The team did not come in time for an allotted practice period by the SEC for all eight participating teams. As Coach John Cohen explained Monday, the one-hour maximum time on the field would be insufficient for Mississippi State’s practice plans. The Bulldogs would have had to pick up the gear mid-way and head for an area school to complete specific drills. So they put in a full practice at Dudy Noble Field before leaving.
Of course if State wins the first two games and earns an off-day, they will find a place for a full Friday practice. In 2005, the last time MSU took the tournament title, Vestavia Hills High School was used.
REMEMBER WHEN? Make no mistake, though. Returning to Hoover is something State takes very, very seriously. After all, Cohen was on the Diamond Dog team that not only played in but emerged with a share of the championship in the first SEC Tournament played in what was then the Hoover Met. In 1990 Cohen and club beat LSU to force a second Sunday game for the championship with bad weather on the way.
The Tigers jumped to a big early lead before a lightning strike in the area halted the game. Though rain was spotty at worst, play never resumed. And as both teams knew they were hosting NCAA regionals there was incentive to call it a weekend and head home. So officially and rightly both claim the 1990 tourney title.
It was eleven years before Mississippi State won another SEC tournament and it was at Hoover again, as Pat McMahon’s 2001 club beat LSU outright for the championship. In 2005 with Ron Polk back in charge, the Bulldogs knocked off perhaps the best Ole Miss club ever 4-1 for the trophy.
Polk was State skipper at the 1990 event as well, and waited out the Sunday delay in the third base dugout smoking a cigar. Another Polk, backup catcher Steve, was responsible for one of that tournament’s finest moments. A noted expert at giving hotfoots, using a pack of paper matches and bubble gum, Polk was encouraged to try his trick on LSU Coach Skip Bertman. While a collection of MSU and LSU players, and a much younger fan magazine editor, drew attention by pretending to listen to the Tiger coach talk, S.Polk slipped under the seat, attached the matches, and lit them off.
Bertman leaped out of the chair as everyone scattered, turned across the field and accused his counterpart of organizing the trick. #1 only waved the cigar in response.
SIGNED AND SEALED: There was speculation, yet again, in spring that the SEC might finally be serious about moving the tournament. In the end though the league renewed its deal with Hoover, now through 2016. The City of Hoover has done everything possible to retain the tournament, with a reported $6 million in upgrades and expansion in just the last five years.
Cohen applauds the decision. “I hate speaking in cliches but I do love it the ‘if it ain’t broke’ cliche. And Hoover ain’t broke. Hoover has done such a great job for so long, and I haven’t been around any coach that has had anything but positive things to say about Hoover. And I’m thrilled for those folks, I know how much it means for them and they make it clear.”
Mississippi State has played in ten of the tournaments hosted by Hoover, with a 20-16 record. The last win came in 2005, in the championship game.
Cohen was 1-4 in two SEC Tournaments here as Kentucky coach; 4-1 as a player in that 1990 event.
AT HOME ON THE RANGE: A handful of Bulldogs have actually played a college game at Regions Park, two years ago in a UAB home game moved to the professional park. Senior OF Jaron Shepherd was not one of them as he didn’t arrive until 2010 as a junior transfer. So this is new territory for him.
“I really don’t know too much about Hoover to be honest. I know it’s a nice ballpark, but other than that…”
What Shepherd does know, though, he likes. He’s been told the park’s dimensions and layout and that sounds just fine to the wide-ranging outfielder.
“It does. I like fields like that, that have a lot of room to run and track down balls. So I think it will be to my advantage.” Not just his, either. Big yards are where a bunch of Bulldogs like to play.
“We do, with the speed we have in the outfield I feel we can cover a lot of ground. So I’m looking forward to it. Me, C.T. Brent, Trey, we can all run in a big outfield.” Thing is, here in 2011 outfielders have been on the run everywhere as the NCAA-mandated new bats have cut way, way down on power and brought old-fashioned fielding back into fashion.
A change very much in State’s favor, Shepherd agrees, and nowhere more than at Dudy Noble Field. “It’s what kind of hurt us last year a little bit, going on the road and playing at smaller ballparks where you hit a fly ball and it just floats out! But playing at home comes to our advantage, with the new bats, too.”
Shepherd certainly counts on taking advantage, just as State did in two regular season games played in pro parks. The Bulldogs beat Ole Miss 6-1 in AA-Trustmark Park in Pearl, and a week ago beat Memphis 8-3 in AAA-AutoZone Park.
There is one aspect of Hoover that differs from those others, though. Here the ‘bullpens’ are in the foul areas besides right and left fields. So Shepherd may well find himself pursuing a foul-fly through scattering relievers, especially if he’s given the sort of chances to chase as he did at Ole Miss and at home this past weekend. And there’s no real warning track, either. Shepherd figures he’ll adapt OK.
“I think Tennessee’s park was like that. And I actually tripped over one of the mounds trying to catch a ball. So I guess I’ll know how to play it now.”
BIRTHDAY BULLDOG: Jarrod Parks wasn’t just celebrating his first trip to the SEC Tournament on Tuesday. He was celebrating his 23rd birthday as well, on the same day Mississippi State arrived in Hoover.
Should the senior regain his form of the first three months this season, he could end up celebrating a SEC batting championship as well. Parks begins the postseason with a .385 average, two points ahead of both Florida’s Mike Zunino and LSU’s Mikie Mahtook. Tournament statistics count towards the full season’s statistics.
Parks is much farther ahead, specifically of Mahtook, in SEC on-base average at .529. In fact he is the only league player making base better than half his appearances.
State has not had a hitter finish .400 or better since Travis Chapman turned the trick in 1999.
HONOR ROLL: Mississippi State did not place anyone on the All-SEC first team this year, just as in 2008-10. But a Bulldog did make the second squad as relieve pitcher Caleb Reed was selected. The junior righthander has the third-most saves among SEC moundsmen this season at 11, out of 25 appearances.
But if MSU has to wait another year for a first-team pick, there should be four Dogs on the ’12 roster who have made one version of all-league. Outfielder/pitcher C.T. Bradford and infielder Adam Frazier were picked by conference coaches to the All-Freshman team. They join junior pitcher Nick Routt (2009) and sophomore pitcher Chris Stratton (2010) who also made All-Freshmen as rookies.
NUMBERS TO WATCH: Besides Parks’ chase of a SEC batting title, reliever Reed has the fourth-best season saves total (11) in program records. His next save will tie Adam Larson’s 2000 mark for third place, and the record is 13; shared by Scott Tankersley (1994) and Van Johnson (1997).
2B Nick Vickerson goes into the postseason with 25 steals, tied with Mike Kelly (1977), Brad Winkler (1981) and Grant Hogue (2008) for the fifth-best year by a Bulldog.
1B Ryan Collins is tied for fifth in career triples with ten.
TURNING IT AROUND: Though they did not win the SEC West, the 2011 Diamond Dogs did reverse their recent (mis)fortunes with the first winning season and most SEC wins since 2007. And after being predicted by league coaches to finish sixth in the West, they came in second.