Mississippi State baseball coach Gary Henderson and assistant coaches Jake Gautreau and Mike Brown observe the national anthem Saturday prior to their game against Washington in Game 2 of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by: Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports
June 16, 2018 11:03:14 PM
OMAHA, Neb. -- Van Johnson knows the feeling of being dead in the water. He also knows the feeling of improbably rising above it; he has related on a personal level to every step of this year's Mississippi State baseball team's run to the College World Series.
Johnson was the closer for MSU's 1998 team, which is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of its trip to Omaha while an eerily similar season climbed to the same heights.
The two teams got there in different ways, but they both took on their seasons with new coaches. The 1998 team was the first without Ron Polk as Pat McMahon coached the four years in between Polk's two stints.
"It was difficult. Coach Polk was one of a kind, I think everybody knows that, and for him to retire, it was tough on us," Johnson told The Dispatch. "We lost a couple of good players in the Draft that year after the 1997 season, but at the same time we knew we had a great nucleus of guys that had been playing together for a few years and we got some walk-ons and JUCO guys to fill some holes."
Not hindered by their coaching change during the season, the 1998 Bulldogs won seven of their first eight and 11 of their first 13. This year's Bulldogs took on their coaching change, Andy Cannizaro's resignation to Gary Henderson taking over as the interim, after three games; the team immediately left for eight consecutive games away from home and went 6-2.
The teams' story arcs came together as soon as the Southeastern Conference schedules began. This year, MSU was swept in its first SEC series and finished March with a 2-7 league record; the 1998 team lost four of its first five SEC series and was openly desperate as it hosted Kentucky to start the second half.
"Boy it looked bleak," the voice of MSU baseball, Jim Ellis, told The Dispatch. "I remember sitting around and talking to some coaches and players and a lot of people felt like we were struggling to the point we didn't know if we would get to the conference tournament."
They lost that series, winning the first game 3-2 before losing game two by a run and game three by three. It was also the moment everything changed.
"It seemed like that was a turning point for us," Johnson said. "We all kind of bonded at that moment, knew we were a lot better than we were playing and from that point, turned it around and made a run."
From there, the 1998 Bulldogs won all but one of its weekend series, turning a 6-12 start into a 14-15 league record. This year's team is now famous for its ability to sweep top 10 teams in the second half of the season, doing it to Arkansas and Florida to turn its season around.
For both teams, the turnaround -- and the postseason run that followed -- had hitting to thank.
In 1998, a propensity for the home run reared its head: Richard Lee hit 19, Brian Wiese 14, Jon Knott 13, Brad Freeman 11 and Travis Chapman 10. Wiese's .412 batting average from that season remains fifth-best in school history and his 24 doubles is tied for fifth.
"It was exciting to watch those guys hit," Johnson said. "They started hitting more home runs at the end of the year and they got used to playing at Dudy Noble Field where the ball didn't fly that well, but it seemed to fly well at Texas A&M."
Home runs fueled this year's run, too -- primarily those from the bat of Elijah MacNamee, who has hit five of them in the NCAA tournament, two of them ending the given game with wins. The 1998 Bulldogs also had a flair for the dramatic, allowing Rice to take a 14-3 lead in an elimination game in the Central Regional just to win it 15-14; Ellis called it, "one of the great comebacks I've ever seen."
This year's Bulldogs have let freshmen have their say: left fielder Rowdey Jordan is hitting .444 in the postseason (16-for-36) and first baseman Tanner Allen has doubled four times for a slugging percentage of .543.
The story of the current team remains to be told, as the events of Omaha could change it all. That's now how Ellis views the team from 20 years ago.
"The memories of getting there, those are the big memories. It was an up-and-down season with that bunch," Ellis said.
Johnson has enjoyed watching the current team make it through a similar path; he's enjoyed even more how they've done it. As Johnson was packing for the trip he made as a player 20 years ago, he saw a video of junior center fielder Jake Mangum discussing the importance of the trip he was about to make.
"I think he summed it up well when he said, 'You're playing for more than yourself, you're playing for what's on the front of the uniform,'" Johnson said. "At Mississippi State, it's a legacy and it's a pride in that, you're playing for what's on the front of the uniform."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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