'They' being the San Diego State Aztecs, the matchup drawn by Mississippi State in Friday's Lafayette Regional opener. In Collins' case the NCAA Tournament offers some irony. The freshman catcher hails from Lake Forest, Cal., in the heart of southern California. As Collins describes, about a half-hour north of San Diego proper.
"I'm more of an Orange County guy," he said. But never mind the ‘boundaries' only a native understands. Collins knows the region and he knows the program. They've got a lot of hard-working dudes there. I think they just know how to win." The Aztecs have proven than in 2014 with a 45-19 record and Mountain West Conference tournament title run. This might be a #3 regional seed in NCAA committee eyes…
…but to anyone understanding college baseball, any team coming from this corner of the country is a first-class club. Mississippi State has immediate memories in fact, having squared-off with UCLA in the College World Series championship series. Collins agrees with the reputation that records from this region mean little because every team is competitive. And better.
"California, it's just a lot of good players come out of there and good teams, just solid programs. And a lot of hard-working guys." Guys which Collins might have called teammate conceivably, as he said he did have some conversations with the Aztecs staff during recruiting.
"I know Tyler Atkinson, he's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever played with. He's stud and is going to be a hard out every time. I'm excited, the SEC matches up with another California team and we get a chance to prove ourselves differently than what we did in Arizona."
Yes, that early-March trip that produced a 1-3 result with losses to Cal-Santa Barbara and a split with host Arizona. That was back when State was still mixing Collins and fellow backstops Zack Randolph and Cody walker in various lineups, seeking the best receiver and batter combination. A process that continued well into SEC season in fact as all three spent what Collins calls "countless hours" in coach offices. "
"Asking questions and going over film and doing so many extracurricular things. So when we get in the games in any type of situation we're best prepared for it." As the season developed so did Collins, exactly as Mississippi State hoped when signing the California kid as their catcher of the future. He became the present, or was up to the hiccups in some early-May games; most notably against Jacksonville State. Cohen defended the rookie since, after all, receiving the sort of stuff Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren throw challenges even veterans.
Collins seems to have settled down by the Alabama series and has handled all sorts of State pitchers without many miscues. "It's just focus. I don't know, I just found something to really turn the corner and just figured out how to focus. And I really think that's a huge tribute to all my teammates. Because the feeling of letting down your brothers is not a good feeling."
He has to be feeling good after his SEC Tournament, going 6-of-14 batting with a run and two RBI. That and his work behind the dish earned Collins All-Tournament honors, and when the SEC announces its 2014 Freshman team tomorrow this Dog ought to be on it, too.
"I just played well, saw the ball well, really locked in," Collins said of his Hoover week. "And that's a huge tribute to Coach Cohen and Coach Wells and Coach Thompson. Especially all my teammates being 100% on me and keeping me locked in. I hear something catching-wise from the dugout every single pitch and hitting, just staying locked in."His only disappointment there, besides State not winning a trophy, was being DH'd on Friday. In that case it was his coaches still taking precautions. For all the regular season feats this is still a freshman, after all; who had just caught three-straight days and was returning to the field the same day an extra-inning game ended. Collins understood, which doesn't mean he liked settling for just swinging.
"I mean I wanted to catch, I felt fine, an ice bath the night before. But that's not up to me. Coach Thompson asked me how I felt and I said I felt ready to go. But that's not my decision. And Cody (Walker) did a great job for us."
And while not catching that game with Florida, it didn't mean Collins was goofing around on the Bulldog bench. Catchers don't work that way, not the good ones. He was scouting, even coaching.
"You're just constantly trying to pick up on stuff, trying to see little things they do at the plate, if they're pulling off a ball or staying on it, getting their head over the plate. There's a lot of little things that go into it and taking little mental notes, sometimes actually writing stuff down. All three of us catchers do a great job communicating, it doesn't matter who is in the lineup that day we do a great job giving each other the best feedback so we have the best chance to win."
Speaking of feedback... Other than the physical part, catchers aren't cut much slack. Anyone pulling on the mask is automatically accepting responsibility to do the whole job. Including working with the pitcher/ It's a measure how Collins' maturity is already regarded that he can communicate consistently with the moundsman of the moment. Even debate, if necessary. It's all part of the learning process, Collins said.
"You can kind of see what the body language, when you put a sign down the pitcher will kind of shake-off, or give you a weird look. You'll call time, sprint down there and get on the same page with him. But we prepare for those situations so they don't come up as often as they did. We've not eliminated those but we've got it where we are on the same page."
And after all, a pitch has to be thrown sooner or later. Even if it's a brutal breaker from lefty Lindgren, or Holder's 12/6 curve in the dirt. So, "When a pitcher has a best pitch it's pretty obvious and you don't want to run from that," Collins said. "You use that to attack the other team. I feel our staff does a good job knowing what their best pitch is or what their best two pitches are and mixing both of those."
Now that the first-day matchup is set, Collins & Co. can get down to seriously scouting San Diego State. Most of this squad has played post-season before but for true frosh Collins it is a first. Or another first, rather.
"It's been awesome, I've learned so much. It's unbelievable how much I've learned. And I'm just so excited to be in a good regional and have another chance to get back to the College World Series. But one pitch, one pitch at a time, and San Diego State stands in our way. They're going to be a tough out every time, and I'm excited for that."
Almost sweating in excitement already even.