Mississippi State received its NCAA assignment Monday and will play in the Lafayette, La., Regional beginning Friday. The Bulldogs are the two-seed and match up in a 1:00pm game with three-seed San Diego State. Host and national #6 seed Louisiana Lafayette plays Jackson State in the evening game.
"I think we're excited," said senior OF C.T. Bradford. "We're up for anything. They've got three other good teams in the regional with us so it will be a good test for us."
A very good test. Mississippi State (37-22) is the only squad in this field which did not win either its conference title or tournament, or both. The Bulldogs finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference at 18-12; and went 2-2 in last week's league tournament. The conference record alone was enough to all-but-officially guarantee Mississippi State would be playing another weekend, albeit on the road this year.
Now they know where, and against whom. "I think it's a tremendous challenge for our club," Coach John Cohen said. "A really good regional, and our ids are exciting about going on the road and having this challenge in front of us."
It's a coaching challenge as well. "I don't know anything about San Diego State," Cohen said immediately. "Just that they're a very good ball club. We'll spend the next three days trying to figure out everything we can about those guys."
It takes no time to figure out just how quality of a foe the Bulldogs have been matched with. The Aztecs (42-19) are coming off a six-game run at the West Coast Conference tournament, where after two wins a loss to UNLV put them in danger of elimination. The Aztecs responded by beating Nevada in ten innings to stay alive; then twice defeated UNLV to take the title and earn the automatic berth. This is their 11th season under Coach Tony Gwynn.
These programs have never played. For that matter the Ragin' Cajuns are unfamiliar as well on the field. The only meeting came way back in 1991 when State and what was then known as Southwestern Louisiana split a series at Dudy Noble Field. Cohen does at least recall facing the Cajuns when he was head coach at Northwestern (La). State in 1998-2001. "Right up the road," he said. "It's a great atmosphere. And obviously Coach (Mark) Hudspeth is down there and he's done a phenomenal job with their football program."
Jackson State of course has crossed schedule paths often with State over many years, with the Bulldogs owning a 50-8 lead. The schools did not play this season. Although, when the Tigers lost their gear in a freak accident that burned their bus en route to the league tournament, State and Ole Miss helped re-stock the squad. Using the gift equipment, Jackson State won the SWAC title.
That will be a side-story line for many in the coming days, as well as the chance to play a host team in their stadium before an expected sellout crowd. "But," Cohen added. "We're not really concerned about them, because we're not guaranteed to play them. We get to play San Diego State."
This is the fourth-straight NCAA appearance in Cohen's six seasons, and the 34th overall for Mississippi State counting both the old District format which became Regionals in the 1970s. Cohen himself played on three-straight Bulldog Regional teams from 1988-90 and concluded his own career in the College World Series. His 2013 team achieved their goal of playing at Omaha as well, and in the process advanced farther than any State squad ever by playing in the best-of-three Championship series.
Over the years Mississippi State teams have won eleven district or regional tournaments and nine times advanced to the CWS. They have won two super-regional rounds, in 2007 and '13, and played in three others.
This year's site is a real change of direction for Mississippi State. From 2004 through 2012 Bulldog teams were assigned to Atlantic Coast Conference addresses six times. Even the '13 team had to go through the ACC to reach Omaha, playing their super region at Virginia. For the first time since 1998 (College Station) a State squad will head west for a regional round.
While the practice and travel schedule was still being set, the Bulldogs were on the field this morning in anticipation of a day game wherever they would go. By guess or by gosh today's session was close enough, and that should stay the script for the next two days on campus. Cohen wants to prepare under as close to game-conditions as can be, especially as State is coming off four evening games in Hoover. In fact they've played just one day game, at Alabama, since May 11.
And even for a Mississippi ball club, the conditions of Cajun country can be a little more intense. "The heat will be a factor," Cohen said. "We'll do everything to prepare our bodies, especially the catching and pitching positions." And overall, the coach said, after taking a quick weekend break the first goal is getting everyone back on physical and mental focus. The latter more so than the former, in fact.
"Every team I've been a part of, this time of year you really have to fight to get everything going. Because you're coming off an off-day, you have some soreness. You slowly get back into full-speed. We're really going to have to grind through some practices in some heat and get where we need to be."
Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson obviously could not project their pitching plans today. Not until getting a scouting read on the Aztecs, as well as after Bulldog moundsmen thrown their usual bullpens for evaluation. The one advantage to an early SEC Tournament exit is all pitchers ought to be well-rested, so "I feel we have lots of options for starting pitching," Cohen said.
Mississippi State has already played its part in making SEC and NCAA history, with a record ten conference clubs participating in the 2014 championships. Two, #2 Florida and #8 LSU, earned national seeds. Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt are also hosting, and in this lies another story that might get too much attention this week than either school wants. Lafayette is a national seed and if they win this regional will host the winner of the Oxford Regional.
But should the Bulldogs score an upset in Louisiana, and the Rebels win their home tournament…the arch-rivals would re-match in Oxford. A few media members were already asking today about such a prospect, despite Cohen's reminder that there is the major matter of just winning Friday's game for every one, every where.
Veteran Bulldogs are able to keep cool on what might become a hot topic, fortunately. True, said 2B Brett Pirtle, "It will be one of the funnest super Regionals probably in history here! But to make it to that we have to take it one at a time, because we can't look too far forward. Then we won't make it there."
The Bulldogs do expect to leave for Lafayette on Wednesday and practice there Thursday. More tournament details will be published through the week, but already the host school has given Mississippi State fans a heads-up about tickets. Tournament books ($50) were available for order Monday only to Cajun ticket-holders and donors. General admission tickets could be requested but no orders filled until after all primary orders are processed and counted.