"We're getting ready for LSU," said Corley, co-captain of the team and one of the most-relieved Dogs that State is officially headed back to Hoover. It's been a long year since the 2004 Bulldogs fell a game short of the SEC Tournament and broke a 19-season string of appearances. Junior Corley and co-captain senior Saunders Ramsey are glad that didn't happen on ‘their' watch.
"Talking to Saunders, we were saying we didn't want to be labeled those guys that didn't get in two years in a row. To get that off our shoulders feels great, and we're going to come out and try to win some games."
The first chance to win comes Wednesday morning when the Diamond Dogs take on the Bayou Bengals, in a 10:00 a.m. matchup of #7 and #2 seeds. It's also by sheer chance a continuation of the just-concluded weekend series at Dudy Noble Field, in which LSU won the Friday and Sunday games around a lone Bulldog victory on Saturday. It certainly wasn't how Mississippi State wanted to end the regular season, and nobody offers any pretense of ‘momentum' going into tournament time. But all that matters is they are in this tournament and have an excellent opportunity of receiving a bid to the national one.
Corley actually likes the re-match-up Wednesday presents, because he and most Bulldogs believe they can not only play with the Western Division co-champs but win on a neutral field. That is how they are able to put the weekend's results behind them so easily. "Obviously guys get frustrated if it doesn't go the way we want. But it ended up working out and we're in the tournament now.
"I think they're coming back with (lefty Lane) Mestepey, who is the last of the three starters as far as ‘stuff' goes, and we have A.J. (Alan Johnson) going who threw well against them (Friday). So hopefully we'll come out and battle again, and hit the ball."
The outfielder isn't worried about the other aspects of the game, fielding and throwing. Corley expects State to do these things very well in a big Hoover-Met park, especially pitch. In fact he sees the armed forces as MSU's true strength in tourney settings.
"We have a real deep pitching staff. Some teams only have a few guys they rely on all year, we've got seven or eight that can do the job as well as anyone else. That's going to help us a lot." As will pitching in a spacious AA-sized facility that only Dudy Noble Field compares to, size-wise, in the league. The Bulldogs won't have to adapt, while many foes will. "I know that helped us against LSU, they hit some balls that would have gone out at their place. Going to Hoover is going to play in our favor, it's just like our field and we're looking forward to it."
There's another reason Corley & Co. are looking forward to playing at Hoover. They haven't had much fun lately in their own park with a fan base that has become discontented, to put things mildly. Some nerves have just been rubbed raw over the past month, especially in the outfield.
"Everyone is getting tired of it," Corley said. "We have great fans, it's just they want us to do so well and when we don't they don't know how to show it. Instead of ripping us they need to pick us up."
By the same token the Diamond Dogs might not know how best to show their own feelings sometimes, and Saturday afternoon—during a pitching change—the personal abuse led Corley to make a one-finger gesture to outfield spectators from right-to-left. The rightfielder acknowledged it Monday. "Yeah, definitely. Those people were out there ripping me. I missed that one ball, threw that one away, and they were all over me."
A couple of days later Corley can laugh, a little, about the incident and even agree with a sportswriter's suggestion that he was only signaling ‘one out' to the crowd. "Yeah, there you go!" More seriously… "But they were telling me some not-nice stuff either. That's why I did what I did, they told me to get off the field."
So maybe it's best for all involved that the Bulldogs are getting away from their own field and playing elsewhere. Yes, there will be unfriendly folk at Hoover, but at least they'll be wearing the colors of the competition. That is an expected part of the game, Corley says; hostility at home is a different matter. "Being in college you don't need to boo a 21-year-old kid," he said, "we're going to mess up.
"It's not an excuse at all. But it doesn't feel like a home game at all when you mess up and the fans get on you. It doesn't affect my play, but it doesn't help it when our own fans are cussing me out there."
Fans should also understand that Corley is not entirely content with how his own 2005 season has gone. After hitting .380 last spring with 19 home runs and 55 RBI, his draft-year production has dropped dramatically. Corley heads to Hoover with a .320 average and only three longballs with 32 RBI. He's also had some uncharacteristic lapses with the glove in rightfield, and Saturday against LSU made a hasty decision to make a throw to third instead of the cut-off man which let the go-ahead run get in scoring position. Fortunately the Bulldogs held on to win by one, and that win is why they are in Hoover.
If there is an optimistic tone to take, it is that Corley is by all rights due for a strong streak with the stick. There's no better time to do it than the post-season, and if the Bulldogs do get their anticipated NCAA berth Corley has reason to look for opportunity. "Getting out of conference ought to be fun, getting some pitches to hit!" For that matter at Hoover league pitchers might find it harder to pitch around Corley. Maybe.
Regardless of his problems at the plate and issues with observers, Corley is hardly downcast by the current situation. In fact, he is openly confident about both where he stands with pro scouts, and what the 2005 Bulldogs have done in contrast with '04. Don't look at just the numbers, he says: check the results.
"I had a great year last year and this year hasn't gone the way I wanted it to. But it still looks good for the draft, and we got in the tournament so it's a better year for the team already. Hey, I'll take that any day."
Including this Wednesday. Very early Wednesday, too, with a 6:30 pregame breakfast--"We'll have to get up and get after it." Yet when the Diamond Dogs report to the Met that morning, they are taking the first steps on what they hope is a long tournament trail as they really do expect to be playing in a Regional next week.
"Last year what, nine (SEC) teams got in?" said Corley. "And we're seventh this year, so I mean it's probably a 95% chance we're in. It's great for us, but we want to take care of the SEC Tournament first and go from there."