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Bulldogs believe path through regional is anything but easy

Ever since the NCAA Tournament field was announced, the Starkville Regional has been labeled as one of the easiest.

It’s one of only three that does not contain at least two teams from Power 5 conferences. The one major conference team that is playing, Mississippi State, is in its home ballpark, where it easily defeated one of its opponents earlier this season.

All signs point toward the Bulldogs having an easy time of it as they roll toward a fifth consecutive appearance in the super regionals.

The Bulldogs themselves are not approaching it that way, however.

“There’s no such thing this time of year. Anybody can beat anybody. That’s the beautiful thing about baseball,” said Mississippi State outfielder Tanner Allen, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. “We’re going to respect every opponent we face, like always, and have a good week of practice. There’s no easy wins this weekend. We’re going to have to earn every single one of them.”

Mississippi State (40-15) will be joined in the regional by Samford (35-22), VCU (37-14) and Campbell (35-16).

The field includes two conference champions in Samford and VCU, and a Campbell squad that was good enough to earn an at-large bid despite losing in the Big South Conference tournament championship game.

Mississippi State will begin the regional Friday at 2 p.m. against Samford, which has seen its share of Southeastern Conference opponents and environments. Samford played three-game series at both Texas A&M and Florida, as well as midweek games against Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn.

Samford only won once in 10 games against the SEC — one of the losses was a 10-2 defeat at the hands of Mississippi State in March — but coach Casey Dunn said there was a comfort level in playing the Bulldogs again.

“They’ve got a lot of Alabama guys on the roster, a lot of guys our players have played with in summer ball or through high school,” Dunn said. “It should be a situation where there is some comfort. Knowing, obviously, that it’s a great challenge, and a really good team that’s a national seed for a reason, but at the same time it’s guys they’re familiar with and hopefully they know we can go compete with.”

Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said last year’s COVID-19 shortened season, which allowed players to have an extra year of eligibility, has made mid-major teams like the ones coming to Starkville a bit more dangerous than usual.

“I think we have three really good teams. There’s a lot of wins in there,” Lemonis said. “This year in the country, with so many kids coming back because of COVID, you’re seeing a lot of the mid-majors have great years and I think that’s what you’re seeing in our regional. Those are really good programs, and they’re hot. We have to be ready to go.”

Mississippi State cannot afford to overlook anyone, either, after a dismal showing in last week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs were eliminated with two quick losses to Florida and Tennessee in which they were outscored 25-3 and run-ruled in both games.

Lemonis gave his Bulldogs a couple of days off after they returned from Hoover, an approach he said worked well for them in the past. Mississippi State reached the College World Series in 2019 — Lemonis’ first season — after losing two out of three games in the SEC Tournament.

They also got to Omaha in 2018 after losing a first-round elimination game in the SEC Tournament. The 2018 run included a 9-8 win over Samford and four consecutive victories in elimination games in a regional played in Tallahassee, Fla.

“This past week has been a tough week, but now it’s a new season,” Lemonis said. “Our kids deserve this. They’ve had a great year. They’ve went on the road and played great teams, they played a great non-conference schedule, they played a great SEC schedule, and now they’re ready to play in front of their own fans.”

Allen said the biggest thing the Bulldogs need to remember is that they are a 40-win team that earned the No. 7 national seed in the NCAA Tournament, and not the one that got blitzed in two games in Hoover.

“My main message is that we’re still a really good baseball team. We’re probably one of the best teams in the country. We’ve just got to believe that,” said Allen, who was a starter on both the 2018 and 2019 College World Series teams. “My freshman and sophomore year we believed more than anybody in the country, and that’s how we got to Omaha. We got punched in the mouth at the SEC Tournament but it really doesn’t matter now. Who cares about that? It’s in the past. All we can do now is have our eyes to the future and get ready for Friday afternoon.”

STARKVILLE REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Friday, June 4
Game 1 – Mississippi State vs. Samford, 2 p.m.
Game 2 – VCU vs. Campbell, 7 p.m.
Saturday, June 5
Game 3 – Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser, 2 p.m.
Game 4 – Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner, 7 p.m.
Sunday, June 6
Game 5 – Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser, 2 p.m.
Game 6 – Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner, 7 p.m.
Monday, June 7
Game 7 – Game 6 Winner vs. Game 6 Loser, TBA (if necessary)

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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