STARKVILLE — The Mississippi State baseball teamﾕs coaches and players knew they were going to get into the NCAA tournament.
But seeing their name Monday on ESPN during the tournamentﾕs selection show was more than confirmation theyﾕd be heading to a regional for the first time since 2007. It was relief.
After 32 teams were announced and the first commercial break came and went, the plot thickened: MSU learned it would face Southern Mississippi in Game 1 of the Atlanta Regional.
ﾒItﾕs a great feeling,ﾓ MSU third baseman Jarrod Parks said. ﾒSeeing Southern Miss right there next to us makes it a little sweeter. I have friends on that team, but itﾕs going to make this game a whole lot tighter.ﾓ
MSU has never faced Southern Miss in the NCAA tournament, and is 5-6 against its in-state rival since 2005.
MSU rallied from a two-run deficit to beat Southern Miss 5-4 at Trustmark Park on April 5 in Pearl.
That win boosted MSUﾕs tournament credentials. Southern Miss is a top-20 RPI team and was in line to host a regional.
Third-seeded MSU will face second-seeded USM at 2 p.m. Friday. Host team Georgia Tech will face fourth-seeded Austin Peay at 6 p.m. Friday. The losers of Fridayﾕs games will play at 3 p.m. Saturday; the winners will meet at 7 p.m.
MSU is 61-40 all-time in regional and super regional play.
ﾒI canﾕt imagine playing a rivalry game in a regional, but weﾕre eager to get going,ﾓ MSU second baseman Nick Vickerson said. ﾒIﾕm just glad weﾕre playing somewhere all our fans can come and not break the bank. You can hop in a car and drive up and not have to get on a plane.ﾓ
The uphill battle for the teamﾕs elder statesmen, like senior Ryan Collins, had seen the Bulldogs go through their longest spell without making it to a regional since a seven-year gap in the 1970s.
The allure of the MSU baseball program is its postseason tradition, which includes eight College World Series appearances, making the fact none of MSUﾕs players have played in a NCAA tournament game somewhat of an anomaly.
Players from different eras of MSU baseball might have had greater confidence awaiting an NCAA bid, but not knowing what to expect from the selection committee, and how it would rate MSUﾕs tournament credentials against other bubble teams vying for at-large bids caused tense moments as other conference tournaments played out, Parks said.
ﾒI know yesterday I had a little concern with some teams that didnﾕt have a great record ended up winning their conference tournament,ﾓ Parks said. ﾒSome bigger teams starting winning towards the end, and when they won I started feeling better about our situation. I think everybody, though, (thought we were a) three seed and we were gonna get in.ﾓ
MSU coach John Cohen said his teamﾕs lack of tournament experience showed in the SEC tournament, as it lost to the University of Florida and Arkansas and ended its stay in Hoover, Ala., earlier than anticipated.
Glimpses of that inexperience included blowing a three-run lead against Florida and giving up four runs in a mistake-filled first inning against Arkansas.
ﾒI think we had the butterflies in the first few innings against Florida, but we played them really well,ﾓ Vickerson said. ﾒWe had opportunities to win that ballgame, as well. We had opportunities to win the Arkansas game, too. The SEC tournament is as tough as any regional we could have been put in, so I think weﾕre prepared for this.ﾓ
Winning Game 1 of a tournament, which MSU failed to do in Hoover, is vital, Cohen said.
ﾒI know Southern Miss feels the same way, if you win Game 1 it can truly change everything,ﾓ Cohen said. ﾒThatﾕs why, especially in the SEC tournament, we have a three-run lead, and if you get those nine outs at the end there, it changes our whole deal for the SEC tournament, so Game 1s, I think, are very, very important.ﾓ
MSU holds a 75-36 all-time series lead against USM and is 3-2 against Austin Peay and 7-3 against Georgia Tech.
It is MSUﾕs 31st appearance in NCAA postseason competition, and the schoolﾕs 25th since the NCAA adopted the regional tournament playoff format in 1976