Rebs head to MSU with much left to play for

The Rebels are in the SEC tourney field, but that isn't where they want to stop. They want to host another NCAA Regional, and winning games the rest of the way is important, starting again tonight at Mississippi State.

You know the ole saying, or some form of it, "I'd rather have a root canal than go to Starkville."

This morning I went to the dentist. Now I'll get to do both.

Leaving from Oxford at 3 p.m. today for MSU. Getting that root canal later. Got more important things to take care of right now.

It's a beautiful day here in Oxford. I hope it's a winning night there in Starkville – for Ole Miss, that is.

Let's talk. You know, Jeff to subscriber. Ole Miss person to Ole Miss person.

In 1987 I went to an NCAA Regional at State with some Bulldog friends. I couldn't find any Ole Miss fans who wanted to go.

It was the first year of their new stadium. The place was awesome and packed. Must have been 12,000 people there that night. Texas A&M was one of the teams in the field along with MSU. There were four others.

That was back in the days of the old six-team Regionals. There were only 48 teams in the tourney field; no Super Regionals to follow back then. The winner went straight to Omaha. I don't know who advanced that year, but it wasn't State.

Ron Polk arrived in Starkville in 1975. He changed the face of SEC baseball forever. He showed us that no longer was it going to be OK to fill a team with a handful of good baseball players, like Buck (then called Nat) Showalter, and complete the roster with some football players. Those days were gone if you wanted to truly compete.

Skip Bertman arrived in Baton Rouge in 1983. He taught the SEC how to win the World Series.

I know. I know. Those are our two biggest rivals. Just writing the truth, however.

My dad and I walked into Oxford-Unversity Stadium-Swayze Field last Saturday for the game against Arkansas with The Rifleman, Jake Gibbs. We talked as we walked toward the stadium that was built when he led the Rebs. He coached in it for two seasons.

I talked to Don Kessinger, the sure-handed shortstop and six-time MLB all-star for the Cubs, at the Memphis game Tuesday night. He coached the Rebels for six seasons following Jake's 19-year tenure. DK was excited that his former player, Richy Harrelson, had become a state champion coach earlier that day.

Gibbs and Kessinger are the only two-sport All-Americans we've ever had. They ARE Ole Miss. They will be watching scores from Starkville the next three days, book it.

We all worked together to stay up with State in baseball. It was so difficult the past 25-plus years. They just wouldn't budge. The program was too strong.

But a crack opened a bit for us when Polk resigned in 1997. Pat McMahon took over and then four years later left for Florida as Polk came back from Georgia to lead the Bulldogs again. Add to that back-and-forth scenario at State in the late 90s and early part of the new century the hiring of Mike Bianco and staff at Ole Miss, and we had a chance. A chance to make a move.

It still hasn't been easy. It won't be easy the next three days. There are good players on that team. They started 18-0. They were ranked No. 1 in the country.

Their backs are to the wall.

Oh the pain of 2002. Three games in Starkville, and all the Rebels had to do was to win one of them, any one of them, and we'd go to Hoover. And State would stay home.

State swept, need I remind you.

The comfort zone belongs to the Rebels heading down today. The team left Oxford at 11 a.m. They are already assured of an SEC tourney berth in Hoover next week. State has to win a game, maybe two, and watch the other games across the league.

It's not just a one-year thing. The trend has been established the past couple of years. The Rebels are making life a little more tough for the Bulldogs in baseball than in the past couple of decades. Again, just the facts.

A few of us were talking a couple of weeks ago after the Rebels swept LSU one weekend and Tennessee the next about what moment was the defining one for this program. We all had our differences of opinion.

I think I said it was Texas. Maybe I said it was the year before when we hosted a Regional for the first time. I don't remember really.

Somebody else probably got it right. He said it was the day Stephen Head shut down State on that Sunday afternoon two years ago as the Rebs won the series in Starkville two games to one.

A great moment indeed, but he probably wasn't completely right either.

This is probably the most accurate assessment of when it turned a bit in our favor. It's when a guy like Stephen Head, who admittedly followed State baseball as a kid because it was the thing to do, chose Ole Miss. That's where Bianco and assistant coach Dan McDonnell come into the picture in a bigtime way.

Stephen is only one of a growing list of kids who are raised in Mississippi and the Mid-South who now believe playing baseball at Ole Miss is as good as playing at State; in some cases even better.

Guys like Mark Holliman and Zack Cozart, Brian Pettway and Eric Fowler, Justin Henry and Logan Power (whose brother played at State and whose roots run about as maroon-deep as you can imagine).

Guys like Will Kline, tonight's Rebel starter. Will said Tuesday night when we talked to him after the Memphis game that he always wanted to come to Ole Miss. He also said he didn't get recruited by State.

You think Will Kline, already 1-0 against the maroons this season, will want this one some kind of bad?

So we head to Starkville this afternoon, not as in 2002 when we had to get one just to advance. No, this weekend it's all about hosting a Regional for the third straight year, something MSU hasn't done during that time as the Rebels have won eight of the last ten meetings over the Bulldogs.

It really is not about the rivalry. It really has nothing to do with being dominant or continuing some kind of short supremacy over State in baseball like the Rebels have managed the past two or three seasons, excluding the SEC tourney finals in Hoover last season.

It's about reaching the goals this team has set. If things fall right this weekend, the Rebs might even win the West for a second-straight year.

It's about doing more special things in baseball as Ole Miss people everywhere follow the action from Mississippi State this weekend.

Some did that in years' past. A whole lot more are doing it now.

Just like the Regionals and the accomplishments of this program the past couple of seasons were for Gibbs and Kessinger and all those who played and coached the red and blue, so will this weekend be as well.

But it won't be easy. You know State's coming after us. We'll get their best shot.

And these days, they'll get ours right back at ‘em.

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