The Diamond Dogs, and for that matter all other Sunday regional champions, were kept waiting all Monday and on into this morning until the last of the 16 tournaments concluded. When it did there was another surprising winner, that is if anything that happened in the first weekend of this wild and wooly 2011 NCAA tournament can be called an upset any more.
Coach John Cohen's team can aptly be regarded as among the teams which beat both the official NCAA seedings as well as conventional wisdom. Assigned a #3 seeding after their struggles at the very end of this regular season, the Bulldogs turned in three first-class performances at the Atlanta Regional. They shut out second-seed and in-state rival Southern Mississippi 3-0, before beating fellow upstart Austin Peay State 8-3 in an unexpected winner's bracket game; and finished with an impressive 7-3 success against host and top-seed Georgia Tech.
Thus it is Mississippi State advancing to the super regional round now while a number of #1s and 2s from other regionals saw their seasons end earlier than expected. Coach John Cohen agreed that based on regional results this might be the most wide-open NCAA tournament in many years with a bunch of lower-seeded squads having a legitimate shot at the College World Series now.
"It's neat to see that in college baseball, that some folks are breaking through," he said. "But to tell you the truth there's only one concern John Cohen has, and that's what the Mississippi State Bulldogs are doing."
What those Dogs (37-23) are doing now is beginning work on the series at, and with, Florida. The Gators (48-16) are the second-highest seeded team from the whole original field of 64 teams, behind only Virginia. They hit NCAA play on a roll having won the SEC Tournament with a win over fellow #1 regional seed—and regular season co-SEC winner—Vanderbilt. The Gators stayed strong in the first regional weekend, outlasting in-state rival Miami 5-4 in the winner's bracket and blowing the Hurricanes away 11-4 in the title game.
"They must have played lights-out," said Cohen, who already knew how good these Gators can be. Mississippi State and Florida played a regular-season series at Starkville won by Florida. After the Bulldogs took the Friday game 7-5, the Gators blew them away 18-0 in game-two to set up a Sunday thriller that ended 3-1 with the tying Dogs on bases. And, with Florida facing a ‘fly away' deadline of 4:00 that meant if State had knocked in those runs the game would have ended in a SEC tie.
There was a rematch of sorts in the SEC Tournament opening round, which State led 5-2 midway of the seventh inning. That lead was gone with the wind as a bases loaded fly ball was literally blown back into fair territory and barely cleared the rightfield wall in Regions Park. Florida won 7-5.
Yes, Cohen agrees, it is hard to forget the big blowout loss on Super Saturday. "But the (other) three times we played them, we were right with them. And we had a chance to win the series, it really came down to the last inning at our place." The Bulldogs will remember those close calls as they begin specific practices at 5:40 today. Cohen had hoped to have his team practice at the same time(s) as the series opening game. But with players still getting back into a ‘series' routine after their return Monday from Atlanta—and the first round of summer baseball camps just starting—the coaches settled for a late afternoon workout.
Travel plans were still being finalized as well, since there was some chance this super regional would be one of those scheduled for Saturday-through-Monday by the NCAA and TV.
Florida has not been the friendliest venue for Bulldog teams over the years. The 2007 team was the last to take a series in Gainesville, winning two of three, snapping a six-trip streak. The last previous team to win a weekend at Perry Field was, ironically enough, the 1990 club with Cohen playing in the outfield. Otherwise in their past Gainesville series Dog teams are just 4-20 including a three-game sweep in 2010.
"It's a tough place to play, I've been on both sides of that," said Cohen. Because, as an assistant coach to Pat McMahon at Florida in 2002-03, the latter team took a series from State.
Tough place or not, all that really matters to Mississippi State is that they are still playing baseball. Even seeing a uniform that could remind of the frustration felt at the SEC Tournament now ought to be just more motivation. Because the Bulldogs who came up short at Hoover one week stood tallest in their second postseason opportunity. Which is a fair exchange in Cohen's thinking now.
"If you have the choice, you'd rather play better in the regional for obvious reasons," he said. And now the Bulldogs will prepare to, hopefully, play their very best ball of all in the super regional.
"It's a privilege and a great opportunity for us."