State Begins Preparing For Clemson Regional

Coach Ron Polk didn't have to get on the phone to round Diamond Dogs who'd scattered last week. He had already issued standing orders, just in case the NCAA issued an invitation to their baseball tournament. "They're coming," Polk said Monday afternoon upon confirmation that the at-large bid was a fact. "I just told them if you see us come up (on TV) get your butt back here, quick."

State has to prepare, quickly, for their post-season road trip. The Bulldogs (35-21) have been awarded an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, and been assigned to the Clemson Regional as the third-seed. State meets second-seed Elon, champion of the Southern Conference, in a 2:00 Friday matchup to open the regional. The host Tigers, seeded not just first in the Regional but #1 nationally, play fourth-seed North Carolina-Asheville in the late game.

Polk and staff were able to spend Monday afternoon assembling information on the Phoenix of Elon, which they will present to Bulldog players this evening. A 7:00 practice has been called, though a late-afternoon thundershower might move some of the work indoors. Regardless, State players and staff alike are just glad to have a reason to re-assemble.

"I'm happy for our guys," Polk said. "This is our second chance and I know the guys are excited about it."

It's a second chance State was far from certain of receiving, after failing to make the SEC Tournament. Polk cut the squad loose for last week while he kept an eye on scores from league meets all around the country, trying to figure the odds on a bid. "I knew we'd be on the bubble," he said. In the end the Bulldogs slid down the right side of that bubble. They are among the 23 teams in the field of 64 that did not win either conference or conference tournament championships.

Why did the Dogs receive a bid over comparable competitors? Polk can't be sure, though he knows not playing in the SEC Tournament put State at a disadvantage. He also knows the selection committee picked all the numbers of every candidate apart, not merely the wins and the losses but perhaps even the few rained out. Such as a lost date with Tennessee at the opening of SEC season, which might well have been what kept the Bulldogs out of the league tourney at the end. "If we win that game, and no guarantees we do, we're in the SEC Tournament. How we would have done there I don't know." Perhaps not so well as State would have ended up in the half-bracket with eventual tourney champions Ole Miss.

"Maybe they looked at the scores, how close it was, the extra-inning games, a ball club that got off to a fast start and struggled in the second half mainly I think because of injuries and not being able to drive some runners in," Polk speculated. "And ,I think a club that was snake-bit a lot. There's a lot of luck in the game of baseball."

State's selection leaves the un-invited cursing their luck, or other villains in the process. And during the national selection show, ESPN commentators tried making a case that Mississippi State was chosen over rival Louisiana State for the last open slot. Certainly Tiger fans are roaring over being left out of the NCAAs, and pointing fingers at the baseball committee chairman…MSU athletics director Larry Templeton.

Of course Templeton was not allowed to participate in consideration of his school, leaving the meeting whenever State was discussed. "Larry called last night and said he spent six or seven hours outside the room," Polk said. "So the chairman of the committee wasn't a factor in this." And interviewed live on ESPN, Templeton set the situation straight.

"Mississippi State and LSU were not head-to-head at the end of the conversation, there were some other teams in that mix," he said on TV. Also, "It got down to seven spots with 17 teams on the board. All 17 deserved a hard look. The nine members left in the room gave them all serious consideration."

Polk shared some sympathy with his SEC rival. "I think LSU certainly deserved an opportunity, I'm disappointed for Smoke (Laval) and his staff and players." And for the conference as a whole, with ‘only' eight SEC teams receiving bids this time around. The last two years nine league clubs have played in the NCAAs, still the record for conference involvement. For that matter the SEC's eight bids this year are still the most of any league in 2006.

But Polk is not at all apologetic about Mississippi State's bid. He just wishes the Bulldogs could have avoided their weeklong waiting game by taking care of business in the regular season. "A couple of plays here or there…it's just been that way the whole second half. I mean, the whole second half. It's not like we've been blown out, maybe that was a factor for the committee.

"And maybe the head-to-head competition with LSU when we went down to Baton Rouge and won two-out-of-three might have been the deciding factor. But somebody has to be the 65th team. And there's other teams, Old Dominion and Louisiana-Lafayette and others. That really speaks the fact that the committee gave us due consideration without any undue influences."

"This year we probably saw more parity in college baseball," Templeton told ESPN. "This committee spent a lot of time talking about where the sites should be, and as you can see we selected nine sites that didn't host last year as well as two new sites at Pepperdine and Kentucky."

That sort of parity is why Mississippi State isn't taking their first-day matchup lightly. If being seeded lower than the Southern Conference champion doesn't alert the Diamond Dogs, a quick look at the Phoenix' scouting report this evening should. Coach Mike Kennedy's team not only blew through the 40-win standard but claimed Elon's first Southern Conference title. And along they way Elon defeated Auburn two-of-three and took one game in a series with South Carolina. They also won once against Regional host Clemson.

"They certainly enjoyed a fine season," Polk said. Clemson's #1 overall seeding and ACC regular-season title speaks for itself, and while UNC-Asheville has had a coaching change since then Polk remembers playing them while he coached at Georgia. In those two seasons in Athens Polk's UG teams squared off with the Tigers each year, splitting. "It's a beautiful ballpark," the coach said. It's a much-improved park than the one his 1981 Diamond Dog team visited and won a Regional at.

State has not met Clemson since another NCAA tourney, playing the Tigers in their lair in a 2000 Super Regional. The Bulldogs were eliminated in two games—"I was there to watch the guys," Polk said--giving State a 3-7 mark against Tiger teams. State has never played Elon on any ballfield, though Polk likes the chances in this first-day meeting. "It's a fair ballpark, a big ballpark which is conducive maybe to us. But we've got to worry about Elon and then Clemson if we do well."

The first order of business is to plan the pitching for the weekend. Polk said Monday afternoon senior lefthander Brooks Dunn (8-5, 4.35 ERA) will probably get the start for Elon, which would make soph lefthander Justin Pigott the likely starter for game-two however Friday's contest turns out. There is little use in projecting the pitching any farther ahead given the elimination nature of post-season play. State carried nine primary pitchers, and OF/P Mitch Moreland, on the 25-man dressout roster for the last regular season series.

That same roster probably won't change now. Polk said freshman Matt Lea will not be available this weekend, after missing five weekends now with tendinitis in his arm. And middle-reliever Mike Valentine, who missed the UM series with a bad shoulder, is also out. "He had a MRI to see if there is any tear," Polk said. Outfielder Andy Rice will play, postponing surgery to repair a tear in his shoulder until the season's end.

Polk knows his team was hurt by failure to play in this year's SEC Tournament, especially the seniors who wanted to defend their 2005 title. Yet that might prove an unintended benefit now. "They needed some rest, to just get away," Polk said of State's mental state after two frustrating months of close losses. "We've traditionally been a great second-half ball club, this year we weren't. If you look at the scores, ten of 17 SEC games we lost were by one or two runs. A lot of that is because we were not able to knock runners in, probably the worst team I've had ever in that. Some of that is luck and some of that is not producing."

Now the Diamond Dogs get another chance to produce. And whatever others might think about the merits of MSU's case, they have been invited all the same. How long they can play depends on how well they produce.

"I think the guys are excited about the opportunity to get that second chance," Polk said.

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