SEC Success In Reach For Collins And Club

SEC Tournament berth…Division championship…postseason bid…strong seeding…even host siteing…all of it is right here, right now, within reach. But nothing has been grabbed yet, notes Ryan Collins. "We haven't assured ourselves of anything. That just makes this weekend more important. It just shows how big it is and how we have to keep playing like we have been and come out strong."

This is how Collins and the Diamond Dogs are approaching their climactic SEC series with Louisiana State, which opens at 6:06 today at Dudy Noble Field. Thanks to a May hot streak Mississippi State (33-19, 13-14 SEC) is right on the verge of some real success. But only on that proverbial verge. To achieve any, or all, of what is possible, the Bulldogs must win.

Win now. As Collins said, "Everything is in front of us." "If we go out and sweep or win this weekend we put ourselves in a good chance to win the West, something that hasn't been done here in a while. That's huge in itself. Then just making the tournament, something we haven't done since I've been here, that just puts everything in perspective how big this weekend is."

It's been a long, long time since such a weekend played-out at Dudy Noble Field. Or actually, there may never have been a series completely comparable to what this Diamond Dog team has prepared for. Yes, some State teams have gone down to the concluding conference series with a SEC title on the line…and others have reached the final weekend still needing to secure a league tourney berth.

But having both at stake in the same series? Now this is unexplored territory indeed. And if such last-week drama needed any amplification, the four-team tie atop the SEC West can break in so many differing directions State players and coaches are weary of what-if calculating. "It's pretty complicated!" Collins agrees. Fortunately he has the simplest answer for all SEC scenarios.

"We just pretty much have to focus on our game and go out and win. And it will take care of itself. Everybody has looked at it, we've talked about it. But you don't really have to worry about it, if we go out and take care of business on the field it's not really going to matter."

Winning surely does solve all issues, and that's what the Bulldogs have done since the first day of May and a comeback win over Alabama. At the time it just seemed State had salvaged something from a frustrating series. Now that Sunday is seen as the start of something bigger and better, with eight-straight wins and nine victories in the last ten games.

The core of the streak of course was six SEC victories that shoved State from also-ran into genuine Division contention. Collins & Co. have gotten enough pitching, played sound defense, and delivered timely—and often two-out—hits to score wins. The sort of wins that were missing last spring…as well as the season before, and before that too.

Funny thing, though. Nothing about three fruitless seasons was carried over into 2011, Collins says. As one of the two fourth-year seniors on the squad he, and catcher Cody Freeman, were able to tell an instant difference.

"Coming in we saw the potential, the kind of team we had. The team chemistry this year has been the best by far since I've been here. And we kind of had that confidence, we weren't worrying every day about if we do this or do this we'll make it in the postseason. We kind of expected to get to the postseason this year, just part of the journey."

The first baseman is serious about that expectation. Never mind all the frustration of his first three seasons at State, he really did start the senior season not hoping, not wanting, but expecting these Dogs would turn the program around at last. Even if it meant sacrifices by some…not least his own as a career outfielder accepted first base responsibility. The move has worked out well for Collins, with 44 starts in the 50 games played. He's batted .272, a point better than the junior season despite a change in college bats which many have struggled with.

Other changes to the game have helped though, especially a guy who can run since Collins has ten successful steals. He's also adapted his plate approach and has walked more often (27) than he's struck out, reversing a career trend. Oh, and despite moving to first base where fielding plays are much more iffy, he's actually improved his defensive average; a .989 rate now compared to .954 as an outfielder.

What it really means is older Dogs like Collins have done whatever it took, made whatever moves their coach asked, for the general good of a rebuilding ball club. And he surely knows better than anyone what a building job this has been. Postseason play is important to any college senior but all the more so to an upperclassman who has never been there before.

"Just being able to say my senior year we were able to turn things back around, get the program going back in the right direction. Get back to Hoover, get back to postseason where this program belongs. I mean, that's one of the big reasons I came here.

"The year before I got here we went to the College World Series. It just shows where this program has been, and it would be nice to look back and say we were on the path of getting us back."

That path has one remaining roadblock, a Louisiana State squad with plenty to play for themselves. The Tigers are two games back of State in the West, one behind Ole Miss, and thus currently not in the SEC Tournament picture. But of course in the wild West of 2011 that can change entirely in a single series. LSU can win their way in outright with a sweep, or take two victories in Starkville and with other aid qualify as well.

Also, it might ease any Tiger anxiety a bit that even if they fail to make Hoover projections are promising for a NCAA bid. They are potentially helped further by the perilous state of a Georgia team that will struggle to leave the SEC tourney with a break-even overall record. Still Collins expects LSU to arrive at DNF swinging for it all tonight trying to control their own fate, just like State.

And he says don't read much into their current Division cellar status. "I know they're a young team and have struggled a little in SEC play. But you can't take them lightly. They're LSU, they don't really rebuild they just reload. And look at some of the teams they played in non-conference, they swept Cal State Fullerton so that right there shows the kind of talent they have."

The irony is that Mississippi State's 2011 turnaround might well have begun on a Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge. On the last day of the '10 season, when a Bulldog team with no postseason hope surprised LSU with seven shutout innings from Chris Stratton, a closing performance from Kendall Graveman, and a 2-1 win. Not that it saved a season or anything…but that one win to close a schedule somehow offered encouragement for what could be ahead.

"If we could have had that kind of pitching the whole year with our offense we'd have been just fine, but we had a bunch of young pitchers that were just thrown out there," Collins says. "This year they've stepped-up and it's been huge, the lumps they took last year have really paid off this year. They've come up big in situations.

"So I think that did carry over, it just kind of gave us a little more confidence. We've played with a lot more confidence than since I've been here." Which is a large reason why Mississippi State now has the sort of postseason opportunities that once upon a time were taken for granted. It only makes old Dog Collins appreciate the progress that much more.

Why, it even has him wondering if, if, there is the chance to experience himself what he saw as a 2007 signee.

"If we have a good weekend here and a good showing in the SEC Tournament you start thinking maybe, possibly, we could get a host or something like that. That would be huge with our fan support for somebody to have to come in here and win against us with this place packed-out with 10, 12,000 people."

And that would be just the way a Mississippi State senior expects to graduate from Dudy Noble Field. Now such things are here within 2011 reach…if the Bulldogs can grab them. "That's the big thing, we don't have to worry about if we win this game and we need so-and-so to lose," says Collins. "We hold our own destiny in our hands, I mean it's all up to us and how we do this weekend.

"Getting to Hoover and getting into a regional will just solidify that, and from that point we can just worry about winning and going as far as we can."


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