Cohen Still Prepping Dogs For Debut

There's just 48 hours left before his first Diamond Dog team lines up for the first pitch. And if a lineup card was placed before him, Coach John Cohen would still struggle to fill in a few Opening Day names. Not that he is even thinking that far ahead just yet. "We've got to cover a whole lot of things," Cohen said.

Still Mississippi State's new skipper intends to cover as much as practical, and assemble the most competitive lineup possible, in time for Friday and the opening of the 2009 season. And, the formal beginning of the John Cohen Era at Dudy Noble Field. Oh, the coach is plenty familiar with the venue, having played there in 1986 for Birmingham-Southern and then 1988-90 as a Diamond Dog outfielder; as well as coaching here as both an assistant and head man with SEC rivals.

But this is the date and the season Cohen has been preparing his entire coaching career for. The day he sends a selection of Diamond Dogs on to the field to play ball as his own MSU team. Shortly after 5:00 Friday, Mississippi State takes on Northern Illinois to begin the host team's action in the BankFirst Baseball Challenge, with four games in three days. North Florida is the third participant in the opening weekend, and will play NIU in a 1:00 Friday game. That day's schedule is different than previously published, each game advanced hours to allow for expected cool weather. (Note: consult the latest updated 2009 schedule for other changes in times and locales.)

Cohen, and a trio of Diamond Dogs, met with media Wednesday afternoon for a general overview on the '09 campaign. A transcript of Cohen's talk follows:

Coach John Cohen: "I've been asked a lot what my personal thoughts are about opening the season. I can tell all you very seriously I haven't even thought about it. Those thoughts won't even enter my mind until I walk on the field, because we've got to go out today and practice. We've got to cover a whole lot of things. I made the statement earlier I wasn't going to make any comments about the NCAA! But our time is limited insofar as preparation and we have a lot to do even now, between now and when we open up."

"I'm sure that when I walk out on the field, through the tunnel on Friday there will be a little bit of emotion. This is where I've always wanted to be and in my opinion this is the Mecca of college baseball. It's a very, very special place to me. So at that point in time I'm sure something will happen to me, it just hasn't happened yet."

"I'm really pleased with our preparation. Our kids have really bought into everything that we're trying to do. If they haven't bought into it they're doing a very good job of acting that way in front of me! They really show enthusiasm on a daily basis. And they've been through some difficult practice sessions, in the weightroom, in terms of conditioning early in the morning, late at night, they've been through it all. And in their fall semester they had a 3.31 GPA which is the highest in Mississippi State baseball history. I told them in our first meeting and I mean it, it's excellent, I can't tell you how proud I am. But now it's time for us to do well on the baseball field. Because just being good kids and making good grades isn't good enough any more. We have to do some things on the field, we have to compete our tails off every single day. That's what they've done at practice."

We're probably going to be a little bit short in some areas. We're coming off a very difficult season, a lot of transition for these guys. And the season will be a challenge, we're going to hit bumps in the road. But I want our kids to hit these bumps going full-speed, I want us to get airborne when we hit those bumps! That's my expectation level: we're going to make mistakes but they're going to be full-speed mistakes and we're going to really get after and attack people that we play against. Sometimes you don't come out on the right end of things, but we're going to do everything we can to change that."

Q: Is there any group you can say is a strength? "I think our strength is our outfield, when you consider we have six guys who can play a lot of different places. That's going to be the toughest thing about creating a lineup, is our outfield situation. Grant Hogue is as good a runner as there is in the entire league, he's very aggressive on the bases. Obviously he's going to be a big factor and he's a great leader. Mark Goforth is a possibility, Jason Nappi has played very well, it just goes on and on and on. Nick Hardy has done very well in the outfield. I can really see us playing six guys in the outfield with some consistency. I know that sounds crazy at the beginning, but we just want to find out who can do what in game situations. Luke Adkins is a guy who can really hit and he's gotten better defensively. Brent Brownlee is a redshirt freshman who has as good a tools as any freshman in the SEC in the outfield. He is really throwing well, he can really run, the offensive part has really stepped up. So we have depth in that position. It's almost like you want to take two quality outfielders if you were playing professional baseball and trade them for a big-time player at another position just because we have so many guys right there. Maybe for a lefthanded pitcher since you never have enough, ever!"

Q: Will Ricky Bowen be on the mound Friday? "I think so. Again we don't have a clear-cut of who is going to pitch against us and that's going to make a difference because I think we can do a little bit of matchup, left and right. But I want to play a lot of guys early. I think that's important to our program, I think that's important to our kids. The more folks we can get out there early the clearer things are going to be."

"I always say the coaches don't make out the lineup, the players do. Because through their actions during practice and in the classroom and on the field and in the weightroom, players demand to be played. And some of those guys have done that. I think we have a lot of players and it's kind of a pleasant surprise. It's not a surprise because I didn't think it was in there, but as an opposing coach you don't know that much about your personnel. But these kids are lot more competitive than I thought they were. The way they've competed over the last six months has been phenomenal. So it is going to be more difficult to make out that lineup because the kids have made it more difficult for us."

Q: What are the challenges with a team the first season? "Well, any time young men have to make changes. And Coach Polk like every other coach was very set in his ways, I guess in some ways I'm set although I think we do a lot of things differently on a daily basis. Last night these guys were crawling around in the dirt, they haven't done that in a while! It's not necessarily difficult, but it is a challenge. It really depends on how the players make the change. And to be honest, if you're coming off a great year, everybody had an incredible year offensively, defensively, on the mound, it's more difficult to make those changes. But in our situation I think some changes quite frankly needed to be made, that's my opinion, and made those changes. I think over the long haul we're going to benefit a lot from it."

"Some of the changes, and this is coming from just playing here, I think from a strength and conditioning standpoint we've done things very differently, that part has been a real challenge. I think that helps our players physically because you get into postseason, 60-65 games, you have to be in great condition. Mentally when you walk to the plate you feel strong, it changes your approach offensively. That confidence factor on the mound when you feel you're strong in your legs and in great condition it makes a difference. I'm not saying that we weren't in condition a year ago, I'm just saying we've conditioned differently. And the only people who truly know that are our players. I know they've been tested and it's been difficult for them, and they've done a great job."

Q: What changes can you see here from your playing days? "Oh, big changes. Just the campus—not that it wasn't attractive when I went to school here—but it's almost breathtaking when you just walk on campus now. The attention to detail, all the buildings have been re-done, it's just a beautiful campus and changed so much. The city of Starkville, obviously when I drive down the street and see two Sonics, that's big! There were no Sonics maybe within 150 miles of here when I was in school! Yeah, some things have really changed for the better, I think Starkville has really progressed. It was a great place to go to school for myself, but everything has been improved in every way."

"Our baseball facility, obviously we didn't have luxury boxes, what a great job Coach Polk and Larry Templeton did of keeping up with the Jones and adding to our facility, which is one of the great facilities in the country. And we have plans to do even more, Greg Byrne has a lot of vision and I think over the next two-three years we're going to do some really special things to the facility."

Q: What is the injury situation? "We're very healthy. I'm very pleased with part of it. Grant decided he was going to slide right on a shoulder last Tuesday! Kind of a freak accident and I think he's going to recover nicely and be a big factor during the course of the season. Paxton Pace (elbow) is healthier than a year ago, I think we're nine months off his surgery. Cody Freeman still has some lingering issues with his shoulder surgery last year. I don't know how this came about but I'd never heard about the kind of injuries we had at Mississippi State in the last year, and I'm sure some of it was just by chance, bad luck. We were a little bit wounded when we started but I think it's a lot better, I think Cody has come a long way and I expect these guys to be ready to go when the time goes."

Q: Besides Bowen do you have any thoughts of pitching beyond that. "All of our guys are going to get to pitch this weekend. Ricky is going to through 80 pitches and if he's going really good and eating up a lot of innings we might get him closer to 90, he's been throwing around 90 in intersquads. I think our kids are ready to go and throwing between 80 and 90 pitches isn't too much to ask early. The question is how economic that's going to be, is it going to get us through five innings, six. That means we're going to have to use some guys in the middle of the game, give some opportunities to some people. And we'll do some matchup stuff. But it's six game in six days so we're going to have to get pretty deep into our pitching staff."

Q: Do you want your players going to Sonic now? "I'm not going to comment about that! Us other people who don't have to worry about how we look…I love Sonic!"

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