Samantha Ricketts saw something different.
From her typical perch in the third-base dugout at Nusz Park, the Mississippi State softball coach has a clear view of right field.
But when she settled in for the second game of the Bulldogs’ season-opening doubleheader against Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 13, Ricketts beheld something new: a group of a dozen or so “rowdy” young men standing on the wooden deck behind the right-field fence, leaning over the gray outfield wall.
“They looked like a crew of guys who’d been to a lot of Left Field Lounge games at Dudy Noble,” Ricketts said. “It was a lot of fun to see that atmosphere over at Nusz Park.”
For the first time, the Epsilon-Chi Zeta chapter of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity had come to support Mississippi State softball, then in the midst of what ended up as a school-record 17-game winning streak. Lambda Chi brothers loved the experience so much they’ve been at every home game since — and in increasing numbers — setting up a tradition that seems here to stay.
“We are a softball school,” junior Lambda Chi member Richard Lake said. “One hundred percent.”
Creating the atmosphere
At the 49-second mark of a Hail State Productions recap video posted to the softball team’s social media accounts Feb. 14, eight Lambda Chi members make a brief appearance as they cheer a first-inning Mia Davidson home run.
Ricketts, watching the clip, didn’t know who they were. She just knew she wanted them back.
She screenshotted the frame and posted a message on Instagram saying the team had enjoyed the group’s presence and hoped the young men would return. Lambda Chis found her missive, informing Ricketts that it was them and that they would indeed be back. At the Bulldogs’ next games on Feb. 21, fraternity members approached the dugout to receive T-shirts, hats and other team gear.
“We were excited to be there, and they were very excited that we came back,” sophomore Griffin Bramer said.
Bramer said the new tradition started when a group of members looked for something to do on a Saturday afternoon. When they saw the softball team was playing at home, they headed to Nusz Park for the Bulldogs’ second game of the day.
There, just 200 feet from home plate, they found a proximity they couldn’t achieve at baseball games and other athletic contests. Lambda Chi members joked around with right fielder Chloe Malau’ulu and initiated call-and-response “maroon” chants at the Mississippi State dugout, waiting on their new favorite team to yell “white” in response. They even good-naturedly harangued opposing players, which didn’t always pay off: As soon as the final out was recorded in a 6-5 extra-inning loss to Southern Illinois on Feb. 21, Salukis right fielder Bailey Caylor turned to face the wooden deck and waved, a big smile on her face.
Ricketts said the energy Lambda Chi brings to ballgames is exactly what she tries to promote within her program.
“We like to have fun when we play, and those guys bring a lot to that atmosphere with their cheers and their interactions,” Ricketts said, “and whether they’re heckling the other team or cheering on our right fielders, I know it’s a lot of fun for our team.”
The fraternity members have enjoyed their experiences so much that they’ve tried to recruit others to join the group. The initial headcount was just 11, but Lambda Chi now averages 20-30 fans per contest.
“Every game, the crowd’s gotten a little bigger,” junior Garrett Wright said. “We keep telling everyone, ‘Hey, man, it’s a good time out there.'”
Growing the game
When he was in high school in Cumming, Georgia, Bramer didn’t know much about softball and didn’t care to learn.
“Oh, it’s just softball,” he once thought. “It seems like it would be pretty easy.”
But when he came to Nusz Park for the first time, he realized his misconception. With a smaller distance between the circle and home plate, pitches come in fast, often with intense movement. The more he watched, the more he gained appreciation for softball — and other women’s sports that don’t typically garner the attendance, revenue or recognition of football, men’s basketball and baseball.
“It’s really cool seeing how much support we can give to them,” Bramer said. “Women’s sports, people always kind of talk down on them, but they’re way more fundamental, and to me it seems a lot more exciting to watch.”
Junior Matthew White admitted he didn’t know the Bulldogs were on a 16-game winning streak before first coming out to Nusz Park. He’d been to several football and baseball games before the COVID-19 pandemic but found softball to be one of most fun experiences in athletics at Mississippi State because of the interaction between Lambda Chi members and the players on the field.
“We show support for them, and they also show support to us for coming out there and hyping them up,” White said.
Wright, an intern last year with Mississippi State’s athletic department, was one of the few members who was already familiar with the softball team. He worked with the game-day staff for most of the Bulldogs’ 2020 contests, so he knew the lineup and the players well.
This season, he’s had the chance to introduce the sport to his Lambda Chi brothers — some of whom wouldn’t even be considered sports fans.
“I could tell all my friends, ‘Hey, this girl’s going to hit a nuke here,'” Wright said. “I’ve kind of gotten to know the team, and I did last year, but it’s really cool getting to see everyone else getting to know this team as well.”
And it’s been just as fun for the Bulldogs on the field and in the dugout as it is for the men on the other side of the fence.
“Having Lambda Chi out there for every home game has really been a lot of fun for us and for the team,” Ricketts said.
Expanding the crowd
Between innings during the Bulldogs’ Feb. 24 home game against Mississippi Valley State, the Lambda Chi brothers in attendance asked Mississippi State outfielders to come take a picture with them to promote softball to other fraternity members.
But the Bulldogs told them after the game would be better to snap a photo. True to their word, once Mississippi State wrapped up a 10-2 win, all 23 players sprinted to the right-field fence to pose in front of the wall with 13 grinning Lambda Chis.
“We went crazy,” Bramer said.
Ricketts posted the photo on Instagram that night, crediting Lambda Chi for “bringing the energy” to the right-field deck. Lambda Chi members and Mississippi State players began following each other on the social media platform en masse.
It was a sign that the camaraderie between the team and the fraternity has continued to grow. Ricketts said Mississippi State hopes to help Lambda Chi attend Wednesday’s game at No. 3 Alabama provided that members can transport themselves to Tuscaloosa.
“It’s been pretty interesting to see how they want to work with us and keep us coming out there,” White said. “I thought that was really cool.”
The fraternity plans to attend Bulldog Invitational games Friday and Saturday, hoping to bring 40-50 members along. On Saturday, if permitted, Lambda Chi will even grill hamburgers and hot dogs in the adjacent parking lot.
But even with as much support as Lambda Chi has given the Bulldogs, its members don’t want the fun to stop with them. They’ve made sure to tell their friends outside the fraternity as well as in it how much fun attending softball games has been.
“We’re not trying to make it just an ‘us’ thing,” Wright said. “That’s the goal: to try and get as many people there, because they deserve the fans just as much as anyone else.”
Lake, who has seen firsthand how much the Mississippi State community rallies around athletics, thinks that will happen sooner rather than later.
“There’s literally nothing people won’t support as long there’s maroon and white on it, as pertains to sports,” he said. “This has literally been the purest form of that, and it’s been really exciting.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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