While he wasn't surprised that MSU is hosting, one thing about the host selections did surprise him. "I was surprised that South Carolina didn't get to host," said Polk of the 39-20 Gamecocks, who were projected by most experts to host a regional.
It appears that MSU earned the host site that South Carolina was expected to receive. Coach Polk wasn't exactly sure what went through the selection committee's minds, but had a few ideas. "Maybe it was because of our RPI or our (NCAA) track record," said Polk. "Or maybe our bid was higher."
While hosting a regional was something that he expected, being selected as a number 1 seed was a little more surprising to Polk. "It wasn't a given," said Polk of the number 1 seed selection. "I wouldn't have been totally shocked if we had been a number 2 seed. Our RPI was in the top 15, so I thought it would happen. I don't know if we were a 9 or a 16 number 1 seed."
Watching the Monday morning selection show and seeing fellow Mississippi team Southern Miss get a host site as a number 2 seed gave Polk a good indication that his team would wind up as a number 1 seed. "Because Southern Mississippi was a number 2 seed, I really didn't think they would have another 2 seed hosting," said Polk.
Another thing that surprised him is the fact that Florida, a team that didn't make the SEC Tournament, received a bid to the tournament. "Yeah, I was surprised," said Polk. "But, there's no rule that says you have to make your conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament. We, as coaches, felt like it should have happened, but it wasn't a given that it would. It is a nice precedent."
Now, with the selection process out of the way, Polk can concentrate on the task at hand, scouting Middle Tennessee State, a team that comes in as the hottest team in the regional after winning 10 of their last 11 games, including 4 straight in the Sunbelt Conference Tournament.
"We are gathering information on Middle Tennessee State now," said Polk. "We are going to call other coaches to see if we can find out a little about them."
While Polk is preparing for Middle Tennessee State, Steve Peterson, Middle Tennessee State's head coach, is preparing his team for the trip to Starkville, a place that is not unfamiliar to the personable coach. "My first year as a head coach here, in 1988, we played at the regional in Starkville when it was a six-team regional," said Peterson, who has guided MTSU to 502 wins, one Sunbelt crown, eight OVC titles and seven OVC tournament titles in 16 years.
Although he has since seen his team advance to six other regionals, the Starkville regional still sticks in his mind. "It is still one of the best regionals that I've ever attended, simply because of the great fan support, the great stadium," said Peterson. "It is a great atmosphere, something that the players will remember the rest of their lives. It is what a regional should be all about. They do it first-class and they do it in a very relaxed atmosphere.
"Of course, we know we are playing an outstanding opponent in Mississippi State. We know that it is going to be a hostile crowd and that very few will be for the Blue Raiders, but that's all part of it.
"I might be choosing my poison, but I felt like we were going to be a number 4 seed, so, if I could choose my poison, I would choose Mississippi State."
Early in the season, Peterson probably felt his team had come upon some poison that was not of his choosing. In fact, he was probably wondering if his team was snake bit, because they were losing more than they were winning. "We were not a very good team early in the season, just struggling to get to .500. We would get to .500 and go back under," Peterson said of his team's early 13-18 performance.
"We had injuries, like a lot of team have," said Peterson, who has had 12 players start 19 or more games during the season. "We just had to get all of our players back in the lineup and figure out how we were going to do it. That's really what has transpired the last third of the season."
Since a loss to Memphis that left his team's record at 13-18, Peterson's team has won 20 of 27 games. "We are playing our best baseball right now," said Peterson. "When we did that in the Sunbelt Tournament, I thought that we were the best playing team in the tournament, as far as overall performance. We are not there yet, but as long as we have another game to play, we are just trying to get better and better."
Now with a NCAA regional bid safely secured, the next thing on Peterson's mind was where to go for the Monday morning selection show. That turned out to be the easiest decision that he has had to make this year. " Toots is a local restaurant that everytime we've been in a regional, we hold a selection party, open to the public, at that restaurant," said Peterson. "They are very big supporters of the entire university, but our baseball program in particular. It was a jammed pack restaurant."
There's a little more to this story than meets the eye. "When we were in Lafayette (at the Sunbelt Conference Tournament), one of the newspaper guys asked us where we wanted to go (in the NCAA Tournament)," said Peterson. "I said I wanted to go to Toots. He didn't know what I was talking about. The statement that I want to go to Toots means that we are going to be in a regional."
Now knowing where his team will be playing, the only thing left for Peterson and his team is to head to Starkville and prepare to take on Mississippi State. "We are going to work out Wednesday morning and leave as early in the afternoon as we possibly can," said Peterson, whose team, like the other two visiting teams, North Carolina and Missouri, is staying in Starkville. "We should get into Starkville at about 8 p.m."
While there's no Toots restaurant in Starkville, I have a strong feeling the MSU Left Field Lounge, a hodgepodge of food and hospitality that no other college baseball program can match, will make the Blue Raider players forget about Toots for a few days.
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.