Summer Collegiate : : Story
Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Omaha, Starkville and Amsterdam

Nate Schweers        
Photo: Dustin Skelton (Kelly Donoho/MSU Athletics)

For the past week, all eyes of the baseball world have been on the College World Series and its historic moments. From pitching gems to walk off hits, this college baseball postseason has been one to remember.

One of the stories that captivated baseball fans was the postseason run by the Mississippi State Bulldogs. After starting the year 2-7, the Bulldogs were able to fight and claw their way back to Omaha. This magical run came to an end on Saturday night following a loss to Oregon State.

Tucked away in a Northeast corner of the United States, the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League is barreling on to what should be an exciting second month of the summer season. Historically one of the better franchises in the PGCBL, the Amsterdam Mohawks find themselves atop the East Division standings through the first 16 games.

To many outside the world of collegiate summer baseball there is connection to be found between the Amsterdam Mohawks and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Upon closer look, there is much more to this relationship than meets the eye.

At the center of much of the postseason magic for Mississippi State was catcher Dustin Skelton. Skelton started 38 games for the Bulldogs behind the plate as a sophomore this season, and he also was a key member of an Amsterdam Mohawks team that made the PGCBL playoffs last year.

When Skelton arrived in Amsterdam last summer, he featured some of the best tools for a freshman that general manager Brian Spagnola had ever seen. As he was able to follow Skelton’s progress in what would be a strong freshman year at Mississippi State, Spagnola knew he was getting a special player.

He [Dustin] came here as a pretty high-heralded kid, and we knew from the fall that he was going to be playing a lot and that he had good tools,” said Spagnola. “You could see those tools right away. He’s a big strong kid, and by the end of the summer he was really swinging it well.”

During that 2017 summer, Skelton batted .337, hitting two home runs and driving in 19 runs for the season. For players like Skelton, getting at-bats and finding ways to develop during the summer is a key to remaining a top player in the always-competitive SEC.

You have to make sure you're getting at-bats because you're not seeing the type of arms and the type of players you would in high school,” Skelton told Perfect Game from the College World Series in Omaha. “I think its a really good, a really good opportunity l had last summer, to go play in probably one of the best leagues, the Perfect Game League. So I just have gone out there trying to see if I could see some quality arms and compete to the best of my ability.”

Skelton is no stranger to success on the baseball field. A history of success has pushed him to be the best baseball player he can be, and he makes sure that rubs off on his teammates.

“I just try to lead by example. I've won five state championships, I know how to win, I know what it takes to win, you just have to go out there and be strong. Can't be weak minded, because you know there's going to be ups and downs all throughout the year, so you just got to take it, one game, one pitch at a time and just compete to the best of your ability.”

Mississippi State continues to have a strong relationship with Spagnola. While Skelton made his mark in Amsterdam last season, there are new Bulldogs looking to deliver a championship to Mohawk faithful this summer.

Tanner Allen and Justin Foscue will be looking to build on strong seasons they had as members of the Bulldogs lineup. Allen, who is a native of Theodore, Alabama, started all 68 games in his freshman year. He batted .287, hitting five home runs and driving in 45 runs. It was enough to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.

Foscue played in 58 games this season for Mississippi State. The freshman from Huntsville, Alabama batted .241 in his first season in Starkville. He drove in 20 runs and knocked three home runs on the season.

There is a third person that will have a quick turnaround from Omaha to Amsterdam, and that is Mississippi State graduate assistant coach Austin Cousino. Cousino, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners after his decorated career at Kentucky, will be an assistant coach for the Mohawks for the remainder of the summer.

After 68 games during the college season, it can be hard for players and coaches alike to get excited about 40 more summer games in the PGCBL. While this is a problem many summer teams face across the country, Brian Spagnola and the Amsterdam Mohawks have created an environment that is enticing to ballplayers.

A few years ago Tristan Pompey (Kentucky) was coming, and we released our press release with the roster and he and his mom reached out and was so excited about the upcoming summer,” said Spagnola. “We have become a place that attracts the best talent, and kids are excited to be here.”

Spagnola took the time to get ahold of Cousino and the rest of the Bulldogs in Omaha, just to make sure he didn't need to go out and recruit more players. Similar to Pompey, there was no question these Mississippi State players would be on their way.

“I called Austin last week, and you know these kids are playing 70 games this year I wanted to make sure they were still coming in July,” said Spagnola. “He told me that of course they were, and that feels good that these kids have really gotten excited about coming to our organization.”

When Allen, Foscue, and Cousino arrive in Amsterdam, they will be joining some familiar faces from Starkville. Peyton Plumlee and Zane Stephens didn't make the trip to Omaha; they have started their summer and been key members of the Amsterdam Mohawks pitching staff.

Spagnola has raved about the job both Plumlee and Stephens are doing on the mound thus far. Plumlee has been up to 95 with solid secondary stuff, and Stephens had his best start of the summer on Sunday night. It appears that both of them will return to Starkville as much-improved players and are names to keep in mind for the 2019 season.

Both Plumlee and Stephens are 2-0 on the mound this summer for the Mohawks, and with the additions of Allen and Foscue, Bulldog players will continue a trend of carrying a heavy load in Amsterdam.

Summer baseball, particularly in the PGCBL, is an important time to get better for college baseball players, and this will be as important as ever for these Bulldogs after the news out of Starkville on Monday. Mississippi State announced that Chris Lemonis would be the next head baseball coach there. Lemonis comes from Indiana, and will join a staff that is planning on keeping top assistant coach Jake Gautreau.

Though the baseball community can seem large at times, connections and relationships can be found everywhere. For the Mohawks and Bulldogs, this great relationship has continued to propel Amsterdam to the top of the PGCBL standings. In return, Mississippi State gets players that arrive back better than when they left.

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