HOOVER, Ala. – As a Mississippi State signee in the fall of 2006, Brent Brownlee watched the Bulldogs make their eighth trip to the College World Series the following spring. So he was preparing for a career full of postseason glories.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way, of course. But in his fourth season, the redshirt junior finally finds himself playing meaningful baseball in late May. Today marks the return of MSU to the SEC Tournament after a three-year absence.
No. 6 seed State (34-21, 14-16 SEC) and No. 3 Florida (41-15, 22-8) meet up today at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 9:30 a.m. Alabama-Arkansas game.
It’ll be a new experience for all this crop of Bulldogs, and a particularly special one for Brownlee and the seniors he came in with.
“We kind of expected the postsesason would always be there for us,” said Brownlee, a former Oxford High School standout. “This year, LSU didn’t even make it, and their RPI is way up there, and they were ranked. It’s crazy how you can take it for granted.”
By the time Ron Polk left following the 2008 season, a new reality had set in, and John Cohen’s task was to restore the old one. Qualifying for the SEC Tournament – not to mention being in solid position for an NCAA Regional bid – is a “building block” for the program, Cohen said.
He recalled his days at Kentucky, when he took over a program with considerably less history of success than MSU and wound up winning the SEC regular-season crown in 2006.
“When a team in our league wins 22 or 23 games, when you enter that (situation) with new kids, and to go through everything you have to do to get the kids back on a level to get them back to Hoover, it’s a bit of an experience,” Cohen said. “It’s an emotional deal. We’ve come light years the last two years.”
While MSU has had its share of struggles this season, a consistent theme has been an ability to not only hang with, but defeat the league’s elite teams. The Bulldogs might have lost series to Eastern Division powers Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but they snatched a game from each.
In Starkville, State took Game 1 of its series with Florida, 7-5. After being blown out in the second game, 18-0, MSU played the Gators tough in a 3-1 loss on that Sunday.
The only team in the tournament field MSU hasn’t beaten at least once is fifth-seeded Georgia (28-28, 16-14), which has hovered around the .500 mark all season.
“I think when you play the schedule any of us play, the kids aren’t intimidated by anything,” Cohen said. “No matter who you’re playing, it’s such a high level, I think it gives you some confidence for sure that they can beat anybody, because the whole league is so good.”
The immediate concern is Florida, which has one of the best pitching staffs in the SEC (3.08 ERA). The Gators starter will be Tommy Toledo, who is not one of Florida’s weekend starters but has started three games this year and was an SECstarter as a freshman.
Even if it was, the Bulldogs wouldn’t blink – in their win over Florida earlier this season, they tagged Hudson Randall, the SEC’s ERA leader entering that weekend, for six earned runs in 21⁄3 innings.
“Obviously we know we can beat them,” senior third baseman Jarrod Parks said. “It’d be good getting that first win. That first win would be huge.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal