STARKVILLE — As John Cohen looked at the reporters gathered June 11, he knew his Mississippi State baseball team was about to undergo a major overhaul.
Cohen had just watched his team suffer a loss to Arizona in the Starkville Super Regional that ended one of the most historic seasons in school history. The Bulldogs, who won the Southeastern Conference championship for the first time since 1989 and went 44-18-1. MSU also had a school-record 11 players taken in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft.
Of the 11 drafted, 10 decided not to return to MSU and signed professional contracts. Right-handed pitcher Paul Young also signed a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Royals, and Cohen lost both of his assistant coaches, as Nick Mingione was hired to be the head coach at Kentucky and pitching coach Wes Johnson took the same position at Arkansas.
The departures all came within a small window, leaving Cohen to wonder about the 2017 season. But Cohen views the departures as a positive for the program.
“When your players realize their dreams of playing professional baseball, that’s what you want,” Cohen said. “We feel like they’re all on a pretty good trajectory to play in the big leagues one day.
“You want assistant coaches to better themselves, and you want them to have opportunities to be head coaches. Those guys deserve those opportunities, and I take it as a compliment. I think the athletic directors of the SEC say that Mississippi State knows what they’re doing.”
Even though the turnover is a positive sign of what Cohen has done at MSU, the flip side to it is the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do to defend their SEC crown. With few veterans, underclassmen will have to step into prominent roles.
“You have to challenge your players to be ready and you’re always going to have a new team,” Cohen said. “I think that’s one of the strengths of our programs. No two falls are exactly alike. We’re always trying to attack competition and improvement in different ways every single year. I think that’s one of the things our players enjoy about the fall. They know it’s not going to be like the last one, it’s going to be a little different.”
Cohen promoted coordinator of camps and volunteer assistant Will Coggin to a full-time assistant and recruiting coordinator to replace Mingione. For a while, Cohen and Coggin did the work of a four-man staff. Cohen said any time there is a massive transition it is going to take time to put a staff together.
Cohen filled one of the openings when he hired Gary Henderson, a close friend and someone who worked with him in the past to be the new pitching coach. Henderson resigned after eight seasons as coach at Kentucky. He was Cohen’s pitching coach for five seasons (2004-08) at Kentucky.
Although there is a comfort level and an understanding between the two, that’s not why Cohen hired Henderson.
“There aren’t a lot of staffs in the SEC that have two SEC head coaches on the same staff,” Cohen said. “I think there’s some pluses to that also. Even if Gary and I wouldn’t have worked together, he would have been our best choice just because his body of work. He truly understands pitching, he truly understands player development, he understands being a head coach, and he understands being an assistant coach. The transition has pretty easy.”
Henderson has seen seven of his former pitchers make it into Major League Baseball since 2012. It is the most in the SEC.
Henderson agrees with Cohen that the transition has been smooth.
“I think any time you’re working with somebody you have a relationship with, it makes things a little easier early on,” Henderson said.
Cohen hired former Kentucky player Mike Brown as the coordinator or campus and volunteer assistant.
Along with Young, the Bulldogs lost pitchers Dakota Hudson, Reid Humphreys, Daniel Brown, Zac Houston, Vance Tatum, and Austin Sexton. MSU returns 14 pitchers, including rising senior Blake Smith, rising junior Ryan Rigby, and rising sophomores Konnor Pilkington and Ryan Cyr, who all contributed.
“I haven’t seen them, so the only thing I get to look at is the numbers of their summer baseball experience, and there’s a number of them having good summers,” Henderson said. “In terms of one standing out, I just haven’t had an opportunity for that. I’ve had numerous conversations.”
As for position players, MSU lost Humphreys, Jacob Robson, Nathaniel Lowe, Gavin Collins, and Jack Kruger. The lone player drafted to return is rising junior Brent Rooker, who was taken in the 38th round (1,143 overall) by the Minnesota Twins. Rooker, who hit .324 with a team-high 11 home runs and a team-best 54 RBIs, was a captain in 2016. He likely will serve in that role again.
“We’ll have a lot of younger guys who we’re going to have to rely on, so hopefully having been here for four years, I’ve been through the ups and I’ve been through the downs, I’ll be able to kind guide those guys in the right direction and get our team where it needs to be heading into spring time,” Rooker said.
Several freshmen position players earned ample playing time, including SEC Freshman of the Year Jake Mangum, Elih Marrero, Hunter Stovall, and Luke Alexander. Rooker believes Marrero will be one of the best catchers in the SEC before his career’s over. He also likes how Stovall and Alexander, who is coming off hand surgery, took advantage of their opportunities. The 2015 recruiting class will be asked to take a bigger role.
“It’s going to be a special class, for sure, and I think their time’s going to start this year. They’re going to be major pieces for our team,” Rooker said.
Rooker is joined by veteran position players Cody Brown, Ryan Gridley, and Cole Gordon.
Many Bulldogs have performed well in summer leagues, which gives Cohen confidence.
“All of these guys are a great nucleus for what we’re trying to do,” Cohen said. “I think some really positive things have happened for us with guys going and having great summers. I’m really excited about this group.”
Before Mingione left, he helped put together another quality recruiting class. The mix of freshmen and junior college players figures to help the Bulldogs overcome the attrition.
Cohen wants to have quality teams every year, so he understands with that comes greater opportunities for players and coaches alike. After a disappointing 2015 season, the 2016 season helped get the program back to the top of the SEC and into the national conversation. It also left Cohen with a challenge.
“It’s going to be a little bit difficult on our program, but it’s all good,” Cohen said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.
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