BULLDOGS CAN’T WAIT TO GET BACK TO NCAA TOURNEY
By Chris Burrows
STARKVILLE It’s been an uncomfortable wait of two seasons for the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
After seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Ron Polk’s club has watched the past two NCAA Tournaments continue without them. That wait may be over.
“We were the new kids on the block last year,” said Polk, who has won every college coaching honor during his 20-year tenure at MSU. “There were a lot of SEC games where we had five freshmen on the field.
“Well, this time all of our freshmen (11) are sophomores and we’ve got seven of nine position starters returning.”
The preseason polls rank the Bulldogs among the nation’s elite. The SEC coaches poll ranks them third in the Western Division and in Polk’s words, “I don’t see any apparent weaknesses.”
Just as quickly, Polk adds, “But we were a team that lost a lot of close games last year and we still have only four seniors on a 42-man roster.”
Will the extra year of maturity be the difference for a team that finished 34-25 and 11-16 in SEC play? Is this a team capable of advancing to the College World Series for the sixth time in the past 25 years?
“I think we’ve got the potential,” said senior first baseman Brian Clark (.314), who figures heavily into the pitching staff plans. “Last year we had a lot of freshmen that had to play in the SEC right off the bat.
“We’re more mature coming into this season. I believe we’ve adjusted and we know more what to expect.”
MSU faithful believe they got a sneak peak of that maturity at the close of last season. The Bulldogs finished with series wins over Ole Miss, Alabama and LSU three teams that played in NCAA Tournament regional finals.
“We’ve got to start better (in the SEC) than we did last year,” Polks said. “We were 0-3 after the Florida series.”
The new 30-game SEC format debuts with a road series at Florida. At the end of the same format are the series with Ole Miss (home) and LSU (away).
“We’re excited about the season. We can’t wait,” said power-hitting David Hayman (17 HR, 55 RBI), who moves from center field to right field. “Our pitching staff, at least from where I’m standing, looks good and we have more speed.”
The pitching staff is anchored by starters Eric DuBose (8-4), one of the nation’s top freshman left-handers last season, and David Hooten (7-5).
Highly-touted transfer Brett Wheeler from Old Dominion is still in rehab from elbow surgery. The junior’s health is a key factor in completing the starting rotation.
“He (Wheeler) will start throwing from the mound later this week,” Polk said. “The doctors believe he could be ready to start contributing in three weeks.”
Blake Anderson is set behind the plate, while the infield features Clark and Rob Hauswald on the corners. Oxford sophomore Brad Freeman and Adam Piatt appear set in the middle of the infield.
Hayman is the marquee performer in the outfield, but MSU has options in the other slots, including the DH. Polk puts a premium on versatility.
That should allow Tupelo’s Dustin Dabbs to fill a role as a catcher, first baseman or DH. The same rule applies for Saltillo’s Van Johnson as a middle reliever, spot starter and closer. Both are sophomores.
“Brad’s going to keep getting better and Dustin has hit the ball well this spring,” Polk said. “Van will have opportunities to help us. All of them should play key roles for us.”
The Bulldogs open the season in the Winn-Dixie Showdown in New Orleans today. In 1993, the last appearance in that tournament, MSU went 3-0. That was the last time the Bulldogs made the NCAA Tournament.
“That’d be great to do that well again down there,” Polk said. “It’d be a good way to start.”