 4-2 final. The defense got its job done just fine, too.

There was another twist to Tuesday. Cannizaro got the Dogs on Trustmark Park early for a quick tune-up as well. “I thought that had an effect on us playing well early in the game.” Which was key to surviving repeated Rebels runs at taking a lead—they didn’t—and setting the stage for State to take over mid-game.

“I’m proud of how our guys played in this environment, in a rivalry game. Ole Miss is an outstanding club, so well-coached, and for us to win was a tremendous win for our program. And kind of gets us feeling good going into a big SEC weekend.”

Big indeed. Auburn is part of the three-team pack nipping at Bulldog heels, trailing by a half-game in the SEC standings. What former MSU assistant Butch Thompson is doing in year-two is another SEC success story.

Cannizaro, who said he’s known Thompson since “I was 17 years old” understands this is a series that could settle who lifts a trophy in May, gets one of those valuable SEC Tournament byes, and is in better position to host NCAA regional play. So, April series don’t get much bigger for State.

The only wild-card at the moment is a shifting weather forecast. As of now the rain chance is for Saturday and Sunday, and State will be watching developing trends. The SEC’s weather policies, an entire page of them, will dictate most decisions around the league’s Network needs too.

So Bulldogs fans can stay tuned for schedule adjustments. But, not stay home to watch. The coach has issued his challenge to show up for the showdown.

Call it Super Bulldog Weekend II?

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