No place does college baseball like Mississippi State. The entire top-10 list of biggest on-campus crowds in NCAA history is comprised of dates and attendance totals from Dudy Noble Field. The legends of the Left Field Lounge are surpassed only by the truth about the happenings amongst those colorful rigs lining the outfield wall.
From there, smoke billows onto the field. Blue skies are broken up only by the tops of trailers, the centerfield wall and Ol’ Glory hanging from the flag pole. The crowd is loud. The crowd is educated. The crowd is, especially on weekends like these, crowded. Come hell or high water – both quite literal possibilities with the heat of Mississippi summers and the thunderstorms this area of the country tends to produce – Bulldog faithful will ensure an atmosphere unmatched in college baseball, or perhaps any level of baseball. What happens in Starkville is decidedly unique and undeniably big.
And that’s exactly why John Cohen’s club has to treat it like any other game when they open up the Starkville Regional against Southeast Missouri State at 1:30 on Friday afternoon. The pressure of the moment is a lot to handle. Luckily for MSU, it’s an experience they’re used to.
“Opening day,” freshman outfielder Jake Mangum recalled, “we played in front of 11,000. Super Bulldog Weekend, tough weekend, but we played in front of 15,000 … That’s the thing about Dudy Noble. Every game is like that. Every game, the atmosphere is unreal. It doesn’t change anything.”
Mangum himself, as a freshman, has never played in a Regional, of course. But not only that, he’s never even been to one. Growing up, he was always playing in his own baseball tournaments whenever college baseball postseasons were taking place in Mississippi. The closest he’s come was a memory he has from 2007, when he was 11 years old, watching MSU host Clemson in a Super Regional from his hotel room at a travel ball tournament.
Many on the team are like Mangum, young in their careers or new to MSU. Less than a handful of players on this roster were even on the team back in 2013, the last time MSU hosted a Regional. Notable among the veterans who were is team captain Jacob Robson, and it is he who much of the team is relying on for leadership and guidance.
Jack Kruger, the junior catcher and junior college transfer, believes the key for MSU is to approach the weekend calmly and treat it like any other few days of baseball at The Dude.
“It’s the same game that we played day one, opening day,” Kruger said. “In that sense, absolutely nothing has changed. Now, externally, everything has changed. Everyone cares. There are a lot more eyes on us, which is great. We don’t care. That doesn’t bother us. That doesn’t affect us. It’s fun, but the game hasn’t changed. It’s the same game.”
Added junior first baseman Nate Lowe, “It doesn’t matter if there’s 15 people or 15,000 people here, we’ve got to play our game.”
The good thing, Cohen said, is that his team isn’t just saying the right things, but they are genuinely approaching the postseason the right way – the same way they did the regular season. In short, they’re comfortable. They’re happy. They have good chemistry and they play like a team with little pressure and little to lose.
“I think our kids are loose,” Cohen said. “It kind of reminds me of the 2013 team, because they have fun being around each other and they have fun practicing. Not every group in the country has fun practicing and this group does. I think our kids are ready and I know they are excited about it. We have done all sorts of competitive things throughout the week where they have competed with and against each other. I think they are ready to roll back out there and play baseball again.”
When the weekend begins for the Bulldogs, it will surely be with the cliché of one game at a time. But more importantly, whichever One Game it is won’t be any different from any other day.
“It’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Mangum said. “People come to Mississippi State to try and win a National Championship. We set ourselves up well, but the biggest game of the year is Friday and we’ve gotta be ready for it.”