ABOUT FLORIDA ATLANTIC: After 115 seasons and over 3,400 games it's unusual for Mississippi State to run into a new opponent. But that's what happens when the Diamond Dogs take the field against the Owls for the first time ever. Florida Atlantic is an at-large entrant in this year's NCAA Tournament, having earned a bid on the strength of a 36-22 season and second-place Atlantic Sun Conference finish. The Owls were ASC runners-up in both the regular season at 19-11 (behind Troy) and in the league tournament where they were beating in the title game by Stetson. They were the defending ASC champions FAU might be a new face for State but hardly a new name in Regional play. Under Coach Kevin Cooney the Owls have played in six NCAA Tournaments and won one of them. And while Mississippi State has never played in Miami, the Owls are certainly used to this weekend's setting as for the last three years and five of their six NCAA appearances they have been sited here. FAU has yet to win one a tournament played at Mark Light Field, but in 2002 when allowed to play at Tuscaloosa the Owls upset host Alabama to win the Regional.
This FAU team appears to be playing its best ball here at the end of the 2005 season. That's not surprising considering the overall youth of a club with just two seniors in the regular starting lineup. Six sophomores and three juniors have molded into a solid team just in time to make an end-of-schedule run where they won nine of the last dozen games. The Owls also played a very competitive out-of-conference schedule with games against Georgia Tech, Nevada-Las Vegas, and other NCAA clubs. The strength of the slate contributed to a record hovering around break-even until FAU got hot and closed fast.
A change in pitching contributed to the surge as rookie Mickey Storey left the bullpen and became a starter and won nine of ten decisions (though he only had five wins against clubs that finished with winning records). Still 75 strikeouts in 86 innings and a 1.77 ERA are worthy of respect, as is a .222 batting average-against. Yet Cooney appears to be gambling in his post-season pitching plans, saving Storey for a second-game start. Instead FAU looks to go with lefthanded workhorse Chris Salberg against State, probably having scouted MSU's record during SEC season against southpaws. And Salberg has won his last four decisions, so he comes in confident.
It was easier to make Storey a starter because outfielder Mike McBryde has more than filled the bullpen role. A right-side thrower McBryde has half his staff's saves and a 4.5-to-1 strikeout average with a .223 average-against. And in a short tournament FAU has no lack of arms tuned by plenty of innings, though there does seem to be a shortage of southpaws overall.
Offensively McBryde sets the pace at a .377 average and 39 RBI, and has tied the program record for season hits. He is usually hitting leadoff in front of rightfielder Tim Mascia and run-producers Jonathan Shapland and Robbie Widlansky. Still the team average of .297 isn't intimidating and power is only average (even if better than the Bulldogs) with only one home run in the ASC Tournament. What the Owls do very well is run, with 112 steals and a 79% success rate.
NOTES: Florida Atlantic did not play any Southeastern Conference teams this season, but did play 17 games against six teams which are in this year's NCAA Tournament field with a 8-9 record. The Owls were: 2-4 against ASC cohort Stetson, 3-0 against UNLV, 1-0 against Harvard, 1-2 against Georgia Tech, 1-2 against TCU, and 0-1 against Michigan.
*2005 marks the 25th year of Owl baseball at Florida Atlantic. Just for contrast, Ron Polk has began coaching at Mississippi State five years before FAU had a program.
*FAU became the first Atlantic Sun club ever to earn a national ranking, as the 1999 team began the season 39-1.
*The Owls are a home-grown program, with 28 of the 36 roster players Florida natives. FAU also features several players who began their college careers at other D-I schools, such as Florida State, LSU, Fresno State, and Troy.
THE COACH: Kevin Cooney is in his 17th season coaching the Owl program, and his 21st as a college head coach. A former pitcher at Montclair State, N.J., Cooney turned to coaching after rotator cuff problems ended his minor league career. He skippered his alma mater for three seasons before heading south to take over the still-young FAU program, and since then has compiled a 639-401-4 record with the Owls. He is 789-451-9 for his college career.
PROBABLE STARTERS: CF Mike McBryde .377, 5 HR, 39 RBI, 34-38 SBs; RF Tim Mascia .303, 3 HR, 32 RBI, 20-23 SBs; LF Jonathan Shapland .314, 7 HR, 33 RBI OR Mike McKenna .292, 6 HR, 33 RBI; 1B Jordan Hafer .209, 1 HR, 12 RBI; 2B Derek Hutton .187, 0 HR, 13 RBI; SS Alex Fonseca .308, 3 HR, 31 RBI; 3B Robbie Widlansky .324, 7 HR, 39 RBI; C Alex Silversmith .292, 0 HR, 14 RBI OR Justin Martin .321, 1 HR, 9 RBI.
Top Alternates: SS Daniel Cook .333, 0 HR, 2 RBI; DH Tyler Stephens .380, 0 HR, 9 RBI.
STARTING PITCHERS: LH Chris Salberg 21 games, 14 starts, 6-4 record, 81 IP, 4.44 ERA, 62 K, 31 BB; RH Mickey Storey 22 games, 8 starts, 9-1 record, 7 saves, 86 IP, 1.77 ERA, 75 K, 20 BB; RH Brandon Kloess 18 games, 9 starts, 8-2 record, 58 IP, 4.17 ERA, 48 K, 28 BB; RH Will Mann 20 games, 12 starts, 3-5 record, 77 IP, 5.00 ERA, 57 K, 27 BB.
Relief Pitchers: RH Mike McBryde 18 games, 10 saves, 2-2 record, 34 IP, 3.12 ERA, 48 K, 10 BB; RH Allen Knight 22 games, 1-2 record, 0 saves, 27 IP, 4.00 ERA; LH Jason Costello 14 games, 1-1 record, 31 IP, 4.65 ERA.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Team batting Average: MSU .297, FAU .297
Opponent's ERA: MSU 5.38, FAU 5.90
Runs Per Game: MSU 5.93, FAU 6.44
Home Runs: MSU 28, FAU 44
Average RBI: MSU 5.35, FAU 5.45
Doubles: MSU 108, FAU 94
Triples: MSU 16, FAU 5
Stolen Bases/Attempts: MSU 34/47, FAU 112/142
Staff ERA: MSU 3.42, FAU 4.39
Batting Average Allowed: MSU .261, FAU .288
Average Runs Allowed: MSU 4.23, FAU 5.53
Total Saves: MSU 11, FAU 20
Strikeouts: MSU 408, FAU 421
Walks: MSU 190, FAU 189
Fielding: MSU .968, FAU .957
Errors: MSU 73 in 60 games, FAU 98 in 58 games