Official affirmation of the at-large berth did ease a Bulldog burden, particularly upperclassmen like Parks. But the good feelings got an additional, and immediate, jolt thanks to the accompanying name. Mississippi State will travel all the way to Atlanta to face familiar non-conference foe Southern Mississippi, the second-seeded squad in this four-team affair. State is the #3 seed, while host Georgia Tech earns top billing and takes on #4 Austin Peay.
"Seeing Southern Miss was the biggest shock," Parks said. "I know Coach wasn't shocked but I was shocked." From the matchup of Mississippi college clubs, he meant. "I thought that was crazy because I'd heard they were going to be a one-seed, they were going to get a pretty good bracket with an easy game being a two-seed. I know they're as shocked about it as we are."
Coach John Cohen showed no shock at this opening-day pairing in Atlanta, and he had already figured for the last week Mississippi State was in the field of 64. "It didn't surprise me because I know the NCAA traditionally has liked to create first-round matchups like that. So that didn't really shock me at all. In this day-and-age it's hard to be shocked, the thing I'm most shocked about right now is LSU. That's unbelievable."
Cohen was referring to Louisiana State's most surprising omission from the NCAA field, after the Tigers were unanimously projected to receive an at-large berth despite missing the SEC Tournament. In the end though only seven conference clubs made the field. Three—Florida, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt are not only hosting regionals but are the #2, 4, and 6 national seeds. In fact, the Atlanta tournament is paired with the Gainesville regional for super-regional siteing.
Georgia's remarkable run at Hoover pushed them over break-even and thus qualified them as the fourth SEC East invitee. West winner Arkansas got its berth but was denied host privileges, another SEC surprise; while Alabama and State round out the league's contingent.
This will be Mississippi State's 31st appearance in a NCAA playoff event, dating back to 1949, but the first since 2007. In fact the three-year absence from postseason play of 2008-10 was the longest since 1975-77. So there was obvious emphasis on these Dogs ending the drought. Even as the #6 seed at the SEC Tournament, not to mention a top-30 power rating and high schedule strength, there was also just enough NCAA uncertainty to keep the club on edge Monday morning.
"Everybody kind of knew we were going to get picked," said Parks, but "we were still real happy to see it pop on the screen."
How happy they are to re-match up with the Golden Eagles is another interesting question. The Bulldogs did beat Southern Mississippi 5-4 back on April 5, another neutral-site game played at Pearl's Trustmark Park. The programs have never met in a postseason setting; for that matter this is the first time Mississippi State will face an in-state opponent in the NCAAs.
"Obviously we're pleased to be competing in a regional," Cohen said, adding, "I think it's interesting that we're getting to play somebody that we've played before." Often, with MSU and USM having met annually since 1963. Cohen's three teams are 3-2 in the series.
Georgia Tech is entirely unfamiliar to current Dogs, as State hasn't faced the Yellowjackets since a 1997 regional in Starkville that the home team won 10-2. There is some Bulldog background to this regional, after the 2004 State team was assigned there. They never matched up with the host though, losing twice to Texas Tech around a win over Jacksonville State. The only Bulldog with winning experience in Atlanta is pitching coach Butch Thompson, who was with Georgia when those Dogs ended up at rival Tech twice. In 2004 Georgia won a super-regional there.
Cohen, 4-4 in NCAA regionals as head coach at Kentucky, has never taken a team to Chandler Field before. Still his own postseason experiences as a MSU player, assistant coach and head coach, offer some ideas how to prepare a squad that is about to make its first such experience.
"There's not one kid in our locker room that has played in a NCAA regional. So like the SEC Tournament that will be new for our kids. But I know they're exited about it, and I feel we really have the potential to play well there."
Cohen and club obviously hope the NCAAs are more productive than last week's 0-and-2 showing at Hoover. Though, as Parks points out, the Dogs had a seventh-inning lead on Florida and only needed to seal that deal. They didn't, losing 7-5 before a 7-2 elimination loss to Arkansas. Not how they wanted to debut in tournament action, Parks agrees, but the experience still counts for something positive.
"It's good just to get that ‘tournament feeling' out of the way. There's still going to be a little nerves but I think we'll play a whole lot better than we did at the SEC Tournament."
Cohen is counting on that. As for motivation, any NCAA opener offers all the obvious angles. This one should be particularly intense though with the rivalry aspect thrown in. And while there is a sizable contingent of Bulldog fans in the metro area—"It's a great town for Mississippi State," Cohen said—Atlanta is an easy interstate jaunt for USM folk as well. No wonder Cohen said "I think our matchup is one of the better in the tournament." And, one of six intrastate pairings arranged by the NCAA for the first round alone.
The pairing on most MSU minds now will be comparing pitchers. Here Southern Mississippi could well have the trump card in round one if they indeed go with ace Todd McInnis, arguably the top collegian in Mississippi this season even if not a finalist for the Ferris Trophy. The trophy winner was outfielder Tyler Koelling, a junior college teammate of Parks' but who missed the Conference USA tournament last weekend with injury. He is supposed to be ready for the NCAAs.
USM will likely still be without their numbers two and three pitchers though as both were academically ineligible for the CUSA event. That does State no good in the first round though, unless the Eagles are willing to gamble on holding McInnis for the second-round possibility of facing host and top-seeded Tech. Cohen has no such gamble to take because there is no lead Dog for this rotation anyway.
Nor does Cohen see having played USM in midweek over a month ago as simplifying his pitching plans now, either. "I think we ask who is pitching best for us right now." That isn't any simple answer either. The tempting choice for now, Cohen admits, is lefthander Luis Pollorena after his shut-down relief performance when State rallied to win in Pearl. And Pollorena had two strong SEC starts against Tennessee and Ole Miss, also in small parks. Witnesses at the 2004 Tech regional attest, balls jump out in Atlanta easily, something else in USM's favor given the completely contrasting offensive styles.
"We'll weigh all that and start making some decisions," Cohen said. Decisions that are utterly urgent, too, as since the NCAA changed to the four-team regional and super-regional format the odds of survival are almost identical to round-one results.
"It will be a great challenge," Cohen said. "But you feel like, and I'm sure Southern Miss feels the same way, if you win game-one it truly can change everything."
For his part, Parks has seen how the program has changed in his three seasons. Those first two, post-season play was just a hope. For 2011 it became expectation and by a narrow margin Mississippi State achieved it. A very, very narrow margin, what with SEC Tournament qualification coming down to tiebreaks and now the still-startling absence of LSU. Those remind just how close the club cut things.
And, Parks noted, that simply making it at last to a tournament is only satisfying for a short while. Winning matters more, was the lesson at Hoover. "It felt like everybody was just happy to be there," he said.
"It was basically an exhibition for the SEC and teams that make it. We didn't play up to our potential. But now we're in it and we know our games are limited. We could play two games and for our seniors we could be done for the rest of our lives, everybody knows that."