OMAHA, Neb. — Seth Stillman knows he picked a good time to attend Mississippi State University.
In 2014, the fall after Stillman graduated, the Bulldogs’ football team achieved the No. 1 ranking in the country, won 10 games and reached the Orange Bowl. Just one year prior, Stillman traveled to Omaha to watch Mississippi State reach the finals of the 2013 College World Series.
“That meant a lot: to be in school there when we were really, really successful,” Stillman said.
And this summer, the first-year New Hope High School head football coach made another trip to Omaha to watch his alma mater, perhaps hoping to capture the Bulldogs’ yearly postseason magic in a TD Ameritrade Park souvenir cup and convey it back to Trojan Field.
“It means everything,” Stillman said Tuesday of coming to Omaha. “It’s something that MSU strives to do every year, and you almost feel like you’re going to do it every year.”
The Bulldogs reached college baseball’s elite eight in both 2018 and 2019, and this season, they’re back for more. With the cancellation of the 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi State is the only school in the country to have made the last three College World Series.
New Hope could use some of that sustained success. The Trojans won just six games over the past three seasons, and Stillman — formerly the team’s defensive coordinator — hopes to turn things around for the MHSAA Class 5A program.
And make no mistake, Stillman said: There are still lessons that can translate from the baseball diamond to the gridiron.
Mississippi State junior Brad Cumbest is a walking example. The Hurley native, who starts in left field for the Bulldogs and had a key RBI triple Sunday against Texas, isn’t only a baseball player: He’s a wide receiver for Mike Leach’s MSU football team, too.
“It’s kind of awesome to be a football coach and see a guy who’s a two-sport athlete at a really, really high level,” Stillman said.
He said seeing a player like Cumbest excel in both sports helps hammer home the point to his players that they don’t have to specialize, allowing them to become more well rounded and hone their skills in any and all sports.
“You can do it all if you work hard, and there’s nothing wrong with playing more than one,” Stillman said.
Across town at Heritage Academy, not only is playing multiple sports accepted, but it’s almost expected. Without the enrollment numbers of a public school like New Hope, Patriots athletes are busy all year, finding some combination of baseball, softball, football, basketball, soccer and more.
Assistant football coach Henry Pilkington, who made the trip with Stillman and his friends, said he too encourages players to branch out.
“It’s a little bit smaller, and it’s way more critical for our kids to play as many sports as they can for us to be at the competitive level that we want to be at,” Pilkington said.
In recent years, that level has been quite high. In 2019, the Patriots won MAIS titles in boys basketball, baseball and football. However, they lost nearly half the football team as a huge crop of seniors graduated in 2020.
That marked a transition not unlike the change from legendary Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade, which hosted its first College World Series in 2011. Pilkington got the chance to check out both venues, making the Omaha pilgrimage in 1981, 2010, 2013 and now 2021.
“Of course, they’re different, but they’re the same,” he said. “Everything changes. It’s a part of life.”
Pilkington has had an outfield rig at Dudy Noble Field since 1986, and he’s seen the home of Mississippi State baseball evolve. Starting with the 2019 season, the stadium’s new renovations were unveiled, and Pilkington was allowed to inhabit rig No. 78 behind the left-field fence.
Tuesday’s winners’ bracket game against Virginia was his 42nd Mississippi State game of the season, edging Stillman by a single contest. The New Hope coach said the Bulldogs’ April 18 series finale against Ole Miss was a “special” game — particularly after he had to miss the first two matchups because he was coaching a Trojan powerlifter in the state championships in Jackson.
But the Bulldogs’ College World Series opener against the Longhorns eclipsed even that rivalry contest, Stillman said.
“That Texas game may have been the best college baseball game that anybody’s played all year, so that was pretty special to be here for,” he said.
And with Mississippi State’s 6-5, comeback win Tuesday over Virginia, the Bulldogs are just one win away from reaching the best-of-three championship series — hearkening back to the success they enjoyed while Stillman was enrolled.
He, Pilkington and the rest of the crew headed back to Mississippi on Wednesday. But should MSU earn a chance to play for its first national title, there’s no doubt what the coaches will do.
“I’ve been a State fan for a really long time, and having an opportunity to see us play and maybe win a national championship — that’s bucket list stuff,” Stillman said. “There’s no doubt we’ll come back.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.