So much so that it's reasonable to see 2009-10 as the true start of the John Cohen era as Mississippi State skipper. The former Diamond Dog outfielder and championship coach at Kentucky knew 2008-09 would be challenging, and a 25-29 outcomes (9-20 SEC) proved just how much a fresh approach was needed. That necessary first stage is over. Coaches, returning veterans, and new personnel are ready to get the second stage underway.
"There's no question it gets easier the second year," Cohen says. "And you know what? It's different taking over a program when it has been struggling. If I had taken over this program after 2007, it's different because there is an automatic confidence level. When you don't have the confidence it's a cloud of doubt around everything."
There's no doubt the Diamond Dogs, old and new alike, also understand what these coaches expect of them in the upcoming fall camp. In the rescheduled camp, that is, which instead of the usual mid-September start is delayed to October 2 when DNF's much-needed new surface is supposed to be ready. Not just the field of play, either, but renovated sidelines and dugouts as well. Faithful fans who endured last spring's soggy season recall standing water on the field in too many games. No longer.
"I've shown pictures when speaking at alumni events from last year, the standing water on the field and the mud in the dugout," Cohen says. "To the average fan, which isn't a Mississippi State baseball fan, the field is not going to look from a distance dramatically different. But we won't have drainage problems. Our dugout won't flood after it rains. We're not changing how the field looks, we're changing how it functions."
Which actually isn't a bad formula for what Cohen has in mind for the team that will practice on that field when-finished. Though if what the coach says about many of the new kids in camp the Diamond Dogs will both look and function much differently in 2010 than last season. Much better, too.
With team practices are over three more weeks away, the Diamond Dogs will have that much more pre-camp time for the NCAA's allowed 4-on-1 small group workouts. This skill instruction phase began the first day of school and runs up to October 2, Cohen says. "By then our pitchers will have been throwing for 40 days preparing, our infielders will have taken thousands of ground balls getting ready. We'll have covered everything, so our players will be ‘thank goodness we actually get to play a structured game!'"
Lots of them, both straight-baseball games or point-scored games. More games than usual too, due to the lengthier pre-camp period. Folk coming to Polk-Dement Stadium on any of those 29 working dates are almost assured of seeing some sort of intrasquad game. This is why Cohen isn't bothered about beginning camp later than usual. In fact he thinks the glass is closer to full than empty in making this adjustment, this year.
"And one thing we're able to do this year that we couldn't do last year is our pitchers are on a daily plan," Cohen explains. "(Coach) Butch Thompson has devised a very provocative plan that is think is going to really help the health of our pitchers. Each four guys are on a five-day plan, doing something different every day prior to fall practice. These four guys are swimming, these four guys are lifting, these other four throwing long-toss, these other four throwing bullpen. So when we get into intrasquads they're already on a plan.
"Pitchers perform better when they know what to expect every single day. Last year we were so short-handed from a numbers standpoint a kid might have to pitch twice a week and the rhythm is disrupted. So all our kids will probably pitch three or four innings a week in one outing, then the rest of the week is rehab to get bigger, stronger, and increase velocity."
Pitching is an obvious priority this fall. So is defense, especially on the infield where an influx of new or improved defenders means serious camp competition. Surprisingly to some, and contrary to how he's perceived, swinging bats is well down the fall practice list for Cohen.
"I don't spend as much time on offense in fall as I do in January and February. I just feel that is enough time, not to mention the weather is going to dictate spending more time inside working on that stroke in January-February. The fall is a defense and pitching time. I mean this, I told the coaches I don't care if our hitters get a hit this fall. What I want to see is our pitchers dominate the strike zone, and our players defensively running to the baseball and dominating defensively."
Weather isn't the only pragmatic reason for this practice plan. Cohen better than most can see how DNF has changed since the days when Bulldog teams battered balls out of the yard. "It is a pitching and defensive park," Cohen says now. "Even more so than when I was playing here twenty years ago. So we're going to pattern our team that way, we're going to defend the field, we're going to run to the ball in the outfield, we're going to have great range and a quick infield. We're going to pitch the daylights out of it."
And one other idea behind this pitching/defense emphasis in fall. Cohen wants to keep his hitters hungry.
"It's kind of like you don't give a young kid sugar because they'll be drawn to that every day. Well, the hitting part is the sugar to hitters; they're not necessarily going to take ground balls on their own or do all the footwork stuff we want defensively. But they'll all go to the cage! So I'm not worried about how many swings they're getting, they're all hitting baseballs.
"And if we had a good week of practice in 4-on-1s we allowed them to hit on Saturdays, it's kind of a reward for doing our defensive stuff during the course of the week!"
The Diamond Dogs reported in good health for the most part this month. There are concerns though. 3B Russ Sneed had a second hip surgery in as many years and will be limited most of fall. Justin Bussey, who will be a full-time pitcher now, had summer shoulder surgery and is targeting spring. OF Ryan Collins spent the summer rehabbing a shoulder but should be ready for camp. P/IF Paxton Pace has had a tough time with an elbow that had to be cleaned-up again after the season. Rotation P Nick Routt is protecting an old back issue but Cohen has no worries about his 2010 status. And rookie P Chris Stratton arrived with a shoulder pinch that ought to clear up quickly.
Readers of this week's series of individual player commentary will notice just how many veterans have returned bigger and stronger. Cohen has stressed this since arrival, saying the physical nature of modern college baseball demands it. "And now the twenty returning players really get it," he says. It's not like they have a choice, of course. Any questions about this coaching staff's focus on physical preparation are answered by what Cohen calls the ‘active warmup' program. Actually he has another title for it.
"It's fifteen minutes of hell," he says. "That's the thing our players hate most. Show up for practice and immediately you're running hills, climbing ladders, doing medi-ball stuff. And it's hard. But when they complete those 15 minutes their heart rate is raised, they're sweating and ready to perform. Our trainers are preparing the bodies to practice."
Infernal, indeed, and Cohen was concerned over the summer that some who'd experienced the pre-practice regimen might not come back for more and potentially worse this second time-around. In the end almost everyone did, including some drafted Dogs who had alternatives. "I am impressed with that. Because kids understand that things are difficult and hard, but I think down inside they understand the benefit of it."
The most notable comebacker of course is 1B Connor Powers, drafted in the 11th round by Los Angeles after slugging 19 home runs. Cohen had already divvied up Powers' scholarship among new players, and other players old and new alike were planning to compete for his job. Naturally nobody is complaining about getting a RBI-producer and proven leader back. In fact Cohen raves about Powers' potential to be one of the nation's top defensive first basemen in 2010. Yet, he says having this old Dog back is big for reasons that fans might not notice.
"Having Connor is like having another coach on the field. We're going through our throwing program, he's doing everything the right way. We're going through every part of our sequence and he does it the right way. It's like when I was in school here and I'd watch John Mitchell, or when Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro came back I'd watch those guys as an immediate model of OK, this is how you do it if you want to be a Mississippi State baseball player. We're going to do this, this, this, and if you don't understand watch this and Connor does it. Or Cody Freeman does it, or Luke Adkins does it."
Freeman isn't mentioned by accident either, as he also made up his mind to return and try to keep a catching job that Cohen signed lots of guys to take. The coach is impressed with both the mindset and even better the improvement Freeman made in off-season. And he, too, can become an extra coach working with younger backstops. This matters ever so much to maximizing what fall 2009 can produce.
"Now our returning guys can just do it, now you can take them to higher levels. Now you're playing chess 15 moves into the process instead of just moving your pawn. It's easier on the coaching staff. The efficiency, the economy of it. But we had to go through this a year ago to make the jump that I think we're going to make this year."
Meanwhile State has gotten a jump-start on fall ball with September's skill instruction. After the Thanksgiving break everyone, players and coaches alike, will provide their written evaluations prior to individual meetings. There players will be handed a detailed ‘prescription' as Cohen calls it of where they stand and what needs doing before the pre-season practices.
But then everyone involved ought to come out of camp with a pretty clear picture anyway. These intrasquad games will have as much intensity as a typical SEC contest if Cohen gets his way. And much like his first-year football counterpart's own camps, there will be fall winners…and losers.
"Competition is everything. I love competition. Especially on the infield, but there is tremendous competition on the infield and outfield. And there are many phases of it; one guy might be better than another guy defensively, he's pushing that other guy to become a better defender. One guy might be a better offensive player so he's pushing that guy to be a better offensive player. So competition is everything and I think we have outstanding competition going on right now."
As well as outstanding questions. With Sneed limited who takes the fall job at third base and how does that ripple into the middle infield where veterans are going to be pushed…hard. "If you're watching our infielders right now, versus what we had last year, the range, the quickness, the arm strength is dramatically different. Nick Vickerson, Jonathan Ogden, Frankie Radow, Jarrod Parks, those are guys that can really run and really throw." Which in turn will allow State to pitch differently the staff hopes and not have to allow for limited range on the left side.
In the outfield Cohen has sky-high expectations for Brent Brownlee, particularly when he's put all shoulder problems behind. Centerfield looks like an ideal slot, except… "I also think Jaron Shepherd can play some center, and I think Trey Johnson can play some centerfield. So there will be some competition there. But defensively Brent can do special things."
Also, "Who is the guy that's going to catch two-out-of-three? Is it going to be Wes Thigpen, is it going to be Cody Freeman, could Kolby Byrd sneak-up and get in that competition, Carlos Leal who could might be able to sneak into that to. But Cody and Wes have the most experience, and both bring something different. Cody is a more offensive catcher, though Wes is very capable of hitting; Wes' arm strength is his specialty."
Those are just some of the fall sub-plots, though pitching is by-far the biggest story. There's already one fine threesome of returnees Devin Jones—who Cohen says is showing Friday-night stuff in skill work—Nick Routt and Tyler Whitney. Yet there are also jucos and freshmen who will have a say in weekend planning, so the staff isn't too concerned with a ‘rotation' coming out of camp. This is time to find who can do what and when they are best doing it. Besides, as Cohen says, "We're talking about twelve new pitchers and nine are freshmen. When you talk about freshmen the issue is what can they do to help you out immediately"
Which is another way of saying Mississippi State isn't waiting two or three years more to get the baseball rolling the right way again. While a return to national stature might take that long, Cohen is ready to take a Diamond Dog team to the SEC Tournament, then the NCAAs in 2010. Those are the next steps.
"Are we where we want to be right now, no. In years to come we're going to be there. When all that comes together it's going to be special."