June 13, 2013 11:24:27 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- John Cohen knows pictures can sometimes speak louder than words in the recruiting process.
As a former Mississippi State University baseball player, Cohen knows how to use the power of images to highlight the program's rich tradition. The Palmeiro Center, the school's practice facility for baseball and football, is one of Cohen's jewels. It includes a Hall of Fame Champions room, which would leave even the most ardent supporter a little awed and star struck. In five seasons as MSU baseball coach, Cohen has proudly used the room full of jerseys, plaques, pictures, trophies, and mementos to attract recruits who can help him get the Bulldogs back to the sport's biggest stage.
That day is finally here.
When the room is put back into use later this year, a photo of the 2013 Bulldogs will hang prominently as part of the College World Series display. MSU (48-18) will begin play in its ninth CWS --and first with Cohen as head coach --at 2 p.m. Saturday when they take on No. 3 national seed Oregon State University (50-11) at 2 p.m. Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
"We had to sell our tradition," Cohen said. "There was never a question we could win here. The program is built to win. We just had to get the right kids in here, and it has certainly been a process. You have to mesh. You have to have players who work hard but who also believe in what they are doing and what you are trying to do."
MSU last played in Omaha in 2007. Its nine appearances in college baseball's national championship tournament are second only to LSU's 16 in the Southeastern Conference.
Senior right-hander Kendall Graveman should be MSU's starting pitcher in one of his team's first two games in Omaha. Graveman grew up watching the College World Series and remembers the
Bulldogs' surprising run in 2007. With those memories fresh, Graveman signed with MSU hoping to help restore that tradition.
In 2010, Graveman's first team went 6-24 in the SEC -- its lowest win total in league play since 1975 and its third-lowest winning percentage in a conference in more than 100 years.
"When I came in here, all we had was a belief," Graveman said. "We believed we could get there one day. The gap was wide. I don't think anyone really knew how far we were going to have to come."
Cohen's first two teams had losing records. Coach Ron Polk's final team in 2008 also had a losing record. That string of three-straight losing seasons was a first in program history. Even in the darkest moments, the banners hanging outside Dudy Noble Field served as reminder of what the program had accomplished and what it could be again.
"Everyone knows Mississippi State," MSU senior left-hander Luis Pollorena said. "Our job was to get this thing going. What you learn quickly is it's never easy. Playing in the Southeastern Conference reminds you it is never easy. I am sure some people are surprised we are here, but we are not. We were determined to keep banging on that door until somebody let us in."
The Bulldogs returned to postseason play in 2011. At that time, some fans weren't sure Cohen was the right man to lead the program. Those doubts faded as MSU flirted with a SEC Western Division championship until the final weekend of the regular season. In the postseason, MSU won a regional at Georgia Tech University and advanced to a super regional at University of Florida. The Bulldogs held a lead in the third game of the best-of-three series before falling to the Gators in the last few innings.
A year later, MSU won the SEC tournament for the first time since 2005. That squad saw its postseason run end with two losses in regional play at Florida State University.
With the explicit intent of helping pitch the Bulldogs to Omaha, Graveman turned down a professional baseball offer to return for his senior season in 2013. A season ticket campaign entitled "We're Back" helped foster the belief MSU could complete the gigantic leap back to the College World Series.
"We feel really blessed to be going to Omaha," MSU sophomore right-hander Jonathan Holder said. "The average fan doesn't realize how much work we have put in to get to this point. This is a special team. We really appreciate the fans sticking with us. We wanted to get back to this point for them as well as for ourselves. Hopefully, this is the start of going back on a regular basis."
While not favored to return to Omaha, MSU made strides in the regular season and served noticed it wouldn't go quietly. The Bulldogs finished with a winning conference record for the second straight season -- the first time that happened in back-to-back years since 2000-01. They also returned to the national rankings on a consistent basis and attracted record crowds to Dudy Noble Field, eclipsing a 10-year-old record for home paid attendance with a total of 281,840. It's the second-most total paid attendance in the nation, and MSU's school-record 7,617 per-game average attendance (37 dates) is the fourth-highest in college baseball. MSU also notched three crowds of more than 10,000 in the NCAA Starkville Regional, raising that total to 31 games.
With Vanderbilt and LSU considered the class of the SEC, few national observers believed MSU, which finished fifth in the league, could make a run to Omaha. The Bulldogs played well enough to earn a regional tournament at home for the first time since 2003. University of Central Arkansas proved a worthy adversary before MSU eventually emerged as champion. It then defeated No. 6 national seed University of Virginia to sweep the best-of-three NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional. The victories helped the Bulldogs win their first super regional on the road for the first time in program history.
"We got hot at the right time," said MSU junior shortstop Adam Frazier, who is two hits away from breaking the school's record for hits in a season. "When you have a group of guys believing and pulling in the same direction, anything is possible."
Graveman's dream has become reality. The Bulldogs have pulled just hard enough and are one of the final eight teams standing. From the time he was hired, Cohen has said his program's goal is to bring Mississippi its first national championship in baseball. He feels blessed to have a shot to realize that goal.
"We knew it was just a matter of time," Cohen said. "We know the good things have happened and we feel fortunate. We also know how hard this group has worked. There is no question they deserve everything that has happened."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter