December 27, 2013 11:47:51 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen always used to frustrate his wife, Nelle, when he'd talk about winning a national championship.
"My wife Nelle always tells me, 'John, stop talking about winning a national championship at Mississippi State,' and I tell you, 'Nelle, we're in the Southeastern Conference, (so) 13 other coaches begin the season with that idea as the goal, so we have to as well,' " Cohen said.
Cohen, who played for MSU from 1987-90, took over the program five years ago from coach Ron Polk and promised to get MSU back to college baseball's biggest stage. The Bulldogs went 48-62 in his first two seasons and didn't advance to the postseason as he tried to rebuild the program's talent pool. In 2013, MSU was two victories away from winning its first national championship in a team sport. Four players -- Kendall Graveman, Chad Girodo, Sam Frost, and Ben Bracewell -- were Bulldogs in Cohen's second year at MSU, and they helped their coach realize a goal in getting the program back to the College World Series.
"I said at the press conference (five years ago) we would win a national championship," Cohen said. "This is why we do it -- to win the whole thing. What this club has done is lay some foundation for future teams because we're going to come back here and win this thing."
MSU defeated Oregon State (twice) and Indiana to advance to its first CWS finals in June. Fans from the Magnolia State didn't let the opportunity go by and flooded TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., with maroon and white. However, the turnout and excitement of a first national championship couldn't spark the Bulldogs' offense. MSU managed one run in 18 innings against UCLA in the CWS finals. The Bruins allowed four runs in five tournament victories and finished with a team ERA of 0.80.
"We are disappointed in the outcome, but we are proud of the season," MSU senior pitcher Kendall Graveman said. "We did something no other Mississippi State baseball team has done."
UCLA junior right-hander Adam Plutko was named the tournament's most outstanding player after he controlled MSU and LSU in his two starts in the College World Series. In 13 innings, Plutko allowed eight hits and two runs. Eight players in UCLA's starting lineup had hits in the 8-0 victory that clinched the title.
"It bothers me we didn't play well the last two games, but I think we played 15 postseason games and we played two bad games," Cohen said. "I'll never understand why we picked this time to play one of our worst games of the year, but we did."
While the program has some of the best fan support in the nation, the sight of TD Ameritrade Park filled with people dressed in maroon and white was a shock to the Bulldogs and made a "neutral site" feel a little bit like a home game.
"I almost feel like our kids put a lot of pressure on themselves because they looked out and said, 'Wow, look how many people are out there to see us,' " Cohen said. "That's not a excuse. It's a fact that it's a wow factor for our kids that in this economy people are giving up their vacations, their paychecks, to come here and watch us play baseball."
In the preseason, MSU senior shortstop Adam Frazier used a PowerPoint presentation to help introduce his teammates to TD Ameritrade Park. That was Frazier's way of fulfilling an edict from the coaches that asked each player to do a five-minute presentation on anything from the baseball program's past, present or future.
"He had slides, pictures of this stadium and he said, 'When we get there, I don't want it to be new to us,' " Cohen said. "Adam said, 'We will have already seen the dugouts. We will have already seen the locker rooms. We will have already seen the playing surface, the stands.' How can you not be moved by that? Everything he did in that PowerPoint and all the things our kids did in the PowerPoint presentations really came to fruition. It's pretty remarkable when you get 35 18- to 22-year-olds and everything they talk about within an eyelash is coming true. This group is special, and they have helped the future of our program."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.