"We've got the talent to play with anybody in the nation," the senior said.
The thing is, the Bulldogs had that same talent all season and at one point thought they were going to be hosting a regular regional as well. Then a number of modest injuries coalesced into a major problem and a May slump that cost State a shot at the SEC Western Division and likely host privileges. The thing is, LaNinfa points out, the players never lost faith in themselves.
"We know we have a good team. We kind of hit a slide at the end of the season but it's all about rebounding and reassuring everybody that we are good and can play with anybody in the nation. We did."
AND, NO WAITING REQUIRED: Fortunately a crop of first-year Diamond Dogs didn't have to wait nearly so long to experience tournament baseball at DNF. No less than eleven true freshmen, redshirts, or transfers are on the 25-man list for this post-season. These pups intend to start a run of annual home-field appearances at tourney time.
At least one of them remembers when this sort of late-spring event was expected, which is why 3B Russ Sneed takes special pride in this week's preparations. "It's been a great experience, with growing up a Mississippi State fan and seeing all the regionals and stuff," the Senatobia resident said. "Definitely, that was the biggest part of the decision when I came here to play. Now to get a chance to do that and be in the lineup it's going to be a lot of fun."
In fact Sneed has a somewhat eerie impression about what is happening. He talks of coming as a kid to watch the 1997 regional and two games with Washington that State won…and the heart-breaking losses in 2003 to North Carolina. Win or lose being at the ballyard was a thrill for the young Sneed.
"I was just a big fan and looked up to all those guys, and it's just great to be one of those guys right now!" he said.
Yet as exciting as this event is for a redshirt freshman, Sneed might be happier for his elders. For the seniors and draft-eligible juniors who came far too close to playing out their careers without experiencing a home-field regional.
"Oh, I feel great for them. It would have been bad if they'd gotten out of here and not hosted anything. It's going to be a great feeling for them to see all these people here this weekend and go out on a bang."
FAMILIAR FACES: 15 of the 25 Bulldogs dressing this weekend were on the travel roster last June when State was assigned to the Clemson Regional. Six started in the field and five saw some sort of action on the mound either starting or relieving.
One of those hurlers getting work at Kingsmore Park was Justin Pigott, who saved and elimination-round game with UNC-Asheville and won a start against Elon. Pigott did not start the championship round game with Clemson—that duty fell to Chad Crosswhite—but he had a good look at the 2006 Tigers from the dugout. And he sees too many familiar faces coming to Dudy Noble Field this year.
"We watched them on TV against Coastal Carolina," Pigott said. "I recognized (Andy) D'Alessio, of course Marquez Smith, that's two very good hitters, (Taylor) Harbin is always a good hitter. They've still got some key guys, and they've got one of their pitchers, that (Daniel) Moskos guy. They didn't lost much really."
What the Tigers have lost this year is home-field advantage, which was certainly a help in 2006. Still Pigott is aware Clemson folk aren't happy, as they'd expected to be hosting a super round after they knocked off top-seed Coastal Carolina. And where many visitors to DNF are unprepared to play in the expansive layout, the Tigers are used to covering a good-sized field of their own. "It won't bother them not a bit," Pigott said.
MORE 2006 REVIEW: Four Diamond Dogs were named all-tournament at the Clemson Regional, and all are back for more on the homefield this year. OF Joseph McCaskill made the all-tourney team but as a catcher, the spot he started three times last post-season. Brian LaNinfa made the team as a DH, Mitch Moreland as an outfielder (he didn't pitch at Clemson) and Pigott.
Post-season play seems to bring out the best in Pigott. He not only made the All-Tallahassee Regional team over the weekend, he was voted Most Valuable Player after his eight-inning shutout of host Florida State in the crucial winner's bracket showdown.
Also on the all-tourney team were 2B Brandon Turner, 3B Russ Sneed, and OF Jeffrey Rea.