STARKVILLE — Mississippi State coach John Cohen has always embraced a gritty, blue-collar approach to baseball that emphasizes toughness.
That’s why he has so much respect for the three teams coming to the Starkville Regional this weekend.
Mississippi State (43-17) is the host and No. 1 seed in the double-elimination, four-team regional that includes South Alabama, Mercer and Central Arkansas — three programs from lesser-known conferences that might not have big stadiums or big budgets, but certainly understand how to play high-level baseball.
Cohen knows from experience. He played in college at Mississippi State in the late 1980s, but started his head coaching career in 1998 at Northwestern State — a little-known school in Louisiana that constantly had to fight for respect when facing larger opponents.
The four-year experience left him with a deep appreciation — and maybe even a little envy — for this weekend’s opponents.
"The neat thing about schools like this is their kids are mentally tough, they feel like they have something to prove, they have a little bit of a chip on the shoulder and they want to win," Cohen said. "I really admire that. It’s funny — when I came back to Mississippi State I wanted our kids to have a little bit of that mentality."
Mississippi State is hosting its first NCAA regional since 2003, overcoming a mid-season swoon to win 10 of its last 14 games.
The Bulldogs shouldn’t have much trouble focusing on Friday’s first-round opponent Central Arkansas. The Bears (39-20) took two of three games from Mississippi State early this season.
Central Arkansas coach Allen Gum said he was pleased to be headed back to Starkville because his team would be familiar with the park, but he didn’t know if past success against the Bulldogs would mean much.
"We were playing great at the time — got a few breaks," Gum said. "We’re gonna have to have some of the same things happen this weekend."
Mississippi State first baseman Wes Rea says the Bulldogs have improved since those losses. He also said more than two months in the difficult Southeastern Conference — which put nine teams into the NCAA tournament — has prepared the team for just about anything.
"I personally think it’s a good draw," Rea said. "They’re going to have a few guys at the top end (of the pitching staff) who are really good pitchers, but as a whole, it won’t be anything like the SEC."
No. 2 seed South Alabama (42-18) will play No. 3 Mercer (43-16) in the other first round game on Friday.
The Starkville Regional is the toughest in the country when using the NCAA’s RPI rankings as a measuring stick.
But Mississippi State will certainly have one big advantage — a boisterous home crowd at Dudy Noble Field that will almost certainly top 10,000 people during the Bulldogs’ games.
"It makes a difference," Cohen said. "Sometimes when you’re sitting in the stands, you can think of these kids as robots and that (the crowd) doesn’t make a difference. But it does. I’ve experienced it as a player and as a coach."
South Alabama is no stranger to the NCAA postseason, playing in its 35th regional in school history. The Jaguars finished with a 23-34 record last season, but had a remarkable turnaround to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
South Alabama coach Mark Calvi is familiar with SEC competition. He was an assistant coach at South Carolina for six seasons, helping the Gamecocks win a national title in 2010. He said a big crowd and big stage wouldn’t change the Jaguars’ approach that led to 42 wins this season.
"You stay with what got you here," Calvi said. "If who you are is not good enough to win the tournament, you don’t win the tournament. You play to your strengths, and just try to capitalize on their weaknesses."
Mercer is one of the nation’s best power hitting teams with 56 homers this season, but that might not be a factor at Dudy Noble Field, which has a reputation as a pitcher’s paradise.
Central Arkansas was one of the nation’s hottest teams early in the year, but struggled during the Southland Conference regular season with a 12-15 record. The Bears recovered to win the Southland’s postseason tournament and grab an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Cohen said every team in the regional has a distinct personality, but one trait is the same: All are playing good baseball over the past few weeks.
"It doesn’t really matter about your full body of work," Cohen said. "It matters if you’re hot at this moment. Are things going your way at this moment? And if you look at the teams we’re playing, there are a lot of things going right for these teams."
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David Brandt/The Associated Press