If there was any doubt that Misssisippi State had everyone’s attention after losing in five at then-No. 17 Florida last Thursday night, there was none after the Bulldogs came away with a five-set victory on Friday.
It was historic in many ways, not the least of which was State, long an SEC doormat, had been 0-53 against Florida up to that point.
“It was really cool and the thing that I’m most proud of is that we played five sets both nights,” said fourth-year coach Julie Darty Dennis. “So it wasn’t a fluke. It was just good, gritty volleyball.”
And that might sum up this year’s Mississippi State team in a nutshell. The Bulldogs are 10-4 overall and 1-1 in the SEC heading into a Friday-Saturday visit from LSU (5-6, 1-1), with a trip to No. 6 Kentucky on the horizon next Wednesday.
State certainly had a chance to pull off the reverse sweep Thursday in Gainesville before falling 25-17, 25-11, 16-25, 18-25, 15-13.
“That one was intense and I was kind of worried about how we were going to recover and how we would be the next day,” Dennis said, “but we talked about winning our recovery battle and being prepared and they did a great job with the quick turnaround.”
Indeed, because Friday Mississippi State won 17-25, 25-23, 26-24, 21-25, 15-13. Shania Cromartie, a 5-foot-9 sophomore from Tallahassee, Florida, who had four kills the day before, led with 25 kills. Not surprisingly, she was named the SEC player of the week. State also got a career-high 33 digs from Lilly Gunter, a sophomore from Oviedo, Florida.
For that matter, there are three other players on the roster from Florida, the state in which Dennis coached a long time and her sister still does.
Darty played at Mercer in Georgia, leaving there No. 2 on the all-time kills list. She was an assistant at Villanova for a couple of seasons, spent two more at South Carolina, and in 2014 took over at Jacksonville, where the Dolphins finished 18-10 in 2017. That same year State finished 10-23, 1-17 in the SEC.
“When I took the (State) job it was hard for me to leave Jacksonville because I had just finished year four and it was our best season yet,” Dennis said. “(But) once I left South Carolina my goal was to be an SEC head coach. I knew that was the conference I wanted to be in from a resources and support standpoint.”
What’s more, she had just signed an extension at Jacksonville and things were pretty bad at State.
“I remember talking to administrators and they were like beat down. Academically we were worse than football, we had the lowest GPA in the department, volleyball wasn’t going well, they were kind of a broken mess. And I felt like they need somebody to come in and love on them and help them remember why they were here and how it should mean more to them than just the wins and losses and get back to volleyball is fun.”
Dennis and her staff also embraced transfers.
“We knew we had a lot of quick fixes to make and we knew we had to get some two-year pieces to make it work,” she said. “I still have a very heavy transfer roster now but we’ve gotten the most out of our kids and they’re in a good spot. Helping them get back to enjoying the game of volleyball and having fun with it has been one of our main focuses since day one.”
She had three players come with her from JU, including Kendall Murr, who is now an assistant at Eastern Kentucky. She’s also the older sister of Ohio State standout libero Kylie Murr.
In Darty’s first year, in 2018, State was awful again, finishing 5-26, 1-17 again in the SEC. In 2019 the Bulldogs were 13-17, 2-16. She got married to Bryan Dennis in May 2020, and last fall and spring, all in the SEC, State went 5-15.
“We had four months until the preseason and they all took the (offseason) assignments and were pretty dialed in when they went home,” Dennis said. “They came back ready to go. It felt like we could pick up in preseason from a better place than we had in the past. There was not as much teaching.”
She scheduled tougher, too.
State beat Gonzaga twice and then Southeastern Louisiana to open this season before heading to Houston. The Bulldogs swept McNeese and Louisiana-Monroe but lost in five to Houston, coming back from a 12-7 deficit in the fifth to tie it 13-13 before losing 15-13.
The next week was a breakthrough. At Georgia Tech, State beat the Big Ten’s Indiana in five, got swept by Georgia Tech, and then beat Oklahoma in four.
Back at home for the fourth weekend, the Bulldogs lost to Syracuse in four, beat South Alabama in four, and swept Jackson State.
“Every time we failed we learned something from it,” Dennis said, admitting that in previous years she scheduled easy to gather victories and build confidence.
“But that was all fake. Your kids want to be pushed and they want to beat somebody good to prove themselves,” Dennis said.
They did some proving at Florida, which, in reality, has to be their M.O. all the time. These are not the biggest of Power 5 volleyball players.
Start with Cromartie, who is averaging 2.71 kills. As we mentioned, she’s 5-9. She was also the two-time Florida state high-jump champion and a top-level sprinter. Cromartie missed the fall 2020 season, recovering from ACL surgery — she hurt her knee in her last club tournament — and then played in just 10 matches last spring.
Dennis had coached her for three years as an elite club player in Florida.
“She was always on my radar. She reminds me of Leketor Member-Meneh (a 5-8 outside who played at Missouri and is now at Pitt), just that undersized, bouncy, big-arm kind of kid that everyone overlooks because they’re quote-unquote small. We were on her early.”
State’s leading attacker is Lauren Myrick, a 6-footer from Louisville. She’s a product of Assumption HS and KIVA who played her freshman year at Lipscomb. Myrick has 164 kills (3.42/set), leads with 18 aces, is second in digs (2.65/set) and has 14 blocks.
“Lauren put in the work over the summer,” Dennis said, praising her improvement in serving and passing.
Deja Robinson is a 6-1 middle from Canton, Georgia, who leads with 57 blocks and has 69 kills.
Gabby Waden is a 5-10 senior from Columbia, South Carolina, one of nine children who was also recovering from an ACL when she arrived. Waden, one of just two players on the roster not recruited by Dennis, played sparingly as a freshman and in 2019 led the team with 343 kills. In the 2020-21 season she led the Bulldogs again, averaging 3.08 kills in the 20 matches. This season, she has 151 kills (2.96/set), and is second in blocks with 39.
“She came early and her first day in Starkville was my first day on the job, so we’ve been walking through this thing together,” Dennis said. “We moved her to the right early because we saw a lot of potential there.”
State runs a 6-2 with Gabby Coulter (302 assists, 92 digs), a 5-10 senior from Bradenton, Florida, who transferred from Marshall after two seasons, and Margaret Dean (260 assists, 85 digs), a 5-8 grad student from Bedford, Texas, who transferred from Stephen F. Austin after her junior year. Coulter’s twin sister, Joelle, plays beach at Eckerd in Florida.
“They’re like the unsung heroes,” Dennis said of the setters. “They make us go.”
And then there’s the libero.
The 5-foot-8 Gunter not only went to Dennis’ high school, Oviedo, she also played for Dennis’ sister, Jen Darty, at both the school and at Oviedo Volleyball Academy. Oviedo is an Orlando suburb.
“I was recruiting her at Jacksonville because she was a pretty good, little crafty outside,” Dennis said. “When I got the job here it was an easy decision. I feel like you have to build around your ball control and setters early on in recruiting.”
A note from the Florida matches: In the Thursday match, Florida libero Ellie McKissock, a sophomore from Windermere in Orlando, had 31 digs, while Gunter had 15. In the rematch, McKissock had 22 digs, eight assists, and an ace, while Gunter had those 33 digs and three assists.
“They’re like best friends,” Dennis said.
State has a chance to keep gaining ground with LSU coming to town. Defending national-champion Kentucky is the SEC benchmark, of course, and then State is home for South Carolina before going to Ole Miss on October 17. At this writing, Ole Miss is unbeaten. It could be the most significant match ever in the state of Mississippi.