And an even bigger gate was anticipated for game-two, not just because the Bulldogs would be playing for the title but since a few hundred fans unable to get away from home or work would be using the ticket they'd already ordered. Also, State put an additional 1,200 standing-room-only passes on sale Saturday morning, though once these were snapped up sales at the gate continued well into mid-game.
"In center I could see the whole field and it was unbelievably packed, gate to gate," CF Jeffrey Rea said.
The final Saturday tally of 13,715 is the new super regional standard for the whole country. Of course it was only the fourth-largest crowd ever to watch a Bulldog home game, if the largest tournament (regional or super) gate for State. A Dog team that had been awed on Friday was already counting on even bigger and better backing for the title game, and got it.
"It made it a lot easier with 13,000 people behind us," said RF Mitch Moreland. "We were all there together." In one Dog's case that was all the more true as Rea plays ‘tween-innings warmup toss with a friend, Brad Cohen. He had to speak with the buddy in the middle of the ninth. "I went up to him and told him we've got three more outs, I could taste it."
The great gate meant as much to younger pups as to old Dog Rea. RHP Aaron Weatherford has seen good support in his post-season trips abroad, to Clemson last June and Tallahassee last week. But Dudy Noble Field/Polk-Dement Stadium is in an entirely different league.
"At Florida State it was like 4,000 people, whatever there. That seemed real big, but come here and it's 13,000 something and they've got your back. As bad as you want it for this team you want it for the community and all fans too."
I'M BAAAA-AAACK: And, perhaps, for their skipper also. Not that Ron Polk would want the Bulldogs playing for his benefit. Nor does he want them to feel they have accomplished their 2007 mission just yet. "We achieved that goal, to go to Omaha. But we don't want to feel like that's it, we're done. We'd like to play for the national championship."
It's something Polk teams have done eight times before; nine if one counts his first trip to Omaha as an assistant with Arizona in 1966. #1 is one of three NCAA coaches to take three teams to the College World Series, but he might have some sort of chronological edge on all his peers.
"I've been there five decades as a coach. 1966 as an assistant with Arizona, with Georgia Southern in '73, some times with Mississippi State in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and Georgia 2001. I guess I can tell these guys five decades ago it wasn't anything like it was today—fans, crowds, ESPN, the venue." Or, surely, the rules and regulations that for the last two decades have drawn Polk's open ire and made him if not an enemy at least the most public gadfly of the NCAA regarding college baseball. Polk said he would not use CWS press conferences to continue his crusade against the NCAA's policies, but that if reporters want his views he will do so away from the podium.
At the same time during this season State's hall-of-fame coach has come in for criticism as well from a fan base disgruntled by lack of the sort of success that once was the norm for Polk's program. Fan sites such as this were part of the public discourse, though the coach doesn't even have a computer…even if in the post-tourney media meeting he used the term ‘blogs' for the first known time.
If dissatisfaction in the ranks rankled this old Dog, he never let it show. Nor is he one to hold grudges now that the critics, whether fan or press, are again all-smiles. Polk has not and will not lose faith in his fundamental approach to handling players, teams, games and seasons.
"I've never had a losing record," he said today. "I think I can coach a little bit, not a heck of a lot. But (fan) grumbling is part of it. Now people are coming up hugging me and shaking my hands, I don't know who I'm shaking hands with! But I know what fans are all about. The internet and blogs and all that make it tougher on coaches, but I've been a coach in the SEC 34 years. With Pat (McMahon) and Rod (Delmonico) losing their jobs the next-closest is 12, that's Jim Wells (of Alabama). I'm a survivor, I guess."
Not to mention the 5th-winningest active coach in the college game with 1,350 career victories, and the coach with the most victories of any sort in SEC sports history. Of those, 1,116 have come in his 32 years at Mississippi State. How much credit does the coach think he merits for this? "I'm just out there flashing some signals occasionally," Polk shrugs.
TURNABOUT IS FAIR: Not that the Diamond Dogs let the press conference get too serious or sentimental. Rea concluded the session talking of how rewarding it was to get to the Series for the first time after their coach had been so often before. The senior, a subject of Polk's jests while chasing the MSU career hits record, scored a little revenge. "Maybe we can get him his first Omaha win!"
*After winning State's first super-regional title ever, the only shaky ground for Polk was on the post-game podium Saturday. Four players were brought to the media meeting and there wasn't quite room for five chairs, though Friday it had been the same and RF Mitch Moreland's seat nearly toppled off at one point.
Polk tried to position his chair for a while then gave up, conducting his portion of the talk leaning over the table. "We'll make this quick for my back," he said. "We've got to invest in a bigger table."
BALANCING SOME BOOKS: Mississippi State's two wins over Clemson were the program's first post-season successes against a Tiger team, ever, as well as the first time the ACC club had met the Bulldogs at Dudy Noble Field. State had lost the previous four tourney-meetings with Clemson, including a two-game sweeping in the 2000 super regional hosted by CU.
Also, this 2007 post-season has made up for three previous years of Bulldog frustrations. From 2004-06 State was assigned to regionals hosted by ACC members Georgia Tech, Miami, and Clemson, and failed to advance. This year the Bulldogs have bested Florida State and Clemson in consecutive weeks to even the inter-conference score a bit.
SHIFTING LOYALTIES: The Bulldogs were the first team to secure a berth in Omaha's eight-team field. Two of their SEC cousins were playing later Saturday, with South Carolina trying to force a Sunday rubber game with host North Carolina while Ole Miss was opening their series at Arizona State.
The SC-NC game is of most immediate interest because Mississippi State meets that winner next Friday at Rosenblatt Stadium. But naturally many Diamond Dogs wanted to get home to watch their rival Rebels; not that they would mind seeing those familiar faces in the other Omaha bracket. Ballplayers are funny like that.
Polk isn't one for political correctness. He is an unabashed SEC loyalist and wants both the Gamecocks and Rebels to join State in the field, much as in 1997 when his Dog team was one of four SEC squads at the CWS. Besides, "I went to the University of Arizona. I'm not a Sun Devil." So the Rebs do have a fan in Starkville this weekend.
RINGING VICTORY: Host site and home crowd or not, NCAA events are run under NCAA policies for everyone involved. Thus the regular announcements at PDS telling the huge crowd to be on their best behavior. Including, of course, every Bulldog fan's favorite subject of artificial noisemakers. I.E, cowbells, of which there was a goodly number heard in the house each day. Especially so Saturday when the P.A. made mandatory pronouncements that such items were prohibited. Each time those with bells would clang in chorus and the announcer pause just long enough in saying ‘thank you' to draw laughter.
Post game at least a few bell-ringers invaded the field, while one who couldn't got his into the good hands of OF Mark Goforth. "Somebody dropped it and told me to take it and ring it all the way around the field," the soph said. Which he did, making the full circuit. It was a standard size model, white with decal on one side and silver writing on the other. "I'll let you read it!" grinned Goforth, since the wording called for the University of Mississippi to direct itself to the Netherworld.
That bell is now property of a Diamond Dog and will make this week's road trip. "Whoever gave it to me, thank you," Goforth said. "I'll take it with me to Omaha."
SUPER SOUVENIR: Meanwhile OF Joseph McCaskill was finding his own tournament trophy. After making the rounds the senior was found seated on the turf, in front of the first base dugout with…yes, it was a base in his lap. Third base, he thought. "I fell off the pile and that's the first place I went," McCaskill said. "It's the first thing I saw, and I grabbed it."
And, kept it. After all, he just played his final game at Dudy Noble Field. "The grounds crew tried to take it away from me first but they realized they weren't going to get it! I'm just going to hold on to it. I told them it's mine. They can get a new one!"
MONEY ON THE MOUND: By earning the Saturday decision LHP Justin Pigott raised his season record over .500 for the first time since mid-March. He's now 7-6 on the year. But two of those victories have come in NCAA play, as Pigott was the starter and winner last Saturday with eight full innings in a shutout win over Florida State.
By now such post-season success shouldn't be a surprise, though. Pigott has now thrown in six tournament games, conference or NCAA, and owns a record of three wins, a loss, and a save. Besides his two 2007 NCAA victories he was the winner in 2006 over Elon in the Clemson Regional, a day after getting the save against UNC-Asheville. In 2005 as a frosh he got a no-decision against Miami in their regional. His lone loss was two weeks ago in a 3-1 setback to Ole Miss at the SEC tourney.
ON THE D.L.: As his teammates celebrated all over the ballpark, OF Cade Hoggard stood on the first-base line watching. Not that the redshirt freshman wasn't enjoying the moment; he was taking care not to do anything strenuous. After all, just 24 hours earlier Hoggard had been in a Memphis operating room having his back worked on for a second time in two years.
"It went well," he reported. "It was the same surgery they did last year, they had to go back in and clean up the same disc. It was a little more painful this time and it's going to take a little bit longer to re-hab, basically the whole summer. But I felt good enough to come down here." ‘Good enough' being a relative term of course, but Hoggard just couldn't stay at his Oxford home this day.
"They'd have probably had to make me paralyzed or something because there was no way I was going to miss this. Especially when we won Friday." A game that Hoggard watched before going under the knife…or the arthroscope. "My parents wanted to leave for the hospital, I wasn't going to leave until I saw the first inning on TV, and I wouldn't let them take me back to surgery unless I saw the whole game. It worked out.
"We got home at 11:00 from Memphis, they asked what time I wanted to leave and I said in enough time to hopefully see batting practice. We left at 7:00." And got to campus in time for BP.
IRON DAWG: These were the hottest consecutive games Mississippi State has played in 2007, but other than jersies soaked-through nobody seemed any worse for wear. Not even C Edward Easley, who worked all 18 innings receiving from seven different moundsmen…twice late-inning reliever Aaron Weatherford.
And after the tough two days of work Easley was spry enough to run around the field with shin guards and chest pads still on. Asked how much fluid it took to keep the backstop going, trainer Jay Logan said nothing out of the ordinary was needed. "Ed's just a freak of nature," Logan related.
Easley has started every game this season and sat down for precious few innings. He told Dawgs' Bite back in February he wanted to catch every game and he has. Not even the pace of post-season play is wearing him down. "Not at all. I'll put all those games behind me and act like it's game one of the season. I'll be fresh even if my legs are tired." And what of working in the crouch in June heat and humidity? "I just come into the dugout each inning, stay hydrated, and focus on going to the plate and taking good bats."
And that reflects Easley's true strength is really behind the mask. A strict physical regimen obviously matters, Logan said, but it is the mindset that makes Easley special. "He keeps himself on such an even keel, stays balanced and keeps calm. And it helps him stay in the game."
BY THE NUMBERS: SS Jet Butler's two-RBI single in the second inning Saturday matched his total ribbies since May 6. Though, the freshman drove in one of those runs in a win over Florida State… RF Mitch Moreland hasn't seen a lot of action on the mound this season, but if there was any rust on the left arm it didn't show Saturday as he got the final two outs and his second save of the season… Moreland's work at the plate has been much more regular and productive. He has knocked an extra-base hit in eight of his last ten games, and now has 25 doubles for the year for the third-best season in MSU history… Moreland has also gone 10-of-25 batting in the NCAA Tournament… Rea had a 13-game hitting streak snapped in the championship game, but he walked three times in five trips to the dish. He now has 28 walks on the season, one behind Moreland for the team lead… Weatherford picked up his fifth save on Friday and is tied for team lead with Ricky Bowen.