HOOVER, Ala. – Mississippi State and its fans have been frequent visitors to the SEC Tournament, but when they arrive at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., this week, there will be reminders everywhere that it’s been a while.
The No. 6-seeded Bulldogs (34-21, 14-16 SEC), who open the tournament Wednesday against No. 3 seed Florida (41-15, 22-8), missed the event three consecutive years after the 2007 run to the College World Series. There have been changes during MSU’s absence.
The format, for instance. A tweak was made after the 2008 tournament, when Ole Miss and Vanderbilt faced each other two straight times for the second year in a row. The SEC now has a “flipped bracket” in which the semifinalists from the top of each bracket – winners of Games 7 and 8 – are swapped, so as to avoid repeat matchups.
“Our thinking was, it’s a tournament, not a weekend series,” said Chuck Dunlap, the SEC’s associate director for baseball. “It’s not in the fans’ best interest or the teams’ to keep seeing the same matchups over and over.”
There have also been enhancements at Regions Park, which until last year was called Hoover Metropolitan Stadium and has hosted the tournament annually since 1998. Most noticeable will be a new high-definition video board, and another will be SEC signage that erases any trace of the park’s regular tenant, the minor league Birmingham Barons.
According to the Birmingham News, the city of Hoover has made nearly $6 million in renovations over the past five years.
“As soon as you pull up at the front gate, you’re going to say, OK, this is definitely the SEC Baseball Tournament,” Dunlap said.
Signed on until 2016
The SEC recently reached a deal with Hoover to keep the tournament there through 2016, and that’s a testament to the work of the city and the Alabama Sports Foundation to keep improving the event. Dunlap said the sports foundation takes a survey of the team’s coaching staffs each year to see what they liked and what needs improving.
The close partnership between the SEC and the locale make the baseball tournament a different animal from the SEC’s basketball tournament, which rotates between different cities, and the football championship, which is played in Atlanta.
“The baseball’s kind of unique with the involvement of the sports foundation and the city where we’re playing, unlike other places where we come in and pretty much take over with the help of their event staff there at their facility,” Dunlap said.
It’s a setup that’s worked well, to which attendance numbers will testify. Over the past five years, more than a half-million fans have come through the gates, including a tournament-record 126,071 fans – 9,698 per game – last year.
Dunlap said Mississippi State is one of the top three fan bases for the tourney in terms of numbers.
“I hate speaking in clichés, but I do love the ‘if it ain’t broke’ cliché, and obviously Hoover’s not broke,” said MSU coach John Cohen, who was last in Hoover in 2008 as Kentucky’s coach.
Making it to Hoover
Observers both within and outside the SEC tout the tournament as college’s best, and Dunlap thinks that’s due in large part to the identity it’s found in Hoover. He compared it to the College World Series, which has been held in Omaha, Neb., since 1950.
“One thing you hear players always refer to is they refer to Hoover by name: ‘We want to make it to Hoover.’ Rarely do you hear ‘the SEC Tournament,’ but shorthand for that has become Hoover, and I think that means a lot,” said Dunlap.
It sure means a lot to MSU and Cohen, who thinks making the field carries great weight with regard to the progress of the program.
“If you’re in Hoover, it means your RPI is probably pretty solid, and it looks like you’re probably going to get the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I think that’s what separates Hoover and our tournament in the SEC from any other conference tournament in the country.
“You’re not just taking a positive step, it’s a quantum leap, because you’re vaulting into the national baseball scene by getting to Hoover.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal