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Why I “Had to Go” Watch Mississippi State Win the College World Series

“When I say the Mississippi Sate baseball program saved my life, I mean it in the most literal sense.”

Unbelievable. Immaculate. Preternatural.

While I’m sensitive to each individual’s definition of a “perfect day”, I simply cannot fathom a more incredible, awe-inspiring, and emotional experience – from a sport perspective, that is – than what I went through on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. I will do my very best to articulate the origin of every shred of raw emotion from my trip to the 2021 College World Series. I do ask that you bear with me; I still cannot believe what I was fortunate enough to witness.

Hail State!

I spent my entire undergraduate and graduate career working for the Mississippi State baseball program. From my first scrimmage in 2011 to my final, gut-wrenching game of 2019, the program went through a sea of change. An SEC Tournament Championship in 2012 and a trip to the College World Series final against UCLA in 2013 was swiftly followed up with a last-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in 2015. By the time I returned to the program in the fall of 2017, things had turned around, to the tune of an SEC Championship and back-to-back Super Regional appearances.

Over the course of my time back in Starkville, coaches came and went, some under more acrimonious circumstances than others. Players reached the pinnacle of individual success, while others saw their baseball careers end before they truly had a chance to begin.

The stadium was gutted and transformed into the grandest cathedral of college baseball the sport has ever seen.

My particular role within the program, under the umbrella of video and analytics operations, went from one person running an outdated charting software on an even more outdated laptop to an entire team of graduate assistants and undergraduates manning multiple forms of technology for every game and practice. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to be the catalyst behind that transformation.

Justin Aguiar, MSST Grad Assistant

My first season back in Starkville did not start off great. Prior to the start of the season, one of my best friends unexpectedly and tragically passed away. My mental health took a massive downturn as a result. As Opening Day approached, I was spiraling, and I eventually hit rock bottom. At a time when I needed the most help, interim head coach Gary Henderson was my confidant and did everything he could to support and lift me out of that dark place.

When I say the Mississippi State baseball program saved my life, I mean it in the most literal sense.

Overcoming Adversity as a Team

Let’s fast-forward to the end of the 2018 season. After losing our head coach three games into the season and starting 2-7 in conference play, the Bulldogs shocked the baseball world and made it to the College World Series. Along the way, the team swept the likes of Arkansas and Florida, feats that only those of us in the clubhouse thought were possible.

Elijah MacNamee hit one of the most important and memorable home runs in the history of the program – a 3-run walk-off in an elimination game against Florida State in the Tallahassee Regional.

The team played a Super Regional series against Vanderbilt that will be replayed for the rest of time as one of the greatest college baseball series ever, culminating in the Bulldogs toppling the Commodores in Game 3 to clinch a spot in Omaha.

While the team was ultimately eliminated by eventual champion Oregon State, not a single person in or around that program left Omaha with their head hanging low. We accomplished what no one thought was possible given the hand we were dealt.

It took a different kind of strength and toughness to get there, and we did it as a team. I still carry those lessons with me to this day.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

The 2019 season was a much different story. Chris Lemonis was hired as our new head coach, and he hit the ground running. All through the fall, there was a different energy around the team, and that energy flowed over into the regular season.

To put it simply, we dominated. We had Ethan Small and JT Ginn – one of the best, if not the best, starting pitching duos in the country. Our lineup was full of established, gritty players, including the legendary Jake Mangum. No one was stopping us.

Off the field, my mental health had also done a complete 180 from the season prior. I was happy and healthy, and those dark thoughts were nowhere to be found.

But it’s never that easy, is it?

As we prepared for Game 2 of the Starkville Super Regional against Stanford – a game that would send us back to the College World Series if we won – the world once again stopped spinning.

Shortly before first pitch of that game, I found out that my father had passed away. To say that I was shell-shocked would be an understatement. I cannot clearly recall the following two hours of that evening; bits and pieces are still there, but much of that time is still lost in a fog. After spending the first half of the game back at my apartment, I realized what I needed more than anything at that moment was to be back at the stadium with that team. They had become my family, and I was not about to miss out on watching them celebrate another trip to Omaha. The 9th inning of that game is better than anything a Hollywood script could ever describe. Jake Mangum gets a leadoff single in his final at-bat at Dudy Noble Field, then Elijah MacNamee crushes a three-run home run in his final at-bat at Dudy Noble Field. I thought the place was going to collapse at that very moment. Cole Gordon then gets a swinging strike three on a curveball to end the game and send us back to Omaha.

My dad and I hadn’t been close for many years. Our relationship was strained. We didn’t speak to one another. But he was there that night, and you will never be able to convince me that he wasn’t.

For as dominant as the 2019 team was, the ball just didn’t seem to want to bounce our way in Omaha. That final game was as painful a loss I’ve ever experienced in sport, and the guys in the clubhouse can attest to that. It was written all over my face as I hugged each and every one of them and told them I much they meant to me. My time as a graduate assistant was over, and we didn’t get to end it the way we wanted.

Why I Cried at Work

I spilled those 1,100+ words there because I felt they were important to help you understand where my mind was when I found out I was going to be watching my team play for a National Championship.

I also wrote those words to hopefully explain why I was so overcome with emotion when the final out was made.

The Mississippi State program saved me. No matter where I go, who I work for, or what I do, I will always be indebted to Mississippi State for helping me find the strength to keep going.

If you are or anyone you know is contemplating and/or struggling with self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or any other dangerous self-inflicted behavior, please contact the following:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741