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Rivals become allies in Omaha

 

Greg and Julie Wilkinson of Liberty and nephew Tanner McGraw (far right), a Mississippi State senior, are making their first trip to the College World Series in Omaha.

Greg and Julie Wilkinson of Liberty and nephew Tanner McGraw (far right), a Mississippi State senior, are making their first trip to the College World Series in Omaha. Photo by: Scott Walters/Dispatch Staff

 

Scott Walters

 

OMAHA, Neb. -- Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University find themselves on opposite sides of the bracket at the College World Series. 

 

The Bulldogs and Tigers are together, though, in about every other aspect of life this week at TD Ameritrade Park. 

 

The two bitter Southeastern Conference rivals have brought the two largest travel parties to the Midwest. The stadium parking lot is littered by MSU and LSU tailgate tents. Whether the fans are pulling for one another - well that is a totally different, confusing story. 

 

"I just don't really care for LSU," said West Point resident Bruce Harrison, who attended LSU's opening-round 2-1 loss to UCLA in Sunday's late game. "I just as soon they lose their two games and go home as soon as possible." 

 

MSU is 1-0 in the tournament and will play Indiana University at 7 tonight. LSU now faces the University of North Carolina in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Tuesday. If MSU and LSU both win its respective side of the bracket, the two teams would meet for the national championship in a three-game series, starting a week from today. 

 

"Seeing LSU and State play for the championship would make me the happiest person around," said Julie Wilkerson, a lifelong LSU fan and MSU graduate, who lives along the Mississippi/Louisiana line in Liberty. "I have always been able to pull for both teams without a problem. LSU is my No. 1 priority. But I sure would love to see the Bulldogs get (to the championship series)." 

 

MSU senior Tanner McGraw has been watching the strife up close and personal. Julie Wilkinson is his aunt. Julie's husband, Greg, is an MSU graduate and die-hard Bulldog supporter. The Wilkinson family invited McGraw to tag along on their first Omaha experience. 

 

"It really is funny," said McGraw, who sought relief from a summer school professor to take this extended leave during the middle of class. "Both my uncle and aunt are passionate about their sports. I grew up in Woodville (also along the Mississippi/Louisiana border). I have never had anything for LSU, because the people I am around are difficult to live with, especially when they are having success." 

 

Allegiances aside, all three have enjoyed every aspect of their first trip to the College World Series. 

 

"The whole town of Omaha is part of the tournament," Greg Wilkinson said. "I can't say the experience has been even better than I thought it would be, because I had really high expectations. The baseball is so good here and this is an incredible stadium to watch a game. The experience has been unreal." 

 

Elsewhere in the stadium, the Smith family sat directly behind the LSU dugout Sunday night. This group included the husband and wife team of Larry and Sheila Smith, as well as Larry's brother, Austin Smith, and his wife, Cynthia. Both families have deep roots from Winston County. 

 

Larry and Sheila were decked out in their purple and gold while Austin and Cynthia were attired in Maroon and White. Still, the quartet sat together Sunday night and very much desires the only two Southeastern Conference teams in the field to meet for the championship. 

 

"Personally, I think it would be really great for the league if the two teams played for the championship," Larry said. "There is a lot of baseball left to be played but both teams are good enough for that. As much as we hate one another in football, I think it is totally different in baseball. 

 

"Both teams are very good and both teams have a lot of tradition. It is really intense when you play one another, but the rest of the time it's OK when they both win. Of course, it's a rivalry. If the teams play for the championship, they will have to turn people away." 

 

LSU and MSU both played in the same World Series in 1990, 1997 and 1998. The duo is now finally back together after a 15-year hiatus. The togetherness is not just playing in the same tournament either; MSU and LSU are both housed in the same hotel this week. 

 

"We know each other so very well," MSU head coach John Cohen said. "The players play on summer league teams together. There is a lot of talk, because it is a rivalry. At the same time, there are friendships between a bunch of the players. It's a rivalry. It's not a bad thing. There is a lot of respect there." 

 

For the most part, the same thing can be said about the fans. Greg and Julie Wilkinson had been planning a College World Series trip for more than a decade. The couple decided if LSU and MSU ever made the tournament in the same year, they would load up and make the 14-hour drive. 

 

After her team's defeat, Julie Wilkinson was ready to go back to the stadium today to pull her for second-favorite team. Her husband was not as enthused about a potential national championship matchup between the Bulldogs and Tigers and will not be the first to yell the "Geaux Tigers!" cheer Tuesday afternoon. 

 

"A championship series between the two would probably be neat," Greg Wilkinson said. "I know a lot of people would like to see that. I just can't pull for (LSU), though. I just can't do it. If they get to next week, they will do it without my support."

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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