"It's been a dream for us and now we're there," Mitch Moreland said. "So now we're going to try to win it."
The final stretch of State's exciting, surprising run for championship of the whole darn college baseball world starts this Friday at Rosenblatt Stadium, when the Diamond Dogs take on North Carolina. It is the second game of the first day of the College World Series, at 6:00 c.t. and to be televised on ESPN2. The Series opens at 1:00 Friday with Rice playing first-time CWS participant Louisville.
These four teams are bracketed together in the double-elimination format, with Friday's losers meeting Sunday at 1:00 in an elimination contest and the winners at 6:00. The other bracket begins play Saturday with UC-Irvine against Arizona State, and defending national champions Oregon State against Cal State Fullerton. The survivors of the two brackets will play a best two-of-three series June 23-25 to determine the national championship.
North Carolina (53-13) likely isn't entirely happy with how the Series brackets broke down, as they and Rice were respectively the third and second national seeds going into the NCAA tourney. The other bracket features just one of the eight national seeds, #5 Arizona State. And Mississippi State has definitely fallen into the tougher of the two tournaments being co-played out at Omaha as well.
Then again, these Diamond Dogs have turned into one of if not the surprising stories of post-season 2007. Their tournament trail began with assignment to the Tallahassee Regional where State beat a sound Stetson squad before knocking off host and #6 national seed Florida State twice, and by healthy margins at that. Then back on the home field the Bulldogs took care of a talented and motivated Clemson squad 8-6 and 8-5 for State's first-ever super regional championship. In fact they were the first of the eight teams to qualify for the CWS.
Some doubters remain unconvinced that State is more than a pretty good team that got healthy again as well as got hot at the right time. The Dogs mostly shrug off such suggestions…though they have heard and read the critics.
"Just like two years ago in the SEC Tournament, nobody picked us to win it and we did," said Joseph McCaskill. "I think a lot of it had to do with being picked last in the SEC and Baseball America cutting us down and saying we were just a bunch of guys that can win a couple of games every now and then. I'd like to see that guy right now, I hope he's marking his words right now."
Still, veterans of the last few seasons which ended in first-round regionals agree, there is some truth to the ‘surprise squad' label. "It's happened real fast," Rea acknowledges. "We were joking around and saying hey, man we can win five games and go to Omaha. That's what we did. We won five-straight games. And if we win five more we win the national championship. Hopefully that will pay off. At the same time we're having fun with it."
Far more fun than even the most optimistic would have forecast as recently as May 24 when State was knocked out of their conference tourney after consecutive close losses to quality pitchers. Though certain of a NCAA bid the Dogs went into NCAA tourney time having lost eight of ten games…yet with a spring in their cleats only they could explain. Since then everyone has learned what the team believed.
"Instead of looking at it as this might be the end of the season, we looked at it as this is another opportunity, another chance for us to regain our season," said Brandon Turner. "And we were able to do that."
"The results looked bad coming out of Hoover but we felt we'd played good," Edward Easley said. "We didn't get the job done by winning the games but we felt we'd played good and knew we'd have a chance to go to a regional somewhere. We put everything together, you couldn't ask for better pitching, our hitting got the timely hits when we needed them and the defense made all the plays. We've got all the confidence in the world right now."
And, another tough matchup against yet another premier ACC opponent. North Carolina features many of the same standouts that last June rolled through regional play and their Omaha bracket all the way to the championship game. Oregon State stopped the Tarheel surge a year ago and some of the stars are gone. But enough returned for this year's run, and last week's draft showed how much regard there is for this roster with no less than ten Tarheels selected.
UNC also flexed its muscles over the weekend by rallying repeatedly to take a best-of-three series on their own field at the expense of the SEC's South Carolina. And unlike the Bulldogs, these guys simply have Been Here before.
"Of course they're going to have experience," Moreland said. "They have a veteran team and still have their Friday night guy. They're going to be a solid team, which everybody is right now. With eight teams left we're just looking forward to playing our best ball."
The Bulldogs got back on their practice schedule Monday afternoon and will work out again today, with the first round of indoors batting practice starting around 5:30. The on-field segments follow at 7:00 team meeting. Coach Ron Polk plans to take 29 players to Omaha, though of course just 25—the same group as for the first and super round regionals—will dress and be in the dugout. State departs Wednesday morning and has a round of Thursday events scheduled for them at Rosenblatt by the NCAA, from practice to press conference to autograph sessions for fans already at the stadium.
Naturally a bunch of those will be early-arriving State folk, who have not enjoyed the Omaha experience since 1998. All 300 of the tickets made available to MSU by the NCAA were snapped up, and many, many more are being purchased through more routine Omaha outlets. This, in the aftermath of a weekend at Dudy Noble Field where fans set, twice, the record crowd ever to watch any NCAA super regional game(s). The pent-up emotions of nine long seasons away from the premier event in the game are showing for everyone involved, even those players who were in Little League the last time a Bulldog team made the Series.
"It's just a great feeling to see all of the hard work pay off and all these guys be able to experience this," said Justin Pigott.
Rea, who turned down a professional contract to return to college for one more season and one more shot at a title, is trying to keep the Omaha emotions under control just as his skipper preaches about all points of any season. "But right now we've got some momentum and it's hard not to get too high," Rea said.
"We've got to keep the momentum going, that's the only way we're going to win." Which is the most encouraging sign that the Bulldogs really aren't satisfied just to end their season in the Series. They want to go out as champions.
"We're not done," said Pigott. "I'm excited about what's to come."