By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – When John Cohen joined the Mississippi State baseball program in 1987, one teammate who caught his eye was John Mitchell.
Just two years earlier, Mitchell had been a key member of an MSU team that reached the College World Series.
“I want to be like this guy,” Cohen told himself.
In 1990, Cohen’s senior year, State was back in the CWS, the program’s first in five years. He thinks being around guys like Mitchell are what got the Bulldogs back to Omaha.
Cohen, who just completed his third season as MSU head coach with a 38-25 record and a trip to the NCAA super regional round, sees the same sort of thing happening with his promising young players. Some of them were key contributors this year, while many stayed on the bench.
Either way, there was a benefit to them witnessing the Bulldogs’ deep postseason run. They were able to see “the ingredients of winning” exemplified in older players.
“Quite frankly, we just didn’t have a lot of that our first two years for younger guys to say, that’s what it’s supposed to look like on the mound, that’s what it’s supposed to look like defensively, that’s what it’s supposed to look like at home plate,” Cohen said. “When you do have it happen and there’s success, young guys can gravitate toward that.”
MSU is losing seven starters and possibly a couple of pitchers – juniors Devin Jones and Nick Routt – but Cohen loves the talent of his younger players. A lot.
He said his freshmen have more talent than this year’s seniors, but the lineup was senior-heavy due to their experience and ability to handle big moments. Bringing the younger players along slowly is a big deal to Cohen, who his first two years would often have to throw freshmen right into the fray regardless of if they were ready.
Cohen is expecting big things next year from guys who redshirted, like DeMarcus Henderson, Brayden Jones, Wes Rea and Hunter Renfroe.
“We have a lot of confidence in this group,” Cohen said.
Less ‘frenzy,’ more pitching
The biggest issue when Cohen returned to MSU was pitching, and so he threw nearly all his initial recruiting effort into building up the staff. He said he and his assistants were in a “recruiting frenzy” because they were so far behind.
There is no frenzy now.
“We can take some deep breaths, really evaluate and be very, very choosy,” said Cohen. “And we’ve been choosy from the moment we got here. It’s just the pool was different just by the nature of the timetable.”
Even if Jones and Routt do leave – Jones was drafted, and Routt could get picked up as a free agent if deemed healthy enough – Cohen loves his set of arms.
“I really believe we’re going to be a dramatically better pitching staff,” he said.
The success of 2011 suggests the Bulldogs are moving in the right direction. They stayed out of the SEC cellar, made the SEC Tournament for the first time in four years, and won an NCAA Regional.
Losing to Florida for a right to play in the CWS was tough for Cohen to swallow, and he reiterated Wednesday that he’s not into moral victories. But he does see this season as a clear sign of progress.
“My vision when I came here was to win a national championship, and I think we’re on the tracks.”
Athletics director Scott Stricklin was at Kentucky when Cohen took that program to new heights, so he’s quite familiar with what’s happening now at MSU.
“I think he’s getting it to now where you can expect we’re going to be a program that can compete in the toughest league in the country,” Stricklin said. “You do that consistently enough, long enough, your going to win your share of championships.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.