Diamond Dogs Draw Assignment To Miami

It is Memorial Day after all. And boy, have some Diamond Dog memories been activated by announcement of the NCAA baseball championship tournament.

The 64-team bracket published Monday morning has Mississippi State assigned to the Coral Gables Regional which will be hosted by the University of Miami. The Bulldogs, who earned an automatic bid by winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship on Sunday, are seeded second in the four-team Regional and will play Florida Atlantic this Friday at 2:00 (ET) at Mark Light Field. The hosting and top-seeded Hurricanes play Virginia Commonwealth in the other Friday contest. Under the NCAA's tournament format, the survivor of the double-elimination Regional will play the winner of the Lincoln, Neb., Regional in a best-of-three series for the right to advance to the College World Series.

When the Regional pairings were presented MSU athletic director Larry Templeton was the probably the only member of the NCAA's selection/seeding/siting committee who appreciated the history inherent in Mississippi State's matchup. Certainly Coach Ron Polk did. "We're heading to Miami, I coached there three-and-a-half years." Three of those years at Miami-Dade Comm. College and the half at UM itself, before becoming a head college coach.

Moreover, Polk was an aide to legendary Hurricane Coach Ron Fraser, and by coincidence in May the State skipper passed his former boss for tenth place on the career victories list. And as if further memory-jogging were needed, the 2005 Bulldogs find themselves heading into Hurricane country almost 20 years to the week after Mississippi State last played a Miami club. That was in 1985, and in Omaha, when Polk's most star-studded team ever was eliminated from the C.W.S. on a walk-off home run, and Fraser's team went on to defeat Texas for the national crown.

Still, while Monday's news did have Mississippi State longtimers delving into memories, the current Diamond Dogs are only interested in making some history of their own as they prepare for post-season play. "We were excited," said outfielder Jeff Butts, the SEC Tournament MVP. "It's going to be fun, a different atmosphere. We're just excited about having a good time playing baseball."

It's a busy time already as Polk and staff scramble to make travel arrangements through the NCAA while assembling some sort of scouting report on FAU, as well as setting up meetings and practice before Wednesday's departure. "It's been a busy day," said Polk. "We'll meet at 7:00, and the pitchers and catchers hopefully will get some work outside. We're not sure of practice time tomorrow.

"We're working on information right now, it's teams we did not play and there are not too many common opponents. But that's not unusual for Regional play." Nor is there anything unusual about initial pitching plans for the weekend, with senior Alan Johnson already set to start the first game.

Certainly State would prefer to be playing on the home field this weekend, but even as they made it to Sunday's title game few realistically expected to host a Regional. "The seeding took place prior to the championship game," Polk noted, referring to selection of the 16 host sites announced even before the Dogs began play against in-state rival Mississippi. The 4-1 victory let State bring home a title and trophy but came too late to win a Regional. "It was already in place," said Polk. Nor did winning a conference tournament give #7 SEC seed State enough points to win one of the 16 top Regional seedings.

"Our RPI this morning was 20," said Polk, "all it did was bump us up, but not get us a #1 seed. We'd probably be 17th or 18th, but we're pleased to be in the tournament. And all the SEC teams that got in and did not host were #2 seeds." A total of nine SEC clubs were issued bids for a third-straight year.

If not hosting or getting top seeding bothered the Dogs, they didn't show it. State players are basking in their SEC Tourney achievement. Only last Sunday it required losses by three conference clubs for MSU just to make their only conference classic; the next Sunday the Bulldogs were hauling hardware out of Hoover. "It was great this week," said Butts. "We knew it was just a matter of time before we got the timely hitting and started to click. It built our confidence the whole week."

"I'm sure they have a lot of confidence going into the next tournament," said Polk. "We pitched well, we hit well, we made the plays. We did as good a job as you're going to do." In fact, this job might have been the most satisfying among Polk's five SEC tourney titles. "Some we've had to come through lowers bracket and some we struggled in some aspects, but the whole package was here.

"I just got the stats from the tournament. We led all teams in batting average at .329, led in ERA at 1.25, and we also led in fielding at .987, we made just two errors. The guys played very, very well." Well enough that one of the last teams to qualify for Hoover was the last team standing on Sunday. Not surprisingly it all began with State's season-long strong points of pitching and defense.

"I think A.J. did a good job the first day establishing the strike zone that we wanted," said relief pitcher Saunders Ramsey. "And other starters said if he can do it I can do it. We did a great job pitching downhill and competing, we established confidence and it carried the whole way."

Mississippi State expected to pitch well, but work by starters Johnson, Todd Doolittle, Jon Crosby, and Brooks Dunn far exceeded the most optimistic outlook. "The thing is, our defense wasn't pressured much with a lot of runners on base and it's easier to field balls," Polk said. "Neutralizing offense breeds confidence, especially in the staff." And, the coach noted, "No other team got a home run off us."

The State-surprise at Hoover was hitting, as one of the league's most modest offenses thrived in a more spacious setting. The team batting average was 30 points higher than the regular-season rate, and only in the final game did the Dogs fail to reach double-digit hits (with nine). "And our slugging was .400 to their .250," Polk added. "But the really good stat was we were 16-of-40 with runners in scoring position." Talk about timely hitting, State's timing was near-flawless in four games and futher fueled pitching poise. "The other teams were 4-of-22," said Polk. "Which means we didn't allow the other teams to get to third base very much."

It oughtn't be overlooked that Mississippi State was clearly the club best suited to play in a deep, wide ballpark, and the Bulldogs maximized every conceivable advantage. Yet they also had to make the pitches, field the ball, and swing the sticks like everyone else. They just did it better than anyone else for one week in May. "It's baseball," Polk said. "We got on a roll the first game, and the guys built confidence there. But I thought we played well at Florida and same thing with LSU, just one play and we win two-of-three. Maybe even hosting.

"Right now we're as confident a ball club as you're going to have. But I don't think we're overconfident. We feel good and know we played in the toughest conference in the country and came out 4-0. You can't help but be impressed by our performance."

Now, can Mississippi State continue performing at a tourney-winning level for another weekend, and in a very different setting? Polk would also prefer to play at home, but Miami is entirely acceptable. "I'm familiar with Mark Light Field," he said. "It's a fair ballbpark, not big or not small. A lot depends on humidity in the air when we play. I've seen wind blow in and out, left and right. It's a nice ballpark and fair for pitcher and hitters. If I had to say, it's Arkansas-like."

As to the tournament itself, "It's a good site and they're used to running Regionals. Everything will be very smooth." Polk's only concern after getting there is dealing with a host of his former players from the area who will be hitting their old coach up for tickets. "But I'll deal with that."

These next few days Polk is dealing with preparations and scouting, all attention turned not to the host school but the first-round foe. "It's going to be difficult to put a lot of scout info together, but we'll have as much as possible and hope the guys go out and play and have fun." Besides, he added, "The unknown sometimes is fun."

For their part the Bulldogs aren't fretting facing an unfamiliar opponent. "Our coaches do a great job getting as much information as they can," said Butts. "Of course you'd like to see a guy, but at the same time you have to make adjustments through the game."

"You don't want to get caught up in the hype," said Ramsey. "Treat it the same as any other game. It doesn't matter who you face if you have a good scouting report and have confidence."

And Polk is confident that after taking a conference tournament his team is as reasonably confident as any club could be for the start of the national event. "And we're looking forward to the next step of this tournament. Hopefully to the super Regional, but we've got to get by three fine teams in Miami."

If so, there are more MSU memories in the making.

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