State's NCAA Road Begins In Tallahassee

State's NCAA Road Begins In Tallahassee

They knew their name was coming up. But kids are kids. As the selection show wound on with no ‘Mississippi State' on the screen, well… "They were looking deep into the books to make sure the SEC still had an automatic bid," John Cohen said. "It took a while for us to be called out."

Of course the Diamond Dogs did get called Monday as assured by their SEC Tournament championship. They also received the NCAA's assignment, as Mississippi State will go to the Tallahassee Regional this weekend. They will be a #2 seed and playing #3 Samford at noon local, 11:00am central. Host and top-seeded Florida State plays #4 Alabama-Birmingham afterwards.

So now they know where the road to Omaha begins. "This is what we've been working for since August," OF Brent Brownlee said. "So we're really excited about it."

State spirits are high heading into their post-season, seeing how the scheduled season ended on an sizzling stretch of eight wins in nine games. Bulldog bodies, now, might be another matter since five of those victories came in a remarkable, even amazing six-day stay at the SEC Tournament. And it was ‘day' with noon or afternoon starts each time.

But youthful enthusiasm can make up for energy expended. And nothing could have had these Dogs happier and hype-ier than bringing home a trophy. "It was a fun week, a wild ride," SS Adam Frazier said today. "SEC champions feels good. Now, it's a pretty tough regional and we've got our work cut out for us."

Tough, true. Though sites were selected before Sunday and most tournament championships did not factor there, the NCAA committee did throw fans a curve by sending Mississippi State (39-22) to Tallahassee. The Bulldogs had climbed in recent weeks to a top-twenty team nationally, meaning a strong #2 seed in NCAA calculations. Yet they are assigned to the #3 overall national seed's regional.

A veteran of many NCAA trips, Cohen had no complaints. If anything he anticipated a ‘regionalized' regional as has been a committee preference for years, especially given opportunities to match SEC and ACC teams. Bulldog fans ought to know this well; this is the sixth time in a row now State has been sent to a ACC address for the first-round regional.

And the last two times Bulldog teams have won. Cohen's 2011 team knocked off host Georgia Tech in the Atlanta regional to advance to the super round. But what will be recounted more this week is the example of 2007, when State went to Tallahassee with a more modest seeding. That club began another unlikely run that carried them not just to the super round, played in Starkville, but all the way to the College World Series.

A SEC Tournament champion club that won 21 total games against league competition seemingly deserves better than matching with the #3 national seed. But, "The committee has a very difficult time," said Cohen, who has worked over his career for three men who were either on or chaired that committee. "It's not a perfect process by any stretch but they do the best they can. At some point you kind of like the process to be more like basketball, have two-seeds seeded in a traditional way.

"But every regional is challenging. You have to beat a great team to get to Omaha no matter which regional you're in."

Tallahassee is paired with the Palo Alto Regional clear on the other side of the country. Stanford is the host and not a national seed, with Pepperdine the second-seed there. This of course sets State thoughts in motion of another 2007 twist; when both MSU and Clemson upset their hosts in the first round, and by virtue of stronger rating the Bulldogs got to host super regional play.

The other SEC-related questions about this year's selecting-and-siting was that only Florida, LSU, and South Carolina won regionals. All are national seeds too, #s 1, 7, and 8, meaning they are guaranteed hosting supers as well. But Kentucky was not awarded a regional, instead being sent to Gary, Ind., for a tournament #1 region seed Purdue cannot even host on its un-lighted campus.

Other at-large bids went to Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Ole Miss. SEC Tournament participants Georgia and Auburn did not receive bids.

What the committee might have shown, though, is a sense of humor in who they are assembling in Tallahassee. Most obviously, a UAB team coached by former Bulldog aide Brian Shoop, who was on Ron Polk's staff 1983-89. The last two of those years, Cohen was playing outfield in a Bulldog uniform. And both, of course, were under Polk's management.

Now R.G.P. is assisting Shoop, so Cohen could be facing his old coach in the other dugout. MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson also worked under Shoop when they were at Birmingham-Southern. Bulldog players have friends on the Samford roster as well. So personal angles will be prominent all weekend.

"I think it's great," Cohen said. "I've many times picked up the phone and called Brian to get his expertise, I think he is one of the brightest and most underrated coaches in our business. And we have that ultimate respect for Coach Polk."

Polk has a direct peer running the home team show in legendary Mike Martin, who has taken enough teams to Omaha that he ought to be able to vote there. Another twist: Cohen scored the key run in the final game when State beat Florida State in the 1990 Starkville regional. He became more professionally familiar with Martin while an assistant at Florida with Pat McMahon.

While media mull all the history, Cohen and club are taking a careful approach to preparing for the weekend…given all the strains from the previous one. The championship took a toll, and while the Bulldogs did have the standard Monday morning weight workout actual on-field practicing is limited the next two days to optional hitting, a touch of bullpens to stay on schedules, and the like. "For the most part Tuesday is a day-off." The team will practice Wednesday before the trip.

Serious scouting began this afternoon once opponents were set. But Cohen and Thompson have all but locked one thing down: barring some change of mind or heart between now and Friday, it will be ace Chris Stratton on the hill at noon of day-one. For two major reasons.

First, Samford is a good opponent with SEC scalps on their record including an end-of-season romp over Florida in Birmingham. Going after those Bulldogs with anything less than their best man is courting catastrophe. Yet, were Kendall Graveman healthy, the MSU coaches would not be adverse to giving their other junior righthander the first start.

But Graveman has a groin-area injury which impacts his delivery and it has showed the last two outings. That is frustrating because he was coming off a brilliant win at Florida where Graveman was every bit the match of Stratton in skills playing a strong offense in a small park. Cohen hasn't given up just yet. "Kendall is feeling like the groin is getting better and better. He's going to meet with Dr. Linton tomorrow, and we'll go from there."

So for now, fans hoping for a juggled order—or who carry bitter memories of the 2003 regional—can relax. And Mississippi State showed just how deep the entire mound staff is navigating a six-day tournament. The trick, Cohen and Thompson agree, for now is figuring out Saturday's sequence. If, of course, they are not beaten anyway by Samford. Or as Cohen said, "You can't win game-two if you don't win game-one."

"I always have the same answer: we've got to figure out a way to get to Florida State. And find a way to get Kendall Graveman healthy to pitch the second game for us." As for uber-excited folk thinking farther ahead to super-status, "It's like on the other side of the planet!"

But Tallahassee is only the other side of the time line. Not for Mississippi State folk who have made many a trek to and through the panhandle. Hoover officials are still buzzing, and counting receipts, from an extraordinary show of support on championship Sunday when Bulldog faithful filled the park on short notice.

"We would absolutely love to have as many fans show up," said Cohen. "It's not close, but I know our fans have been tremendous and for them to make that trip would be great. It's not the other side of the country, and we have a whole lot of fans that live in the panhandle."

Tournament passes are $50 for reserved seating and $35 general admission to Dick Howser Stadium. Single game reserved seats are $12 while general admission is $10 adults, $7 students and youth. Orders ought to be made early though as Florida State has as strong and steady a fan following as any club in the country.

The Bulldogs have just won one tournament. Now comes the next, and the biggest. "We have one more road to climb," said RHP Caleb Reed. "That's going to Omaha, and that is our focus right now."

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