May 28, 2013 9:48:40 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Hosting regionals at Dudy Noble Field is not only expected by the Mississippi State University fan base but it's a makeshift family affair.
Just ask MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, who will be attending his first NCAA baseball regional in Starkville Friday in 21 years, a few months after he received his bachelors degree from MSU.
"I think I was exposed to baseball regionals just like any other young Mississippi State fan as I listened to Jim Ellis call the games on the radio," Stricklin said. "When I attended Mississippi State, I was exposed to the great experience and atmosphere of Dudy Noble Field for a regional. There's nothing like it."
Top-seeded MSU (43-17) will take the field in the second game Friday night at 7 p.m. against the University of Central Arkansas (39-20), who is making its first appearance in a NCAA baseball tournament game. Earlier in the first game of the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional on Friday, second-seeded University of South Alabama (42-18) plays third-seeded Mercer University (43-16) at 2 p.m.
MSU has previously hosted 11 NCAA Baseball Regionals but the Bulldogs program hasn't seen a postseason home game since the 2007 Starkville Super Regional sweep of Clemson University. The last NCAA Regional at Dudy Noble Field was a decade ago in 2003 when MSU lost two games to the University of North Carolina.
In those 21 years, Stricklin has seen NCAA baseball regionals at previous institutions he's worked for in the athletics department including Auburn University, University of Kentucky and Tulane University. When he learned Sunday evening that he'll be the AD at MSU for his first NCAA Starkville Regional in two decades, he immediately thought of the history and passion of the fans that will come this weekend.
"I can tell you that I always used to compare regionals right here in Starkville to everywhere else I've been and in all honesty, none of them stacked up to what I remembered at MSU," Stricklin said. "That's not to say those other schools didn't put up a first class operation but sometimes it's about the people and the passion."
As a undergraduate student Stricklin was a volunteer worker from 1989-1992 and worked in a primary capacity with the MSU baseball program as the sports information director in 1990. One of the many MSU players during that time period that Stricklin grew close to personally was an outfielder named John Cohen. Nearly 15 years later after they graduated, Cohen became the head coach at his alma mater. The Bulldogs fifth-year leader of the program can now impart on his players what it's like to play in a regional in front of 14,000 fans at Dudy Noble Field.
"Having played in a regional tournament at Dudy Noble Field three times during my career at Mississippi State, I can attest to the electric atmosphere that our fans create," Cohen said. "I'm excited about our players having the opportunity to experience that great tournament atmosphere here. They have earned this opportunity to play in front of the best college baseball fans in America."
In those three NCAA regionals at Dudy Noble Field that Cohen participated in as a player, MSU went 8-5 and the Bulldogs advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., in 1990. Cohen concluded his career his career ranked in the top 10 in several statistical categories at MSU and earned first-team All Southeastern Conference honors his senior season.
"You feel like it's one big family," Cohen said. "I've always said the strength of Mississippi State is the people. You might not have the most money, you might not have the most of this or the most of that, but are people are of the highest quality. At every phase of the university, but especially with the tradition we have with baseball, our people make the difference. They want to will things to happen for our players."
One of those moments that Cohen spoke about Monday after the 2013 NCAA bracket was announced is the grand slam home run in the 1990 NCAA Starkville Regional by Burke Masters that lifted the Bulldogs to a 11-8 victory over Florida State University. Two games later, MSU would make its fifth trip to the College World Series.
Masters has gone on to become a Catholic priest in Joliet, Ill., and was nominated in 2008 as one of the top student-athletes in the history of MSU when the SEC celebrated its 75th anniversary.
"I was either on deck or in the hole because I remember watching the flight of the ball," Cohen said. "That's when I definitely decided in my life I was going to vote for Burke for Pope one day. I think that would be the greatest thing in the world if we had a Pope who hit a game winning home run at Dudy Noble Field."
Also representing the family affair atmosphere of the MSU baseball program is its second generation center fielder in C.T. Bradford. C.T. Bradford's father, Mike, was the starting third baseman at MSU in 1982-83. C.T. Bradford, who has already been the most valuable player of the previous regional he played in as a freshman in 2011, has started in 152 games in center field in his three-year MSU career.
"C.T. has been an integral part of our ball club from the moment he stepped on the campus," Cohen said.
However, if C.T. takes the field this weekend he'll have one more thing over his father in the fact that Mike never got to experience a NCAA regional at Dudy Noble Field in his two years at MSU. The 1982 MSU team, which Mike Bradford led in runs scored with 49, lost in regional play at the University of Texas.
Mike Bradford and his wife Theresa can be seen regularly at Dudy Noble Field for home weekends during the regular season despite the face the family resides 287 miles south of Starkville in Pace, Fla.
"It's nice because we get in the car and drive over the day before and have lunch with C.T. before the Friday night game of a weekend series," Mike Bradford said.
The younger Bradford already has taken home an All-SEC honor (2011 All-Freshman Team selection) and a Regional championship most valuable player trophy to the house in Pace, Fla.
"His mother and I are so proud of the work he continues to put into his game - that's never going to stop with him," Mike Bradford said. "It's a family thing with him as his older brother works with him on his swing mechanics constantly as well."