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Lemonis, Bulldogs Intent On 2024 Return To Form, Tradition

Updated: Feb 1

By Doug Kyle

It was a boxing movie, and perhaps a bit cheesy at that, but the line Sylvester Stallone uttered as Rocky Balboa has often been quoted in other sports. “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

The Mississippi State Bulldogs college baseball team hit pretty hard in 2021, pitched pretty hard too, in winning the Men’s College World Series National Championship. They also got hit hard a time or two on the way, dropping a late night game in the rain to Texas before coming back to win a spot in the Finals with a pinch runner and a pinch hitter (okay, technically it was a late inning defensive replacement, but let's not mess up my alliteration). Then, they got jumped on by defending champion Vanderbilt in Game 1, before dominating the last two for their first MCWS title in a dozen trips to Omaha.

But, it’s now 2024, two disappointing seasons later, only one player remains from the ring squad, and while history is on their side, history also threatens to repeat itself. It’s a pivotal year in so many ways, and Mississippi State is being challenged to show how hard it can get hit and keep moving forward.

That was the theme reflected in the recent media preview, held appropriately in the Omaha Room at Dudy Noble Field, Polk-Dement Stadium. You don’t name meeting space in your ballpark that without the history and credentials to back it up. And, judging by comments from Head Coach Chris Lemonis, as well as a half dozen players, who sat down and fielded questions without hesitation or exclusion, there is an air of determination and quiet confidence that come what may, they’re focused on turning things around.

That’s good news for fans, young and old, who’ve grown accustomed to a tradition of winning at Mississippi State. It’s not without factual underpinning, for a program whose all-time wins are second only to Texas A&M in the SEC and which rarely misses post season competition more than an occasional off-year.

In fact, since the Southeastern Conference went from a two-team divisional playoff to a (then) four-team tournament in 1977, Mississippi State has missed the SECT three straight years only once, the final year of Ron Polk’s tenure and the first two of successor John Cohen’s. There were even a couple years when the Bulldogs didn’t qualify for a smaller (than the current 12 teams) SECT field and still made the NCAA tournament. But, no single State coach has ever missed post season play three straight years since Paul Gregory, 1972-74. He was no slouch either, winning the SEC crown four out of six years and making the first Bulldog trip to Omaha in 1971.

There’s your fan expectation, there’s your program tradition, and there’s what Lemonis and his deep and talented squad aim to restore in the "prove it" year of 2024.

To be sure, by his own statement, there is no Landon Sims type closer on this year’s team, who can slam the back door shut in such a dominating style. There might not even be a Will Bednar starter type, although it’s sometimes overlooked “Mr. Horns Down” in his two seasons at State started only once in COVID-shortened 2020 and even began slowly in 2021 (neck soreness) before becoming the dominating force for which he’s so fondly remembered in the stretch run to and at Omaha.

What there is for Lemonis and new pitching coach Justin Parker to call on is a staff Lemonis estimates at around 20 hurlers, a number of whom were lost to injury in 2022 or 2023 and are now back with a vengeance and ready to rock and roll. The only Opening Weekend exemption might be lefthander Pico Kohn, who Lemonis says is close and could contribute later in the season.

Two returning rehabs who are back strong are Stone Simmons, who missed the rest of 2022 after an early season injury against Tulane, then all of 2023; and Brooks Auger, who looked sharp in a recent scrimmage and worked a noteworthy in-order inning.

Add in Nate Dohm, whose 2023 injury absence was thankfully short-lived and who has not only improved his form and delivery with help from Parker, he added more pitches of varying break and speed to his already high-90s heat. Highly-touted 2023 freshman Bradley Loftin is also back from injury, then there's switch pitcher Jurrangelo Sijntje, who worked to improve his left side efficacy up to his right side level; not to mention an imposing Colby Holcombe who’s now more comfortable throwing a changeup that bundles with his intimidating fast ball, and steady stalwart Evan Siary, just to name a few from last year’s box scores.

Then, there are the many transfers. Khal Stephen (who played with Dohm on a star-studded Team Indiana in their native state) and Karson Ligon (Miami transfer) figure to see key action. And, how about we add in conference fireman of the year/JC national champion Cam Schuelke, whose sidearm delivery from the third base side of the mound often appears first to break left to right and then uncannily curves back the opposite direction at the last second to nip the corner.

Lemonis says the depth of the team, both position players and pitching, is one of the strengths of the team, at the same time noting that the challenge of that is figuring out who wins the coveted starting jobs for only eight positions and three weekend rotation slots. Thanks to the DH, any one player who isn’t wearing a glove in the field on a particular day may still be swinging a bat at the plate.

Some starters are pretty much set. Highly projected draft picks Hunter Hines and Dakota Jordan are expected at first base and right field, respectively, although returnee Aaron Downs has backed up Hines in scrimmages. Returnee Amani Larry looks to have second base, although versatile Bryce Chance has worked both there and in the outfield, where he expects to play left on Opening Day.

The battle for shortstop continues between returnee David Mershon and freshman Dylan Cupp, one of the Top 10 highest rated players nationally who made it to a college campus. Returnee Nate Chester and Memphis transfer Logan Kohler continue to battle for third base. Returnee Ross Highfill appears to be the starter at catcher, and returnee Connor Hujsak appears to lead for the centerfield spot.

All in all, it's a squad that is deep, experienced, close knit, and ready to prove a point. There are three Top 100 projected draft choices, in Jordan, Hines, and Dohm. There are three Top 100 sophomores, Jordan, Loftin, and Cijntje. There are four Top 130 Impact Transfers, Ligon, Stephen, Schuelke, and Kohler. There are three of four Top 75 Freshman, Cupp, Nolan Stevens, and Luke Dotson, the fourth being projected closer Mikhai Grant, who was lost to injury in the fall.

Those who judge this team's prospectus by the past two seasons may prefer to see before they believe, but they'd also best not overlook its resolve and mission commitment. You won't hear or elicit specific goals from a coach or player, although the targets certainly start with a return trip to Hoover, AL, May 21-26, for the SEC Tournament. What you will hear is confidence, and a determination that the way back begins by winning Opening Day February 16 against Air Force and winning every game possible after that.

Here's the full interview from Head Coach Chris Lemonis at 2024 Media Day. (Audio has been enhanced as much as possible to clarify the questions being asked off mic.)

TOMORROW: Meet pitchers Stone Simmons, Nate Dohm, and Colby Holcombe.


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