MSU's Ron Polk 'Confidently' Looks to the Future

Now that the NCAA Selection Show has drawn to a rapid close with no mention of the Mississippi State Diamond Dogs, optimism still abounds among the players, coaches and fans of the beloved Maroon and White.<P> Despite not being one of the 64 teams selected by an NCAA panel headed by chairman Wally Groff of Texas A&M, the Mississippi State camp is anxiously looking to the future with high expectations.

How close was Mississippi State to receiving a 2002 bid is open to debate. However, the Dogs had to be perched high on the bubble. There's no way around it.

Perhaps one more win during the regular season, which ended on a positive note, a five-game winning streak, and the Bulldogs would be on their way to yet another NCAA Regional. Just one more win in the SEC Tournament could have landed the Bulldogs their seventh straight NCAA Regional invitation and their 26th overall.

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk, clinging to guarded hope up until the last minute, said he tried to prepare his team for not being chosen for the postseason playoffs.

"I told them where our RPIs were, about our records against the top teams," pointed out Polk, beginning his second tour of duty in Starkville after a brief retirement and a two-year stint at Georgia.

Seven SEC teams were chosen, including Polk's old Georgia ensemble which he had led to the College World Series a year ago. Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas were selected as well.

"To get eight teams from the SEC in again with the upsets around the country would have been very difficult," reasoned Polk, who has coached in 16 regionals.

Mississippi State (34-24-1) had a better overall record than two of the SEC teams which made the cut, Arkansas (31-26) and Georgia (30-27). State took 2-of-3 from both Arkansas and Georgia during the regular season, while defeating Georgia 3-of-4 overall, including a 10-3 triumph in the SEC Tournament. Both Auburn (34-24) and Georgia failed to post a "W" in the SEC Tournament, while Arkansas was 1-2, the same as State.

However, Mississippi State didn't do well against ranked teams. That may have been the critical criteria along with the RPI.

The Bulldogs finished the regular season on a positive note, including a three-game sweep of instate rival Ole Miss to qualify for a record 16th straight SEC Tournament.

A veteran of many diamond wars, Polk gave his team a "50-50" chance of returning to an NCAA Regional after exiting the SEC Tournament. However, it didn't happen for the Diamond Dogs.

"I think what did us in was that we were 2-11 against the top four teams in the SEC. Where Arkansas and Georgia did a little better job against some of those teams."

Mississippi State's RPI was not as good as Georgia's which geographically has a tremendous advantage by playing teams nearby that are highly-regarded - Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Wake Forest for instance.

"Our RPI would have been much higher if we'd won more games against Alabama, Florida and South Carolina," explained Polk. "That was the key. That's why our RPI was relatively low, it wasn't technically strength-of-schedule.

"If we'd beaten Kentucky (in March) we go into the SEC Tournament as a higher seed. So just one little game like that did you in.

"We competed well against most of the teams in the SEC but not the ones you have to compete with for a bid," said Polk, adding "we should be in much better shape next year with more depth."

Mississippi State loses eight seniors but returns a number of key players although several are draftable. Seven of the Dogs top nine hitters return, a statistic not overlooked.

Two MSU players will carry over double-digit hitting streaks. Junior to be pitcher-DH Robby Goodson (.369) of Vicksburg, Miss., ended the season on a 11-game hitting streak, while sophomore to be left fielder Jon Mungle (.341) ended the campaign on a 10 game binge.

Second-year third baseman-right fielder Steve Gendron (.351) is among the regulars ticketed to return along with DH-third baseman Brent Lewis (.312), power-hitting first baseman Matthew Brinson, who has a .316 average to go with 14 HRs, and 71 RBI, and smooth-fielding shortstop Matthew Maniscalco, around the .300 mark all season while settling for a .291 average.

The top returning pitchers include ace left-hander Paul Maholm (10-3, 3.43 ERA), who'll be a junior, senior to be right-hander Chris Young (5-2, 3.67), Jonathan Papelbon (junior, 3-4, 2.92), Joey Collums (senior, 3-6, 4.58), Brian Owens (senior, 0-0, 2.84), Saunders Ramsey (sophomore, 0-0, 2.57), Jeff Lacher (junior, 2-2, 5.03), Jacob Blakeney (senior, 2-2, 5.59), Steven Dowe (senior, 0-0, 9.45), and Goodson (0-0, 2.08).

"We're encouraged as we look ahead," notes Polk. "We're returning some very fine players. We feel good about our recruits, too. If we can hold on to all our signees, and keep a couple of our draft-eligible guys, then we should have more depth next year."

Mississippi State's signees of concern regarding the draft include Brad Corley, Jeff Butts, Joseph Hunter, Casey Hamilton, and two-sport standout (football, baseball) Justin Tyler.

"After that I don't think anybody else," said Polk, who now has 1,001 career SEC wins. "One or two may be drafted but their signability becomes a question."

Looking to the future, Polk noted Mississippi State had a tremendous recruiting class, especially position players. "We're hoping we can hold onto our signees. Papelbon is a factor, maybe, and a couple of others are potential factors.

"But for the most part, if we can hold our signees ... especially the position players and that's what we needed to have to build up our depth. That's what killed us this year, was lack of depth.

"I think we had a good year, not a great year, but a good year," added Polk. "I like the people we have coming back and I like the redshirts. I feel like some of the youngsters will develop while playing summer ball and during the fall program. We've got some guys that we think are going to be able to help us. The whole key is keeping the signees.

"I think we made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas. Facilities, locker room, lounge, equipment room, dugouts. We spent a lot of money and a lot of time and effort. We still have the complex we're raising money for. We're waiting in a holding pattern right now.

"We have a great group of kids to work with. Now we just need to move forward," added the SEC winningest coach.

Don Foster, a 31-year veteran newspaper writer, is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News. He will be writing regular feature articles for Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports and Mississippi High School sports on the internet.

Gene's Page Top Stories