June 25, 2013 9:54:35 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. - Though history had no way to foreshadow it, Mississippi State University radio broadcaster Jim Ellis always felt like the Bulldogs could come to Omaha and win the College World Series.
Bus driver Everett Kennard and Athletic Media Relations director Joe Dier were also of the same belief. That trio has teamed up to work a combined 81 seasons following the exploits of the Baseball Bulldogs.
MSU has advanced to its first-ever College World Series championship series. However, the best-of-three series did not go the Bulldogs' way in the opener as UCLA knocked off MSU, 3-1, before a crowd of 25,690 at TD Ameritrade Park Monday night.
The series resumes at 7 p.m. today on ESPN. MSU is attempting to win its first national championship in any team sport and will need two wins in about 24 hours' time to achieve that feat.
"I've always felt like baseball was a sport we could win a national championship in," said Ellis, a 1969 MSU graduate now in his 35th season as the play-by-play voice of the MSU baseball team. "If we could ever get in the right position and get the right guys, I knew there was a chance. A lot of years I have seen a team no better than our ball club win the College World Series.
"So I have always said you have to get some breaks, you got to get hot at the right time and you got have some people step up at the right time. You have to have players do things they haven't done all year. We have had some of that stuff happen this year."
Kennard has been the primary bus driver for the baseball team for the past 31 years. Kennard remembered current MSU head coach John Cohen from his playing days from 1987-90 at MSU. Kennard always believed that Cohen would eventually get the Bulldogs to the promise land.
"Has (playing in the championship series) happened quicker than I thought it would? Most definitely," Kennard said. "But I always thought John would find a way to win a national championship here.
"When he was the head coach at Kentucky, he and I talked about him taking the MSU job. He asked me 'Why would I leave Kentucky?' And I told him 'Because you will win a national championship at MSU but won't ever at Kentucky'."
Cohen has put together a 51-19 record in his fifth season at MSU. The Bulldogs have made three straight regionals, super regionals in two of the past three seasons and now a ninth appearance in the College World Series and first since 2007. The 51 wins are the second-most in school history and the three wins in Omaha is a school record.
Ellis has been on the call for eight of the nine World Series appearances. This one is special not only because of the team's success but also because wife Jammie is on the trip, making her first appearance at the College World Series.
"I am really proud that we are in this situation," said Ellis, who is in his second season with Bart Gregory as an analyst, after 33 seasons solo. "I am proud the ball club got this far. It is special in every way. You come to the College World Series every time and this is the goal. I have come a couple of times with a team I thought that was good enough to get this far and they didn't do it."
"The story of the postseason is (relief pitcher) Chad Girodo. He has given us what we had been looking for all year - another quality pitcher. (First baseman) Wes Rea has played really well in the postseason. This is the best he has played all season. You have to have that on this level. Somebody has to rise up. The ballclub has played really well during the second half of the season."
MSU is now 11-3 in postseason play. After battling to a fifth-place finish in the Southeastern Conference, the stars have aligned and the Bulldogs won both the Starkville Regional and Charlottesville Super Regional before venturing to Omaha.
"It's a special team in a lot of ways," said Dier, who is also an MSU graduate and is in his 27th season with the Media Relations Department at MSU and 15th season as the primary baseball media point man. "You never know when a team is going to put it all together and reach this level. Then you have to find a way to win games and you can make it a special season. This team has done just that."
While the Bulldogs have had several unsung heroes emerge in the postseason, the team togetherness and maturity has allowed the squad to take an underdog role all the way to the national championship series.
"The thing that is the strength of this team is that you have some really good leadership with some veteran players," Ellis said. "You have a lot of high-character guys. You have some fun-loving guys. But you have enough different personalities to make it different. You have enough maturity to keep it in check. You have a coaching staff that really keeps them focused.
"The coaches have allowed the kids to have fun. On game day, it is all seriousness. It is a great combination and has worked very well for this team."
Kennard has driven many back roads throughout the South during his bus-driving career. Although he is not inclined to list any of those Bulldogs teams as his favorite, it is a safe bet that this year's squad qualifies as the most unusual one he has carried from ballpark to ballpark.
"This is not the most talented team we have ever had, but there is certainly something special about this team," said Kennard, who charts pitches for the radio broadcast team during the games. "It is the loosest bunch of misfits I have ever been around. And I mean that in a very good way. They care for each other. They take a lot of time off the field together. They are the most courteous bunch I have been around. I think a lot of that is because of what John Cohen expects from them.
"John Cohen is a very caring person and teams mirror the image of their coach. I have said this to many people. I think the most mis-understood person I have ever been around is John Cohen. John Cohen is the most caring person I have ever been around. Not everyone gets to see that up close and personal. He is the type of guy who does not want to flaunt everything that he does good."
Cohen and his crew will be trying to do something good when the CWS championship series resumes tonight. The national pundits may be surprised but those who work with the team every day won't find it a shock.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter