STARKVILLE — When Mississippi State volleyball coach Julie Darty Dennis interviewed for her job with the Bulldogs in 2017, she walked around the Newell-Grissom Building and pointed out the things she wanted to improve.
Over the past five years, MSU administration has granted all her requests. Items already checked off include a new foam Taraflex playing surface that rolls out over the wooden court; the Bulldogs’ coaches’ offices were moved into the building from Humphrey Coliseum.
“But my list never stops,” Darty Dennis told the Starkville Rotary Club on Monday.
“Now I’m asking, ‘Where can I add on? Where can I build? How much parking lot can I take?’ I don’t know what’s next door to me. They keep working on that building. I want to claim it.”
The sixth-year Mississippi State coach evidently has ambitions in line with her program’s recent rise.
MSU — historically one of the weakest programs in the Southeastern Conference — finished second in the league last season and made the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.
The Bulldogs are off to an 8-3 start this year and won their SEC opener against Georgia.
“I appreciate the people who have stuck with us since that first season when we were 1-17 and 13th place in the league,” Darty Dennis said. “I think that makes the whole process and the whole journey so much more meaningful.”
Darty Dennis, who married Mississippi State alum Bryan Dennis in 2020, said she has begun to put down roots in Starkville.
She plans to continue the success she’s found at MSU.
“We really are trying to put this thing on the map for the long term,” Darty Dennis said.
An increased recruiting presence has been beneficial to that.
Darty Dennis said her staff still focuses on recruiting east of the Mississippi, but those who watch the Bulldogs on TV are now a lot more interested than they were when MSU routinely finished toward the bottom of the league table.
“It’s amazing what a couple wins will do for 16-year-old girls,” Darty Dennis said. “They suddenly want to become part of your program.”
When volleyball becomes a more established sport in Mississippi, it should only help the Bulldogs more.
Mississippi State currently has just one player on its roster from the Magnolia State — Rebecca Walk of Bay St. Louis. Darty Dennis hopes that number will increase as Mississippi continues to build infrastructure for the sport.
The MHSAA discontinued slow-pitch softball after the 2019 season, and the elimination of another girls fall spot led to increased interest in volleyball. Club teams like Level Elite in Columbus — run by former MSU coach Tina Seals — exist, and more and more high schools are fielding volleyball teams.
Darty Dennis said the area doesn’t measure up to talent-rich Texas and is “10 or 12 years” behind Birmingham, Alabama, but she thinks Mississippi will get there.
“We’re far off from being able to recruit our entire roster in our state right now, but it’s going to happen,” she said.
Continued growth of volleyball on the airwaves is essential to that. Mississippi State’s match Wednesday at Auburn will air on the SEC Network; so will future SEC contests against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“If you can turn the TV on when volleyball’s on, that would probably help the ratings and keep us on TV,” Darty Dennis said.
The MSU coach detailed the upgrades she hopes to make to get more people coming to matches in person.
She wants an alternate video board on the other end of the court so fans can see from any angle. She wants to alleviate parking concerns fans always seem to have. She wants to add standing room only student seating with drink rails, a la Dudy Noble Field. She wants to take Mississippi State on its first international tour in 2024, something every other SEC program has already done.
Those achievements — and more — will set the Bulldogs onto the path their coach wants them on.
“Now, to say that we’re a volleyball school, I think that people are a little bit stunned about that, but I think we are,” Darty Dennis said. “We’re trying to build our old cow barn into the premier facility in the conference. We’ve been able to make a lot of renovations and a lot of changes over there, so if you haven’t been out to the Griss yet, I encourage you to come.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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