Bulldogs, Golden Eagles in NCAA opener

STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s return to the postseason won’t be a completely foreign experience.
None of the current Bulldogs have played in an NCAA Regional, but they’ve played against Southern Miss, and they’ll do so again on Friday in the first game of the Atlanta Regional. MSU, the No. 3 seed, will face the second-seeded Golden Eagles at 2 p.m. CDT at Russ Chandler Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus.
The host school will take on fourth-seeded Austin Peay at 6 p.m. that day.
MSU (34-23) and USM (39-17) have met yearly since 1967, and the Bulldogs took this season’s meeting in Pearl, 5-4.
“I thought that was real crazy, because I’d heard they were going to be a one seed, I’d heard they’re going to get a pretty good bracket,” MSU third baseman Jarrod Parks said. “I know they’re just as shocked about it as we are, seeing them lined up against an in-state rival.”
The Golden Eagles were at one time in line to be a regional host, but they’ve lost six of their last eight while dealing with some personnel issues.
Two key starting pitchers, Geoffrey Thomas and Jonathan Thompson, were recently declared academically ineligible, and Ferriss Trophy winner Tyler Koelling is questionable due to a hamstring injury.
“Obviously they’re very good, a very confident club,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “Probably feel like they could’ve had a chance to host, so they might have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder also.”
This is State’s first regional since 2007, but its players also carry that proverbial chip around. There is a definite sense of accomplishment for a program that had been in the doldrums for three seasons, but there is also a sense of unfinished business.
MSU went two-and-out in the SEC Tournament last week, and after winning eight games in a row, it has lost five of seven.
“I think we’ve still got a little bit more to prove before we can actually say, hey, look, we did something,” senior Cody Freeman said. “This is the first step to that process, but I think we’ve got a little bit more to go.”
Parks said he expects MSU to play better this week, and shortstop Jonathan Ogden feels well-prepared for the postseason.
“We talked in the locker room multiple times that there’s not anybody we’re going to play that’s going to be any more competition than anyone we’ve played all year,” Ogden said. “I feel great about any matchup we’re put against this year in the regional.”
It’s hard to say how much can be gained by either team from the April 5 matchup in Pearl, in which neither team showed its full hand. Luis Pollorena tossed 52/3 shutout innings to earn the win, and he’s since been moved to the starting rotation.
Cohen hasn’t yet decided who will start Friday.
USM, which is making its ninth consecutive NCAA appearance and 11th overall, will go with ace Todd McInnis (8-2, 2.61 ERA).
The losers of Friday’s games play at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by the winners at 6. It’s a double-elimination format, with the winner advancing to play the champion of the Gainesville Regional.
“You feel like – and I know Southern Miss probably feels the same way – you feel like if you win Game 1, it truly can change everything,” Cohen said.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@journalinc.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal