Leaving in very good hands, Rooker said.
“Coach (Andy) Cannizaro is the best college baseball coach in the country. He’s going to take Mississippi State place its never been before. He’s going to win the first national championship here.”
True, there was no national championship for Mississippi State in 2017. Then again none was expected. For that matter many questioned if this Bulldog team could quality for the NCAA Tournament. The need to rebuild all across the board, combined with a November coaching transition, naturally limited expectations.
So despite the emotions of the moment, Cannizaro could smile. Did smile, in fact, while adapting his star player’s strong assessment.
“I honestly believe I have the greatest head coaching job in America at Mississippi State.”
What this first-year head coach did counts among the greatest coaching jobs ever at Mississippi State. It is one thing for fans and media to say so. Player opinion must count more.
“With what he did, with what we had this year, is extremely impressive,” senior catcher Josh Lovelady said. “Everybody out there doubted us.”
With, it must be said, fair reason. Lovelady’s own commenting on what Cannizaro did with the available personnel reinforces those initial expectations.
It also reflects the regard for all the lost production and pitching from the 2016 SEC Champions. A record eleven drafted Dogs, ten of whom signed as well as another free agent, gutted starting rotation, prime relief arms, and much of the batting order. Given Mississippi State’s unchanging status as a non-lottery-scholarship program, this was a whole lot to rebuild, forget replace.
Or, to inherit as Cannizaro did when after eight seasons John Cohen became athletic director. Before the official promotion Cohen had been planning a replacement with Cannizaro the early choice. The right choice, events have already proved.
After shake-down struggles and being swept on opening league weekend, Cannizaro’s club bolted into the SEC race and with two weekends left were leading. Incredibly so. Summer and fall surgeries in 2016, pre- and then in-season injuries had the roster down to just 22 scholarship Dogs by May, yet there they were bidding to defend their SEC title.
Events finally caught-up and two lost series, including a sweeping by the same LSU squad which ended State’s season three weekends later, dropped the Dogs to a fifth-place league finish. Which, of course, was a whole lot of slots higher than the most optimistic projections. So was the 40-27 record after a rousing rally through the Hattiesburg Regional.
That surprise victory made Cannizaro only the second Mississippi State coach to not only take his first team to the NCAA Tournament, but to win a regional as well. Pat McMahon 1998 was the other. Even the forty wins far exceeded expectations.
“We were picked to finish somewhere down around the bottom of the SEC. Nobody gave us any credit,” Cannizaro said. “Nobody certainly expected us to be here.” ‘Here’ being the Baton Rouge super regional where Cannizaro’s first Dog team lost to his prior employers and a squad he helped assemble and develop. “It was awesome. To lead this group of guys into this ballpark was really cool moment. These guys laid it on the line.”
It was the end of fifth-year senior Lovelady’s line. His last campaign was certainly his best, especially after missing almost all of 2016 with injury. So he earned his right to give the underclassmen, those returning for future seasons that is, a firm final word.
“I was telling them this isn’t your last game. I told them come back and be ready to go again, you’re got the best coach in American, and they’re building a $55 million stadium to play in. Hey fellows, learn how we got here and from what we did wrong. And make a run at it again.”
That stadium project accelerates seriously now. Preliminary electrical line work began in winter actually so contactor could really tear into the grounds as soon as the Dogs were done. Tear into the existing stadium too, which will be entirely razed so a state-of-art baseball palace can be raised. Completion will come just before the 2019 season, but an estimated 4,000 or so seats will be available for 2018 use.
Fans attending the super regional round were able to see one of several SEC venues which have surpassed Polk-DeMent Stadium since its 1987 opening. Soon Mississippi State will again be setting the standard.
The other baseball building project of course is constructing a roster in Cannizaro’s image. This provides perspective on the job he did as both a first-time head coach and a new-to-State skipper with players he did not recruit, unless it was for LSU of course. It should also say something for the caliber of people Cohen assembled in previous years, and how they immediately accepted new management and played the best ball they could under less-than-ideal conditions.
To be sure having the league’s and to some minds land’s best player/hitter in Rooker helped, lots. So did a solid up-the-middle defense with shortstop Ryan Gridley and, when healthy, second baseman Hunter Stovall; backed by centerfielder Jake Mangum and fronted by iron-Dog Lovelady. Taking over as lefthander Konnor Pilkington was ready for a breakout sophomore season was key, too.
At the same time Mississippi State had to do plenty patching-together of a lineup and order from opening day to tournament time. Even that was unsettled at times by injuries to Mangum and Stovall. The rotation, well, there never was one. It was Pilkington on Fridays and workhorse TBA every other day. The middle-relief lineup fluctuated weekly as well, and just when righthanders Riley Self and Spencer Price became the surest closing tag-team in the league injury struck Price.
So scoring forty wins, contending for a SEC repeat, winning another NCAA regional? “I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of my team,” Cannizaro said. “Our guys had an unbelievable ability to fight, never give up, just continue to persevere over so much and so many things that went against us.”
What went most against Mississippi State was pitching problems. It began before Cannizaro ever considered leaving Baton Rouge actually, and continued into the season with a total of nine lost pitchers. Five were to the dreaded Tommy John process. This forced the healthy staff to fill roles they either weren’t mature or experienced enough to handle, or into situations that did not suit their styles and stuff.
But, “There’s no excuses,” Cannizaro said. “We won 40 ball games with those same arms. I don’t want to say ne we ran out of arms, we just weren’t able to get it done. The majority of those guys will be back next year.”
Note that comment very well. Because, all ten of the Dogs who threw a pitch in Baton Rouge were underclassmen. None are expected to turn professional. This signals that some varsity ’17 pitchers won’t be back for ’18.
To be fair anyone just looking at the raw numbers of expected-to-recover pitchers and incoming recruits would forecast attrition to the roster. Cannizaro also has to be a bit careful in pushing many current or redshirt pitchers out too soon. The nature of recovery schedules means some of the rehabbing arms might not be entirely ready for fall pitching.
Also, the draft did damage this group with three pitchers—two high school, one juco—were taken in the 2nd-through-12th rounds and are expected to sign professional contracts. Rooker will be heading to the Minnesota farm system as the 14th Bulldog first-round draft choice, and 11th-round pick Gridley has a decision to make since he is a junior.
Mangum wasn’t drafted until the 30th round, largely because of the broken left hand that halted his pitching mid-season and impacted his batting noticeably. So while the varsity will lose star-power at the top of the order most of the position group will return, barring transfers which is always a possibility when veterans see talented newcomers arriving at their position(s).
The draft and attrition are just aspects of the game at this level. A level Cannizaro unhesitatingly says, Mississippi State is going to win at. Make that, win big at again. “Our program is going to continue to get better, and better, and better. Our guys are going to win ball games,” Cannizaro said.
“We have the expectation level to be right back in this weekend next season, and we’re going to what you need to do be one of the best programs in the country. And our goal is to everything in our power to win that first national championship here at Mississippi State University.”
It’s a goal the outgoing Dogs echo.
“We believe he’s going to make a quick turnaround just like he did this year and begin a run to go to Omaha again,” said Lovelady. For his part Rooker agrees, Cannizaro is the coach to bring that first NCAA trophy back to Mississippi State.
Or, just the first?
“He’s going to win multiple national championships after that.”