As Sunday’s game was nearing its end, Mississippi State coach John Cohen turned to his assistant coaches with a question on his mind, a thought that had just struck him for the first time. He didn’t want to jinx anything, but his team had the lead on Louisiana Tech and appeared to be closing in on a Regional Championship.
How, he asked the rest of his staff, would the players respond if they held on and won?
Would they dogpile on the mound? Would they empty their Gatorade bottles on each other? Would they jump up and down, yell and cheer or hug and high-five in celebration? After all, the coaches give them no instruction. Players are told what to do all game long. When it’s over, the choice is theirs on how to react. Go with wherever the moment takes you.
Cohen’s curiosity dissipated momentarily as his team finished out the game, but once the final out was recorded and MSU won the Starkville Regional to advance to the Supers, Cohen was surprised by what he saw.
Mississippi State’s entire roster walked onto the field, formed an orderly line, shook hands with Tech’s players and coaches, shook hands with each other, then went straight back to the dugout to collect their things and head to the locker room.
The celebration, if one could call it that, was no more exuberant than if the Bulldogs had won a non-conference series in the beginning of the regular season.
“Our goal wasn’t to win a Regional,” junior outfielder and Starkville Regional Most Outstanding Player Brent Rooker explained. “Our goal is to win a National Championship and we haven’t accomplished that yet. When we accomplish that, we’ll celebrate.”
“The way they responded was pretty business-like,” Cohen observed afterward. “I have to admit, I was very impressed with our kids.”
It was something Rooker and his teammates talked about in the locker room following the game. It’s an understood mindset. As loose, laid-back and generally carefree and emotive as this team is, the players have a very clear understanding of their goals, paired with a very deep and proud devotion to not only restoring their good names, but establishing themselves as great.
Rooker was on the team last year when MSU finished last in the SEC. Two years removed from Omaha and the deepest postseason run the program had ever seen, he and many others were part of a group that didn’t even make the SEC Tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament. Zac Houston, the junior who started Sundays championship game and put on a career performance, was on that team, too.
So were many others who calmly shook hands instead of excitedly celebrating in Starkville on Sunday night. Several more are new to the club, but have quickly learned what it is they’re fighting for – respect and redemption.
“We have a core of guys who still do have a chip on their shoulder,” Cohen said. “They want to show the world they’re better than what happened a year ago.”
“We know what it feels like to not succeed,” Rooker shared, “and that helps us succeed even more. That makes it even sweeter.”
The duality in personality of the club is unique in its nature and dangerous in its application, as Cohen himself said Saturday – mid-regional – that he couldn’t imagine a team being any more loose than his, whether in the postseason or regular season. Within the antics, however, they have a vendetta, MSU’s players. They want revenge, not against any other team, but against their own ghosts, their own failures and disappointments. There’s something to be said about a team that stages celebrations and skits in foul territory between innings, but does no more than handshakes and high fives after sweeping a Regional for the first time in the school’s history.
Like any great hero, it is loss that drives them. And for a group which has already seen the bottom, there is nothing left to lose. And therein lies their danger, their greatest weapon. In short turnaround, these Bulldogs have found themselves to be one of the most talented teams in the country. As each opponent crosses their path, MSU displays the strength of an odds-on favorite with the determination and drive of an underdog given the longest of shots.
When MSU won four-straight series to start its SEC slate, some wondered if they had peaked too early. When they won the overall SEC Championship on the final day of the regular season, perhaps then, some might have considered, they had done enough. The calendar reads June 6 as this is written. In games that mattered, games with something on the line, MSU hasn’t lost since April 30. They are 14-0 in the span between, excluding the SEC Tournament in Hoover.
But none of it – the conference title, the Regional sweep or even the record crowds and shelves full of awards – is enough.
Asked by coaches after Sunday’s late-night win if they wanted to practice in the morning or afternoon on Monday, the team quickly voted for the morning. They couldn’t wait to get back to work.
These Bulldogs want more.
“When you have a nucleus of guys that has a chip on their shoulder, that got punched in the mouth a year ago, that’s a dangerous bunch because they want this bad,” Cohen said. “This is a team with a lot of goals and it’s fun to watch them accomplish them.”