This is the first super regional ever at Starkville, since the NCAA Tournament format was revised for the 1999 season. That and the fact that Mississippi State hasn't hosted any post-season play since 2003, had Bulldog fans overloading the ticket office Tuesday.
"It's going to be a great weekend," Coach Ron Polk said. "I wish the times were a little better, but what do you do?"
The tournament times of 11:00 a.m. starts both Friday and Saturday, and a noon first-pitch for Sunday if the third game is necessary, weren't set by State. Even the morning start to the series shouldn't cut too deeply into the projected crowd, which has waited for too long to watch NCAA play at DNF. They would echo what senior CF/2B Jeffrey Rea said. "It's good to be back home."
Then again the Diamond Dogs didn't fare too badly away from home over the weekend, winning all three games at Tallahassee including tense 3-0 and 9-4 decisions over host and national #6 seed Florida State. The second win, on Sunday, gave State it's first regional title since 2001 and Polk's first since he returned to State the next season. Still every players made it clear they are glad to be on familiar ground for this super-round. In fact, they believe they're owed one.
"I think we're the only SEC team that didn't host a regional," said LaNinfa. "Now we're the only one hosting a super regional. It's exciting, for the fans, for the team, for the coaches." Senior LaNinfa is certainly excited that, after playing on the road—and at ACC sites—for all four of his college first-round regionals, he will have this one chance to do it at Dudy Noble Field. Yet the younger Dogs are just as thrilled.
"Hopefully we keep it going," said freshman 2B Brandon Turner.
As late as mid-May the Diamond Dogs thought they were going to be hosting a first-round regional, too. Then came a late-schedule slump, partly due to injuries to Turner and others and partly—as well as relatedly—to an offensive slump. Losing their last two regular-season series and a 0-2 appearance at the SEC Tournament doomed State's hopes of hosting the first round.
Every team seems to have that one bump in the road," Polk said. "The bump we had was at the wrong time. Otherwise we would have been a host already. But it came out good, I guess, we're hosting a super regional. So the bump in the road might have helped us, I don't know."
Clearly Clemson's win over regional host Coastal Carolina helped State earn this super regional, edging out the fellow two-seed Tigers. And as noted MSU will be the only Southeastern Conference club hosting a super, with regional winners South Carolina and Ole Miss having to travel. It was a close committee call by all accounts, and Clemson naturally is not happy about State getting the nod. Not that the Tigers of the ACC need any extra incentive; this is another formidable Clemson club with plenty of familiar faces from last June when the Bulldogs lost in the Tigers' lair. State also had to play at Clemson in the 2000 super regional, losing both games.
"We saw them last year over there," said Polk, of a 8-6 loss in the championship round. This year is more of the same Tiger theme. "A very good ball club, pitching and defense are their key but they swung the bat very well this past weekend, especially in the final game. Very athletic, very well-coached. Jack Leggett has been here before two or three times with Western Carolina (in the 1980s) so it's nothing unusual for him."
"They're going to be ready to play," said LaNinfa. "We watched them on TV and they're a good team. Just expect it to be a battle."
How Polk and staff align and order their troops for this battle will be set as the week goes on. State's lineup shuffled daily at Tallahassee; not for injuries as the previous few weeks, but for matchups as well as to fit the unusual field dimensions. Dudy Noble is obviously completely familiar territory so there won't be any changes needed for that. It will be who compares and competes best with the opposition, Polk said.
"We've got to look more at Clemson, we're getting some tapes and we've got some people helping us with some information. I have to see how many right and left (batters) they have. More than likely we'll stay the same, but we're going to face two lefts (pitchers) and a right so we've got to start thinking about that." As for State's pitching plans Polk won't commit just yet but he did say it will be either RH Chad Crosswhite or LH Justin Pigott for the first day, the other the next, and most likely in this order. "We'll make that decision."
Whoever and whenever, the coach can only hope to get similar performances from all starters and relievers as they did in the first round. ""We pitched it so well at Tallahassee, I mean Florida State's batting average was .138, this was a team hitting .355 going in and averaging eight or nine runs. We pitched well and for the most part made the plays. And we got some timely hitting, I've said it over and over but at this level you have to pitch well, make the routine plays, a great play occasionally. The heck with batting averages, it's who knocks them in."
Tuesday's team practice was at 7:00; on Wednesday the schedule has the Bulldogs lifting weights at 10:00 a.m. and back on the field at 4:00 for another practice. On Thursday the opposition arrives with both teams having a practice turn around press conferences. There will also be a tournament dinner for teams, tournament officials and staff that evening. And Friday morning game time comes early, as the start of somebody's road to Omaha and the beginning of the end for somebody else's season.
The Bulldogs know who they would rather be. "We don't want it to end here," said Turner. "We'd like to go to Omaha."
TOUGH TIMING: Mississippi State officials were delighted with Monday night's news that they would host this super regional round. As were Diamond Dog fans, who kept the ticket office staff busy and all lines tied up. Then came the mid-afternoon revelation of when the three games would be played—11:00 a.m. on both Friday and Saturday, and if necessary at noon Sunday. Cable sports power ESPN did the scheduling for their broadcasting convenience, not the teams or their fans.
How that impacts continued demand for tickets won't be known until the weekend, though a MSU official said after the work-day the ticket office had to pause taking further orders Tuesday evening just to take stock of how many and what types of tickets had been sold already. Tickets are $22 for chairbacks and $15 for general admission. Chairback seat-holders for the regular season have through 4:30 Wednesday to keep their seats.
Polk would rather play a two- or three-game series at a more typical time, and not just as a coach. "I hope nobody is playing at 7:00 in the morning!" he quipped. "It would be nice to go at 11:00 (am) maybe one day then at night, but I have no idea. Whatever time we play, you play, no team has an advantage. I'm talking about our fans, they'd like to not leave the coast of Mississippi at 3:00 in the morning to get here for a 11:00 ball game.
"But at the same time we'll play when we're supposed to play, our guys will be excited and I hope our fans enjoy the three games or two games they're going to play."
Because all games will be televised—by ESPN on Friday and if necessary Sunday, and ESPN2 on Saturday—there will be no live video stream on Maroon to the Max. M2M will have free live audio.