A lot, lot, lot of people were suddenly in danger of looking foolish on the camera and before their (sadly few) home fans. And as it's common knowledge that upon signing a contract Gator head coaches have a rocket booster strapped to their own backside with an impatient A.D.'s finger always on the trigger, well, the tension in that end of the home dugout was higher than the humidity. That would have been one intense post-mortem talk had an incredibly talented UF team tanked…a prospect one expects contributing to a late-game sideline spat we saw but nobody wanted to discuss on-record.
Well, talent did what it supposed to and emerged triumphant. The SEC's best all-around, barring a couple of worrisome injuries and inexplicable lapses that could catch them short next week, ball club is headed to Omaha. But by golly this bunch of Bulldogs scored something of their own.
They won respect at last.
No senior should be put in the position Nick Vickerson was, to speak the summary for a club and for his classmates after a gut-grinding loss that ended a radical June run. But then just as he had at the plate, Nick Vick stepped to the mike and delivered. "It was unbelievable. Especially when we were picked last in the SEC this year. To come here and do what we did was really special. I was proud of our guys for fighting back and getting that lead."
Yeah, the lead. One can say that rallying from a fast 4-0 hole on do-or-die Sunday and even grabbing an advantage late just made losing harder to take. So much easier to show up, take the L, bow out gracefully and painlessly. But ohhhhh, would that have been so out of character for this bunch of Bulldogs. Not only did nothing come easily to them in 2011, but nothing went easily either. Every game, heck every inning, was a case of concentrated drama and trauma from February-to-June.
Which is why though longtime program observers won't rate 2011 as a vintage State season…boy, did it have special flavor and unique character.
Something that has changed over my era is its no longer fashionable to refer to an athlete or team as ‘overachiever'. Today's a-or-t sees it as an insult, where once it was a great compliment. Well, fellows, I still use it in the classic sense and intend no offense. The fact is that this Dog team surpassed the hopes of all but themselves and did so at the best part of the season. I mean, we've seen much better ballclubs here not get past first-round regionals. At the other end of the scale, practically as soon as Vickerson slugged his Saturday walk-off the phone and texts flooded in asking comparison to the 2007 team that also overachieved at tournament time. After also going 0-2 in Hoover, too, a subject my still foggy frontal lobe isn't prepared to pontificate on right now. And two NCAA road trips have left me so short on supplies I just had a quick, breadless sandwich for lunch, while that half-gallon of milk is trying to crawl out of the fridge and escape.
Short and sweet: the '07 team had more combined common experience, more prior success, one current big leaguer on the veteran roster and others about as capable, and a somewhat better-set rotation. And if that Florida State team was probably better than Georgia Tech…this Florida squad woulda killed both of those as well as Clemson back then. If all Gators were available I'd book them for the CWS finals right now. As it is they're still just vulnerable enough to one shut-down pitcher or a quick hiccup, which is why the lost series to Vanderbilt and South Carolina in SEC season. Something else intangible is a little lacking there…but total talent does add up in the end.
By Bulldog contrast, intangibles were their staple. Look, I'm first to admit that preseason predictions are almost useless in college baseball, what with turnover and nigh-unknowables regarding new personnel. And after the struggles of 2008-10, I won't fault any voter for taking the safe approach and pegging State sixth in the SEC West. Happily the Diamond Dogs saw insult and used it as motivation. I won't go into the full story of ‘Chip Barks' and the dugout stick kept by manager Ronald Sims and decorated over season-course with MSU victims. I am glad to have another icon to join the tea leaf and lava rocks of '85, or Burke Masters hiding his illegal (due to damage) bat in '90, among program legends.
Cohen himself wasn't averse to turning low ratings to advantage. Including after the last game of the season, when asked how a team that didn't break even in SEC play could go on a NCAA run. "You know, we were sixth place in the best league in America and we were picked to finish last," he said. "The reason these guys bring that up is they've got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder about it. That's why we are what we are. That's why we made this jump this year."
Ahhh, but not quite high enough to satisfy the jumpers. Where an old hound like me is delighted with proof of progress, the Bulldogs are deflated today. I can see a 14-16 SEC record, and being in contention for a West title on the last day, as positive; they wanted to win the whole dang thing. I am today proudly hanging two NCAA tournament press tags on a hook already heavy with such mementos; they hurt over not being on the field today practicing for the biggest baseball weekend of them all.
Just as it should be. Junior Brent Brownlee tried to see the good side Sunday, tried hard. His opinion? "It's heartbreaking. You put everything you've got into it and to have that kind of outcome is just heartbreaking. All the series we played through the year led up to this. We knew it was going to be close and we would hang in there with them. We just didn't have a good outcome."
Not good enough, he meant. Not good enough for them. What of their coach? Well, first, by pure NCAA seeding quirk the superest super regional was an intraconference collision. Florida might not have drawn many fans to the field—another tournament topic for another day—but the broadcast audience had to be captured by this show. Yet to Cohen this was a lot of same-old, same-old.
"I thought this resembled the ten consecutive weekends in the SEC. This is what it's like to play in the SEC." Though, he agreed, "There was a little more at stake this one deal." Still the point stands. For that matter the outcome reinforces the State case because it played out too much like too many '11 SEC series did; the Dogs had the stuff to win one close, lose another one badly, and then grind the rubber game down to an either-way end. Usually the wrong way, which is why MSU didn't break-even for SEC season or win the West.
But boy, did they give it a go, and that tough in-season testing paid off in NCAA play against non-conference clubs. Makes one wonder what the Dogs would be doing today had the Atlanta Regional been paired with anyone other than a conference cousin, eh? Yet another topic for etc.
For this day the topic is how an unregarded Bulldog bunch shook off three-plus seasons of struggling and made much more of the opportunity they earned than anyone but them anticipated. In fact, speaking of the entire season, "Our kids competed their tails off, they worked extremely hard, and we're basically just a couple of strikes away from changing the momentum of this game and going to Omaha," said Cohen. "It's a huge credit to our kids and a big jump for our program."
Well and good coach. Now, for the inevitable ‘but' which we who know Cohen well expect. Sure enough, he delivers as thoughts turn forward to 2012 and beyond. Sure enough…
"But I can't stand saying that. I want to be in Omaha. I don't want to say any ‘moral victory', there are none. We've got to get to Omaha and do whatever it takes."
Now that is the topic Diamond Dog fans want addressed starting today. Was 2011 a case of an average SEC (which means well-above-average anywhere else) squad getting a chance and getting hot? Or was it the first real fruits of an extended rebuilding project? I reckon you know which side the coach comes down on. His evaluation is based on prior experiences, too.
"I've been here before and had the same thing. Year-three is the difference maker." For several obvious and a few other less-so reasons. I got roasted on message boards many times during '10 for having the audacity to suggest that State's general talent level was just not up to SEC standards, particularly on the mound and especially after injuries and ailments. Fans just didn't want to believe Bulldog baseball had fallen so far…
…but over the course of this year-three most have come to agree. Not all, some need further proof and that's cool. Or kosher. Still as this season went along and our fans got closer looks at just how great our league is—and contrary to forecasts the new bats only emphasized the all-around quality of SEC baseball save for schools that lived by the longball—it became increasingly apparent this program is back on the competitive path. Not least because Dudy Noble Field will remain the largest in the league and Cohen wants squads structured to dominate at home while stealing enough road series to contend for titles.
The great hesitation out in fandom is also understandable: seven of Sunday's starters were seniors. Un-scored on reliever Devin Jones will accept his 9th-round drafting, too, or I'll be truly astounded. Don't such numbers signal another total rebuild next fall?
Nope. That process has been underway since last August.
"Our seniors have laid the foundation for these young guys," Cohen said. "And I think we have some extremely talented young guys, as talented as anybody in the SEC, to get us to where we really need to be in the future." Sure, I understand the concern because quite a lot of these kids being counted on played this spring with very mixed results. That is where coaches have an advantage based on daily exposure to the youngsters.
Besides, no matter what their final stats were or weren't, I defy any knowledgeable fan to tell me that C.T. Bradford, Adam Frazier, Taylor Stark, Daryl Norris, et.al. are not just plain good ballplayers who will only get better. And I mean not only better in the way any athlete does with experience, but better from a more-promising starting point than the general level of frosh and transfers State had on the roster starting around, ohh, 2006 or so. Put more bluntly, there is just a higher level of total and individual ability here, today, to be developed than we've had for a long time. A long, long time.
I'm not gonna attempt assembling a lineup today, understand. But with absolutely no insult aimed at any of the departing seniors—they know, they see—I have to be encouraged that the general level of ability will upgrade. With, again, more development. Take cases like Demarcus Henderson (now that his vision issues have hopefully been fixed) and Hunter Renfroe, who we scarcely got to see this season because there were seniors handling those spots. I've no clue what we'll do with Wes Rea as far as position but getting his bat in the order could be big. I want to see how and where a Brayden Jones is worked in, and so on.
The depth of potential pitching is as impressive as any season in my MSU tenure. Yeah, I said it. Now that doesn't mean everything or much anything is defined, beyond Caleb Reed going for the season saves record next year. He was one short this time and only because he won the Saturday game…and by the way anyone who claimed he was run out there unwisely Sunday needs to know the guy. There wasn't a stout enough rope in Florida to have tied Reed to the bench that seventh inning, he'd have put himself in. Do have enough dignity to accept that a good hitter went down and got a well-placed pitch and golfed it over the fence. It happens.
Sure, Nick Routt would love to have been drafted and if a free agent offer comes in summer it won't be a huge surprise. But the now-healthy guy we watched in June can be the core of a winning rotation in '12, just as we'd hoped for '10 before the elbow issues…which ought to be over now that he's been taught a different sort of changeup. The two crucial keys are beyond Bulldog control, though. First, can Chris Stratton fix whatever it was inside that sent his soph season skidding out of control? He is just too solid a starter and person not to get it done, we have to hope, and should he return refreshed and recharged for the junior year State could have a guaranteed game-three guy.
Yeah, I said game-three, though that depends on the other key: having two well-drafted frosh choosing college baseball first. Cohen prefers bringing new kids along gradually for hitting and fielding, but if they can find the strike zone the job awaits. Immediately.
Know what the lasting legacy of the 2011 team could be? Not only that they got Bulldog baseball back to tournament time, back to winning, back to just plain having fun on the field. But that they helped set a stage for their successors. In fact Cohen, a serious football fanatic, compared this June to December bowl practices for developing the next team.
"These guys get an extra month of practice. We got a significant more amount of time not being in school with the younger players get to be around some great older guys. And they get to view it and be a part of it. Even though Daryl Norris goes out and walks two people, you know you know the experience is going to help him. Even though Taylor Stark walks two people you know the experience is going to help him. C.T. Bradford is going to be better.
"We have some really talented guys who sat and watched this weekend and last weekend, and all those guys got better. That's how you have to build a program, with the right players and you have to sequence them so they don't have to do too much for you as freshmen."
Oh, and next year's frosh will have another tiny advantage, or at least we hope so. The '12 SEC schedule rotates Kentucky onto State's slate, replacing Georgia. Hmmm, but then I already said it's impossible to predict how good or not teams can be… What the heck, I'll take that tradeoff. But as a certain SEC administrator with experience in such things has said, the odd truth is State actually was better off in RPI terms beating Vanderbilt or South Carolina once than they would have been taking two from UK this year. Seriously, despite one more win the Bulldogs would have been that much closer overall to not getting a NCAA bid! LSU and Ole Miss can now curse, again.
Heck with ‘em, they didn't get in. The Dogs did and made just about as much of the invitation as any, any of us could have asked. I really believe only an actual Diamond Dog has the right to be disappointed today; rest of us ought to be cheering. And, cheerful for what we now have reason to hope the '12 team can bring.
No, to again borrow from the day's theme song, an Omaha trip this year was a dream they'll never see. I just hope the departing Dogs don't stay hung-up on that fact. Thanks to their close-call labors and an ultimately successful turnaround season achieved despite low forecasts and great obstacles, State teams to come should have their chance to get back in the race.