STARKVILLE – General consensus says the Starkville Regional is the toughest in the country. Maybe so, but Mississippi State’s players are unfazed by it.
For starters, the No. 14-ranked Bulldogs (43-17) are hosting an NCAA regional for the first time in 10 years, and it’s been six years since the super regional they played here against Clemson. So there’s plenty of buzz about town, and that’s expected to spill over into the stands at Dudy Noble Field this weekend.
Top-seeded MSU opens the regional at 7:05 tonight against No. 4 seed Central Arkansas (39-20). That game will be preceded by a 2:05 p.m. showdown between No. 2 South Alabama and No. 3 Mercer.
“People can say we drew a tough straw, but I say it could be a lot worse,” MSU first baseman Wes Rea said. “Would you rather be facing the Southland Conference pitching than SEC pitching like we’ve been facing week in and week out? It’s as good a draw as any, in my opinion.”
Central Arkansas took two of three from State back in March, while South Alabama was in line to host a regional before a late-season swoon. Some experts believe UCA and Mercer are under-seeded, and the RPI numbers further back the argument of this being the toughest regional.
South Alabama has an RPI rank of 17th, while Mercer is 29th and UCA is 62nd.
“And yeah, numbers might say it’s one of the toughest regionals, but to get to Omaha the way we want to, we’ve got to play some of the toughest teams to get there anyway,” catcher Mitch Slauter said.
MSU last went to Omaha, Neb. – home of the College World Series – in 2007. It’s been eight times in all, and there is an expectation both inside and outside the program that another CWS trip should soon be in the offing.
tickets going fast
Ticket sales have gone swimmingly for MSU this week, so an overflow crowd is expected. Players can feel the buzz around town – Slauter said he and some teammates were signing autographs while eating lunch the other day.
A certain amount of pressure can come with the building anticipation, which is why the Bulldogs are trying to focus on this weekend as if it’s just like any other – even though they know it’s not.
“You’ve just got to trust your abilities and be yourself and let the game happen,” Slauter said. “That in itself will take care of itself.”
A plus for MSU is that it’s been to two regionals and one super regional the past two seasons. Plenty of players can lean on that experience, and they’re trying to mentally prepare the newcomers on what to expect this weekend.
“If I have any advice, just take it all in and enjoy it, playing or not playing,” junior outfielder C.T. Bradford said.
“This program’s done a good job of taking steps every year. This is another step we’ve taken, and I don’t see anything changing in the future.”
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal