STARKVILLE — When Paige Cook came to Starkville for her first softball camp at Mississippi State, the high school freshman was the youngest player there.
It was impossible to tell from watching her.
From the start, Cook impressed the Bulldogs’ coaching staff, displaying the “gamer” mentality throughout the event. She even socked a home run during live at-bats against one of the older pitchers at the camp.
Since then, Cook has never shown Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts anything else.
“It was what we get now,” Ricketts said of Cook’s initial performance. “It was just gritty, hard nosed.”
Later that fall, Cook, a standout infielder from a small town in Georgia, committed to play for the Bulldogs. In the five and a half years since, she’s found a home away from home in Starkville, navigated an unprecedented freshman year and earned a starting spot in the SEC.
And this weekend, Cook will get to show her skills against the home-state school she once planned to attend when No. 22 Georgia visits Nusz Park.
“I get to play against them but still be a State Bulldog,” Cook said. “It’s definitely going to be weird, but it’s going to be really cool and exciting.”
Finding a second home
Cook hails from Cornelia, Georgia, a city of less than 4,500 people nestled in the mountains of the state’s northeast corner.
If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Cook said people from her own home state didn’t know, either. Several of her teammates with the East Cobb Bullets travel club had to ask for more information.
Even though her hometown is remote, Cook lives just 45 minutes from Georgia’s campus in Athens. It seemed like a natural fit.
“I was born and raised a diehard Georgia fan,” she said. “Growing up, I always thought, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m going to go to Georgia. It’s my hometown. It’s a team I’ve always loved.’”
But when she visited Mississippi State, it was simply more like home. A tour of Starkville gave Cook the feel she was looking for: a place big enough to offer some amenities but not as big as a city like Atlanta, whose bustle Cook tries to avoid.
“I think for her, it just really felt like a second home,” Ricketts said. “She’s a country girl from a small town in Georgia, and she felt like she fit in in Starkville.”
Cook, ranked No. 68 by FloSoftball in the 2019 signing period, became one of the first members of a strong Mississippi State recruiting class. Once she got to campus that fall, she began to settle into a routine: seeing friends and taking her dog Oakley, an Australian shepherd and chocolate Labrador mix, for walks around the city.
As a freshman in 2020, she saw some action off the bench, starting things off with an RBI single in her first career plate appearance. But it was mostly a supporting role as the Bulldogs roared out of the gates on fire, entering Southeastern Conference play with a 25-3 record.
“We were here all fall,” Cook said. “We were getting ready. We were pumped. We came in hot. We were doing so great.”
Cook won’t soon forget what happened next. On March 12, a day before Mississippi State was scheduled to open SEC play against Kentucky at Nusz Park, the 2020 season was placed on pause due to COVID-19, and the NCAA tournament was canceled. By early the following week, the Bulldogs’ promising season was over.
“The momentum was just yanked out from underneath us,” Cook said.
Disappointed and dismayed, Cook and her fellow Bulldogs went home for good just a few days after things first shut down.
While she had more time than she ever expected to spend with her family, she couldn’t help but reflect on the abrupt end to her first season.
“Dang, first year being in college, and this is how it goes,” Cook thought to herself.
She did her best to stay in shape for an eventual return, training at the gym near her house and doing the workouts strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Mock recommended for each of the Bulldogs.
“When I went home, it was my chance to get ahead and get stronger, faster — just improve everything overall so when I did come back I was ready to go and I was ready to compete,” Cook said.
Keeping it rolling
Once she returned just before the start of the fall semester, she continued to get in work at a new position.
A third baseman all her life, Cook had been converted to playing second for the Bulldogs.
“Second base is really to me the toughest position in the infield,” Ricketts said. “You’ve got to have a good sense of the game and be able to know the different coverages and what the plays might be.”
As Cook prepared for her sophomore season, Ricketts said, the question wasn’t whether her bat would hold up. Rather, it was whether she could master the different footwork required and play second base at a high level.
Throughout the fall, Cook proved she could, building on what she’d done at the position in limited action as a freshman. Ricketts had seen all she needed. She was impressed by Cook’s “blue-collar” nature, saying her jersey is always the dirtiest one on the field by the end of a practice or game.
While the Bulldogs took batting practice before their first game of the season, Feb. 13 against Miami (Ohio), Ricketts informed Cook she would be starting at second base.
“It felt amazing to have that accomplishment,” Cook said. “I had some nerves, but I had excitement along with it. It was a great feeling.”
Cook worked a walk-off walk with the bases loaded in the first game of the doubleheader, giving the Bulldogs their first win of 2021. She beat Central Arkansas on a fielder’s choice April 8 and had a clutch catch and a big three-run triple in an April 14 win at Samford.
“One of my favorite things about her is she never gets too big in any situation,” Ricketts said. “She can take a big walk and lay off pitches. She’s not afraid to wear one for an HBP and is also able to hit a ground ball to move some runners around.”
Ricketts said Cook’s at-bats improve in quality during each game, much like leadoff hitter Chloe Malau’ulu’s trips to the plate. It’s why Cook bats in the No. 6 slot — essentially a second leadoff position for the Bulldogs.
“It’s nice to have her there to get back on base for the bottom part and continue the lineup rolling over a little bit,” Ricketts said.
With Cook in the middle of it, Mississippi State’s lineup indeed has been rolling. The Bulldogs have won five of their past seven SEC games after an 0-13 start in conference play.
“I feel like we feel pretty confident,” Cook said. “I feel like we’re going to go in hot and we’re going to do some damage to some people.”
That starts Friday against a second set of Bulldogs — the ones Cook grew up with. She said she’s proud of her accomplishments in SEC softball, especially for “a small-town girl in Georgia that no one knows where in the heck she lives.”
And even though she’s donning the maroon and white instead of the red and black, Cook is right where she hoped to be.
“I feel like I’m still getting that part that I used to always want, even though I’m playing against them,” she said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.