Athletics Turns Page On Record-Setting Year
STARKVILLE, Miss. - The thing about good memories is you can’t have them until that good thing is gone.
As this week begins, it marks the unofficial beginning to the 2013-14 athletic year, conversely signifying the end of 2012-13.
In the transition, one of the most successful years in Mississippi State history turns from present to past.
Every success, failure or draw turns from reality to memory. The elation of victory becomes nostalgia as the bitterness of loss loses some of its sting.
Every minute, hour and day of practice, preparation and planning has now seen its final result, and the cycle begins anew for each player, coach and administrator.
All of the work, however, was not in vain, nor did it go unnoticed.
The Learfield Director’s Cup is an annual ranking of the athletic departments across the country based on postseason appearances by up to as many as 20 teams, as well as any advancement in those postseason tournaments.
Mississippi State of course, like many of its SEC brethren, does not field 20 teams, let alone having extra to pick their 20 best, and thus finds itself at a bit of a rankings-disadvantage, but when the list was released last week, the Bulldogs had their highest-ever finish in the history of the Cup, coming in at 49th.
Appropriately, the final game of the record-setting year came at the peak of MSU sports history with the Diamond Dawgs in the National Championship. Sure, they lost the game, but there were no bigger winners in the College World Series than the Bulldogs and their fans.
As it ended in the heat, so it began in muggy August training camps last year under energy-sapping suns, kicking off on September 1 in front of 55,000 at Davis Wade Stadium as MSU hosted Jackson State. Tyler Russell threw, LaDarius Perkins ran, Chad Bumphis caught and Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks kept the Tigers from doing the same.
The Bulldogs won game one.
Then they won six more in a row, vaulting to the top 15 of the polls and preparing for the biggest MSU football game in years, playing at No. 1 Alabama.
While it’s easy to be consumed with results at the time, the true impact of the game, like the College World Series Championship, had little to do with the outcome of the contest.
Whether it’s found cheesy or inspiring, MSU’s #WeBelieve campaign brought Bulldogs across the country (and even world) together in a show of unity previously unseen by the supporters of Starkville’s school.
In a year with record numbers in donations, new coaches and unmatched victories, Maroon and White fans showed not that they were rich or successful, but that they are, have been and will continue to be faithful.
Results certainly matter, and MSU has those, but Bulldogs more than anyone have proven Ernest Hemingway right when he wrote about life’s experiences: “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”
Whether in suffering or triumph, Bulldogs had fans to look to, supporters who cheered them on, faithful, loyal people who stood behind them both in dogpiles on the mound or as they emerged from locker rooms covered in sweat and tears from loss.
And often, that faithfulness was rewarded.
In his first year as the new men’s basketball coach, Rick Ray’s team had more injuries than a Shark Week special, but as the end of the season drew near, he took to the campus, going from house-to-house, student-to-student, asking for support.
Against Ole Miss that weekend, the biggest crowd of the year showed up, despite a disappointing record, and they watched and cheered as Ray took down the Rebels at The Hump and the players jumped into the student section, smiles etched permanently on their faces, celebrating with their peers.
Vic Schaefer, too, began his first season coaching the women’s basketball team, and while he acknowledged the difficult road ahead, he asked for support and perseverance. He got it, and he too made strides, managing a similar feat and one to earn applause from any Bulldog: he beat the rival.
Early in the unpredictable Mississippi spring, Vann Stuedeman’s softball team planned a Luau Night at the stadium. They ordered leis, fans wore their best floral print and they filled the seats.
Then it rained. And it was freezing. But the support never wavered, and neither did the Bulldogs, reaching an NCAA Regional for the second time in Stuedeman’s two seasons.
Throughout the year, it wasn’t just the uniforms (whether maroon, white, black or silver) the fans cheered for. It was the people.
The two seniors making up Poof Nation on the soccer team. The Bench Mobb and all of their antics. Walk-on basketballer Tyson Cunningham singing the National Anthem. MSU alum Jenny Hazelwood watching as the players she coached broke the records she had once set. Luis Pollorena, the cancer survivor. And Linda Bell, the mother of Nick, honored on what should have been her son’s Senior Day at Davis Wade.
The blacked out 36-yard line memorializing a Bulldog gone, but treasured and most certainly not forgotten, forever Maroon and White.
The ups and downs of sports can make it hard on fans, but the people of Mississippi State make it easy for those who support them both through valleys and peaks.
Not to say there wasn’t plenty of winning, of course.
Erica Bougard and D’Angelo Cherry won indoor national titles as part of one of the best track and field programs in the nation.
Ally McDonald, just a sophomore, competed for a national title of her own, alongside her teammates who helped MSU women’s golf to its first-ever appearance at Nationals.
From their clubhouse, the men’s golf team completed, by all measurements, the most successful campaign in program history.
Men’s tennis made it to the prestigious Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, after hosting the first two rounds in Starkville.
A third-straight bowl game, a magical run in the College World Series, five individuals or teams playing for a National Championship and record-setting crowds everywhere from baseball and softball to football and tennis.
Going back and re-reading a book or re-watching a movie will never quite be the same as the first time, when you experience something not knowing what will happen, what twists and turns will come, not realizing you’re falling in love with the characters, with the people and places.
But when you finish a great one - be it novel, film or TV show - you know. You realize this will be one you talk about forever.
This year, at Mississippi State, you know.
We’ll remember 2012-13.