June 21, 2013 11:01:14 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. -- Three years ago, Wes Rea made a brave decision for a young man in the Southeast.
Today, he feels that decision has been validated.
A four-star prospect in football, Rea was told to give up baseball, the sport he loved more than any other, to play football, the sport that many believe matters more in this region. The 17-year-old Rea had scholarship offers to play football at 11 Southeastern Conference schools and other powers in the sport such as the University of Nebraska, but he shut down his football recruiting to play baseball at Mississippi State University.
It was a decision many in the football-crazy region doubted, but with MSU one game away from a chance to play for a national title, Rea hasn't regretted his choice.
"That's where my heart was," Rea said. "Looking back, if I were to say I could win a national championship in football or baseball, I'd pick baseball every time, so that's what we're working for."
MSU (50-18) will try to take that next step at 2 p.m. today (ESPN) when it takes on No. 3 national seed Oregon State University (52-12) in game 11 of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. A victory today would push MSU into its first appearance in the best-of-three national championship series. It would be the Bulldogs' first shot at a national crown. A loss today by MSU would force a rematch between the teams Saturday at a time to be determined.
Rea has played an integral role in the Bulldogs' postseason run. The sophomore first baseman is hitting .444 and has two doubles and three RBIs in the College World Series. He also snared a throw from closer Jonathan Holder for the last out to secure a 5-4 victory against Indiana University on Monday to help MSU (50-18) get to this point.
"When we do win this national championship," Rea said Thursday morning after practice Thursday morning, "I've got a one-line answer for all the guys who say, 'Why didn't you play football?' I can show them the ring and say, 'That's why.' "
Rea could've played football at national championship programs like the University of Alabama or LSU, but he realized when he visited both schools during the recruiting process that he would've been miserable being just a football player.
Rea is far from miserable these days, and is realizing a promise that was made to him and Major League Baseball first-round draft pick Hunter Renfroe, outfielder C.T. Bradford, and shortstop Adam Frazier, the other members of his recruiting class, that they would get an opportunity to play at the College World Series.
MSU football coach Dan Mullen, who recruited Rea as a possible successor to NFL first-round pick Derek Sherrod at left tackle, was one of the many who wasn't happy with Rea's decision to play baseball at MSU. Rea and MSU baseball coach John Cohen admitted Mullen, the Bulldogs' fifth-year coach, consistently needles the 272-pound first baseman for picking baseball and missing a chance to suit up for sellout crowds at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville.
"Coach Mullen teases him relentlessly about being a sissy," Cohen said. "It's all good-natured fun."
Rea, who said he never entertained playing both sports in college, said he'd see Mullen on campus and hear people talk about his decision in 2011, when he was forced to redshirt after having shoulder surgery to correct an injury he suffered at Harrison Central High School.
"He still gives me crap for playing the wussy sport of baseball, and that's fine," Rea said. "I know he is only kidding me because he and coach Cohen are friends, and he is a legit fan of our program."
Now that he is healthy, Rea has shown he can be a consistent contributor at the plate and in the field. He enters today's game hitting .296 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs. His .468 slugging percentage is third on the team to Renfroe and Frazier. He is second to Renfroe in home runs and RBIs. Rea's willingness to change helped put him in position to play a big role. After the 2012 season, the MSU coaches asked Rea to change his diet, to eliminate sugar from his diet, and to lose more than 25 pounds prior to the start of fall conditioning. The results have produced a more agile and conditioned athlete who has bought into being a quality baseball player and a leader.
"His first two years at MSU, I wondered why Cohen recruited such a kid that seemed fat, unconditioned heavy-footed player that was injured all the time," a National League scout told The Dispatch this spring. "Now it's like a new kid came back to MSU and he has helped them at the plate and with the glove. It's an amazing dedication to his craft."
Despite having the size of an offensive lineman, Rea was recruited to play first base, a position MLB greats Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro played at MSU. Cohen knew Rea had the potential to put his athleticism to good use if he re-committed to the sport.
"He had the best hands and feet of anybody that size I'd ever seen," Cohen said. "When you talk about the comfortable target he presents for a throw across the diamond mixed with his natural football and athleticism, it's the complete package. Take away the bat, he's one the best defensive players we have and value here."
Rea is hitting .357 (15-for-42) in the postseason, including a game-winning two-run, two-out double off Oregon State University standout Matt Boyd. He was 2-for-4 with a run scored in that game. After battling shoulder, arm, and quad injuries at MSU, Rea posted on Twitter in the fall that fans "should book their hotel rooms for June 13-26 in Omaha." He is backing up his post -- and his decision to play baseball -- by playing the best baseball of his career.
"It would be huge to get that third win in Omaha because you guys in the media keep bringing up names like Palmeiro and Jeff Brantley on that 1985 team that we're tied with," Rea said. "In the same breath, we're trying to leave an even bigger legacy here at Mississippi State and be known as the best team to every play here. How cool would it be to remembered as that?"