With nearly 10,000 watching in person, and thousands more following online and through televisions across the country, the final pitch crossed the plate. The strike was called, the dugout erupted and the crowd, as they had been waiting to do all weekend, went wild.
At that moment, it became official: Mississippi State won the 2016 SEC Baseball Championship. In the deepest conference in the country, in a league who’s top three teams also happen to be ranked 1-3 in all of America, in a season of competition against a half dozen foes likely to be hosting an NCAA Regional, MSU came out the victor, Dawgs on top of the pile.
“That was freakin’ awesome,” junior third baseman Gavin Collins appropriately summarized as he approached reporters after victory pictures, victory celebrations and a victory lap.
“It was perfect,” team captain Jacob Robson echoed a few minutes later.
It was everything this club of Bulldogs had worked for. The cogs of the machine that this team has become had been falling into place slowly but surely in the last few years. Even once they all found their way to campus, it took some time to get things running properly. Or perfectly, as Robson said.
But once the switch flipped, it never turned back the other direction. MSU won nine out of 10 series in the gauntlet that was their SEC slate. Midway through, when some on the outside wondered if the Bulldogs had peaked too early, the eventual SEC Champs proved it was just the opposite. They got better as the year went along, concluding the regular season with three-straight sweeps to claim the conference title.
All of this from a team that finished at the exact bottom of the SEC just one year ago
“Last to first, baby!” Collins exclaimed. “The amount of work and the amount of time and effort we’ve put in – the amount of sweat and tears in the fall and the spring, it’s all worth it. It’s all worth it, man. We grinded for so long, and it’s starting to show up. It’s awesome.”
To say it’s “starting” to show up is something of an understatement. MSU finished the regular season with 40 wins, owning a 40-14-1 record, including a 21-9 SEC mark. The Bulldogs have the SEC’s leading hitter in Jake Mangum, and he’s just a freshman. They have three of the five finalists for the Ferriss Trophy given to the best collegiate player in Mississippi. To boot, one of those finalists is among the best power hitters in the SEC, and he was batting seventh as MSU won the title Saturday night. That’s how strong the lineup is. All of that without mentioning Dakota Hudson, a possible Top-10 pick in this summer’s MLB Draft.
MSU beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road, beat their rival both at home and at a neutral site; generally speaking, MSU bowled over nearly everyone who got in their way. Woe unto thee who must face this team, the hottest in the country, when the postseason begins.
And because of all that, Saturday’s win over Arkansas – the score was 9-4, by the by – was almost inconsequential for what the Bulldogs will do in the postseason. They had a national seed wrapped up. Whatever the result Saturday, State knew it would be hosting a Regional in two weeks, anyway.
In a way, that made the SEC Championship even more special for those in the dugout. They didn’t need the title, necessarily. They just wanted it. Boy, did they want it. They wanted it for themselves, for each other, for the name on the front of their jersey and for the thousands of fans behind them. When they took the field Saturday night, it was with that passion flaming inside their chests, broiling beneath their jerseys.
“Everything that we’ve done from the end of last year to right now has built to this moment,” Robson explained.
And when that moment came, when the final strike was called and Mississippi State was rightfully declared the Champions of the Southeastern Conference, those stewing emotions exploded in yells of triumph, in hugs and jumps and cheers and handshakes.
They knew it was possible, knew it was what they wanted, and after so much time of working toward it, the dream – one of a few dreams, that is – became reality.
“This – I can’t describe it. That was unreal. I don’t even know what to say right now,” Mangum stammered to reporters as he stared at a spot on the ground with big eyes and a bigger smile. “Goosebumps. I was freakin’ out. This place, I’ve never seen Dudy Noble like that and I’ve been coming here for years. That was unreal.”
If the moment was weird to Mangum, it was surreal for John Cohen. He’s the head coach for the 2016 SEC Champs today. He was a player for the 1989 SEC Champs 27 years ago, the last time MSU won the regular season league title.
The experiences, he explained, couldn’t be more different.
“As a player,” he recalled, “you don’t think about things. You don’t think about how often you’re gonna get to do it. As a player, you just think it’s gonna happen every single year. And it doesn’t, of course. As a coach, you realize, this is a really competitive situation and these moments don’t come along every day. I’m just really proud to be a Mississippi State graduate and to be in this environment and to be able to share this with the Mississippi State family.”
However, Cohen is hoping the SEC Champs he’s coaching are better than the ones he played for. At least as postseason success goes, anyway. As much as he learned as a player, what sticks with him the most from that year is the fact that his Bulldogs lost in the Regional in Starkville as the No. 1 seed. All euphoria from winning the SEC was erased with a loss to North Carolina.
That, he said, is what he’ll be sharing with the team about his experiences, not the fact he won the conference.
“The real lesson is, if you don’t end up in Omaha, it’s not the year you wanted it to be,” he said. “Our kids have bigger goals than winning the Southeastern Conference. It’s just a nice by-product of staying on the journey.”
Moments before he shared those last words in his meeting with reporters after the game, his players had offered the same sentiment. Winning the SEC is great, yeah. Feels wonderful. But that’s not their goal. That’s not the end game.
“I came here to win championships and win a National Championship,” Collins said.
Said Robson, “we’re not done yet. We haven’t accomplished our ultimate goal: win the whole thing.”
If they keep playing like this, the Bulldogs will have their shot.