June 21, 2013 12:34:13 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb.-- Fans of the Mississippi State University baseball program are not the only ones changing plans and headed in another direction.
Ashley Huddleston runs The Fan Express, a novelty shop and souvenir store adjacent to TD Ameritrade Park, site of the 2013 College World Series. While the Bulldogs have had three days off in between games, the time has come in handy for Huddleston.
"I picked up the phone Tuesday and ordered about 2,000 more MSU T-shirts," Huddleston said. "We know they have a passionate fan base. It is our understanding they plan to pack the stadium out. We don't want to miss any sales and we don't want fans to come to the ballpark and not have their team on display."
While the street corner market shows an overstock of Louisiana State University merchandise, most reduced by at least 50 percent after the Tigers' elimination, the opposite is true for MSU. Merchants are bracing for a big weekend of sales since the Bulldogs join UCLA as the last two undefeated teams in the tournament field.
MSU will face Oregon State University at 2 p.m. today. A win by the Bulldogs will place them in a best-of-three national championship series, which begins Monday. If Oregon State wins Friday, the teams play again at 2 p.m. Saturday, with the winner there advancing to the national championship series.
The Bulldogs began the event as the longest shot in the tournament field. With no loyalty to a particular team, Omaha natives are known for picking an underdog and embracing them as if they were the home team. In addition to MSU, UCLA and No. 3 national seed OSU, the final four also includes No. 1 national seed North Carolina.
"I am definitely pulling for Mississippi State," Omaha resident Jack Burns said. "We come to the tournament every year just to watch some really good baseball. It does not matter which teams are playing. Last year was special because Stony Brook was here. The whole town adopted them and loved on them. You could tell those kids really appreciated it."
Last year, Stony Brook upset LSU in Baton Rouge in Super Regional play to advance to its first College World Series.
The local community rallied around the ultimate in Cinderella stories. The same could be said for Fresno State University, another underdog that emerged as national champions in 2008.
MSU's opponent today, Oregon State, once was the darlings of Omaha. When the Beavers played in the 2005 event, it marked a return to Omaha after a 53-absence. The underdog role later vanished as Oregon State won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
While this is MSU's ninth appearance in the CWS, it has yet to reach the national championship game under the previous format or national championship series under the current format. Even though, the Bulldogs were a top seed in a regional this year, they quickly assumed the underdog role in Omaha.
"The main goal is to make Omaha," MSU sophomore first baseman Wes Rea said. "Once you do that, you want to win the whole thing. I think this team is very comfortable in the underdog role. We know our fans will be there for us. If anybody else wants to come in and support us, we will be happy to have them."
The Bulldogs played the first two games of the tournament with roughly 4,000 fans from back home in the stands. That number is expected to double should MSU make its way into next week's national championship series. From a local standpoint, MSU has the unique advantage of having its own fan base and the support of so many random baseball fans from the community here.
"Each year, a team emerges from nowhere and this year that team is Mississippi State," Huddleston said. "Even though they didn't play Tuesday or Wednesday, we still had a bunch of fans show up and buy their merchandise. A lot of the sales were from local people who said I really like this team. I want to support them and become a fan."
The Bulldogs have established a reputation in their short stay in Omaha as an outgoing, loose bunch. Most interviews include wide smiles and engaging personalities. Regular followers on Twitter know this is a special group with a unique sense of humor. The chemistry of the team has been on full display during the down time this week as they made trips to a local zoo, a children's hospital and an amusement park.
While MSU fans back home are well-acquainted with the Bulldogs' fun-loving approach tot he game, the team's persona has now established itself on the national stage. The Omaha World-Herald has made MSU the predominant story in three of its past four sports sections. A corner restaurant adjacent to the stadium has an MSU flag hanging in its window.
"These people have absolutely taken over Omaha," Burns said. "I am sure the players appreciate it. If they win (today), I can't even imagine what next week will look like."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter