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Mississippi State started conducting annual fall drafts years before the coronavirus pandemic forced every program to play only intrasquad scrimmages.
The Bulldogs wanted to help incentivize their players, so they took a page from the playbook of former baseball coach John Cohen, who is now MSU’s athletic director.
The winning team received steaks for dinner while the losing team got hot dogs.
“We tried that our first year and the girls liked the hot dogs more than the steaks,” MSU head coach Samantha Ricketts said with a laugh.
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MSU tweaked the nutritional formula, and now the winning team gets to order anything they want off the menu at whatever restaurant is chosen each year. The losing team always gets chicken and broccoli.
“Appetizers, dinner and dessert — the players on the winning team are usually so full they end up taking everything to go,” Ricketts said. “The worst part is the losing team has to sit there and eat and watch them.”
The Bulldogs followed the same blueprint this fall, but, like many other programs across the country, they have embraced the scoring format used by Athletes Unlimited during its recently-completed inaugural season.
MSU players drafted three teams for their scrimmages and fall World Series. Nicole Pendley, an AU player, is a graduate assistant on the MSU staff this season and helped explain the format in greater detail.
“The style works really well in our favor, especially when we are having to do three-team scrimmages every week,” Ricketts said. “I like how individual performances help the team, so if you are having a bad day somebody else can pick you up and contribute to you and you still gain points by being good teammates.”
Ricketts was promoted to head coach in July of 2019 after spending four seasons as an assistant on the MSU staff. In her first season at the helm in 2020, she became the fastest head coach in program history to reach 20 wins (in 23 games).
The Bulldogs were 25-3 when the season was cut short because of Covid-19.
MSU added only three new players this season, which has kept the roster at a manageable size of 23.
Since not every player had access to a gym while away from the team during the pandemic, MSU’s staff used a slower ramp up period to avoid injuries and get the team ready for fall workouts.
The Bulldogs have three new freshmen — middle infielder Taylor Middlebrook, and two dual-threat pitchers in right-hander Addison Purvis and Kylie Taylor.
Purvis, a Missouri native, is a lefty power hitter with fast hands who can play first base when not pitching.
“It’s been really good for her to be out there against the upperclassmen getting to pitch to them and hit against them,” Ricketts said. “She is really coming along. It’s really a trial by fire with the older kids.”
Given the increase in specialization and travel ball participation, Ricketts is cognizant of transitioning freshmen to college slower than in the past.
“They are a little bit banged up coming in and are having to deal with a longer ramp up period,” Ricketts said. “I think we are seeing that more and more with freshmen coming in having played year round with no breaks. We have to get them back healthy again.”
With eight pitchers on staff, the Bulldogs have the bullpen depth to rival a baseball program.
“It’s definitely our largest position group,” Ricketts said. “I am really excited about our pitching staff and the gains they made. They finally have a full year with Coach (Josh) Johnson in the bullpen, and it’s just been really fun to track their progress to see not only the number of improvements they made but the confidence and approach to everything they are doing in BP, on the field and in the classroom.”
Junior Emily Williams was 5-0 with a 0.46 ERA, 75 strikeouts and 21 walks in 45.2 innings in 2020. Willis was 9-1 with a 0.80 ERA, 78 strikeouts and eight walks. Grace Fagan went 7-2 with a 2.41 ERA, 51 strikeouts and 14 walks in 40.2 IP.
Senior Alyssa Loza was used in an opening role for the Bulldogs, posting a 1.26 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 16.2 IP.
“She has done a really great job. She almost came back in better shape after quarantine,” Ricketts said. “As a fifth-year senior, I think there is just a lot of fire in her to take advantage of the extra time she was given. I really love her leadership.”
MSU has versatility to complement its depth. Willis and Loza can hit 70 mph on the gun, while Williams and Fagan rely more on spin, movement and changing speeds.
Having larger staffs has allowed the Bulldogs to work through the rotation and capitalize on the best matchups depending upon the opponent.
“The biggest thing is trying to set each pitcher up for success, and knowing if one is better one time through the lineup we are going to take her out and make a change before she starts getting hit hard,” Ricketts said. “I think it worked really well in the spring the way they were managed, and now some are fighting for bigger roles and know that it’s an open line of communication with the coaches.”
Nearly all the heavy hitters are back for MSU, including lineup anchors Mia Davidson and Fa Leilua.
Davidson, a junior catcher, batted .330 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs in 2020.
Leilua, a senior utility, hit .384 with nine home runs and 28 RBIs.
“Mia’s just been Mia and tearing the cover off the ball all fall long,” Ricketts said. “And Fa is going on Year 6 in college. She is going to be 24 in the spring. She is going up against 18-year-old pitchers.”
The Bulldogs had eight players hit at least .300, and eight record at least 10 RBIs.
Carter Spexarth batted .379 with 20 RBIs, Anna Kate Segars hit .345 and Chloe Malau’ulu and Madisyn Kennedy each drove in 18 runs.
Ricketts said senior Montana Davidson, Mia’s sister, has gained confidence and looks “great” this fall.
“Getting to play against our own team is probably more beneficial for our pitchers and hitters. It gives them some really good competition,” Ricketts said. “It’s probably less confidence-building than our pitchers would normally get in a fall season. But I think the challenge is good for both sides.”
The Bulldogs don’t designate captains, preferring leadership to be more democratic and situational. Some players are more vocal on the field while others step forward in the weight room, cages or meeting rooms.
Christian Quinn, Leilua, Mia Davidson, Loza and Segars have provided steady leadership across all realms.
“We really emphasize that we want it to be player-led and not always just fed into them by coaches,” Ricketts said. “We don’t want to exclude anyone and make them feel like they can’t speak up at any point. I think a lot of the upperclassmen really have taken hold of that.”