Mississippi State Celebrates Return To Omaha But Isn’t Done Yet

Image credit: Jake Mangum (Photo by Getty Images)

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Dudy Noble Field stood as one as the ninth inning began. Mississippi State was nominally the visiting team in Game 2 of the Starkville Super Regional against Stanford, and Jake Mangum was coming to the plate for what would surely be the final at-bat of his storied career at the Dude.

So much around the baseball program has changed since Mangum arrived in Starkville in the fall of 2015. He has had four different head coaches and the head coach that recruited him and coached him as a freshman is now the school’s athletic director. Eight different assistant coaches have come through the program—two of them are now SEC head coaches and one is now an MLB pitching coach. The stadium has been rebuilt from one of college baseball’s classics into a modern palace after a $68 million renovation.

Now, with the SEC’s all-time hits king digging into the box for the last time in Starkville, Mississippi State’s fans were ready for a celebration. The Bulldogs held a four-run lead and were three outs away from their second straight trip to the College World Series. But, in this moment, they were on their feet to honor their superstar.

Mangum obliged. He hit the first pitch he saw from Stanford closer Jack Little, slapping it the other way past shortstop Tim Tawa and into left field for the 378th hit of his career. After rounding first base, Mangum blew kisses to the 11,597 fans cheering in the stands.

“My first ever hit at Dudy Noble was the same as my last,” Mangum said. “The six hole, of course it was the first pitch too.”

Three batters later, Elijah MacNamee, a fan favorite also playing at Dudy Noble for the last time, rocketed a three-run home run into the famed Left Field Lounge, sending the ballpark into a fervor. Closer Cole Gordon, a fifth-year senior, finished the game with a perfect bottom of the ninth and Mississippi State won, 8-1. With the victory, the Bulldogs completed a sweep of the Starkville Super Regional and advanced to the College World Series for the second consecutive season.

It was a night that won’t soon be forgotten around Mississippi State.

“An unbelievable night,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “I keep thinking that we have had our best night in our ballpark. It just keeps getting louder and louder. Our fans our unbelievable.

“The ninth inning was pretty special to see our guys get congratulated as they finished up playing at The Dude.”

No program in the country has gone through more in the last five years than Mississippi State. In 2015, the Bulldogs went 24-30 and finished in last place in the SEC at 8-22. It was a nadir for a proud program that has more College World Series appearances than losing seasons since the NCAA Tournament was founded in 1947.

John Cohen, who was then Mississippi State’s head coach and is now its athletic director, said while the 2015 season was a tough one, he knew at the time that the program’s future was bright.

“We knew we had a really good recruiting class coming in ‘16, we knew we had an even better class coming in in ’17,” Cohen said. “Even though ‘15 was a difficult year, we really felt like ‘16 was going to be a good year for us.”

It turned out that 2016 was a great year for the Bulldogs. They roared back to become the first team in SEC history to go worst-to-first and won their first conference title since 1989.

Mangum, as a freshman, hit .408 to win the SEC batting title and the Bulldogs produced a program-record 11 draft picks, led by righthander Dakota Hudson, who went 34th overall to the Cardinals.

Mangum said though the Bulldogs were coming off such a poor season, they knew they were in a good spot heading into 2016.

“On paper, it looks like I came into a bad situation, but it was a great situation,” Mangum said. “We had tons of great players. That team, if it wasn’t for a lot those guys on that team, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now with my game.”

The 2016 season came to a disappointing end in the Starkville Super Regional, as Mississippi State was upset by Arizona, the eventual CWS runner-up. The Bulldogs were swept, a stunning result for a team that had put together a stellar season.

The future still looked bright at Mississippi State, even as it had to reload following the draft. Things were complicated in September, when athletic director Scott Stricklin was hired away by Florida and Cohen emerged as a leading candidate to replace him. Cohen ultimately was promoted as Mississippi State neared the end of its fall ball, setting in motion a string of events that would lead to a tumultuous couple years in Starkville.

Andy Cannizaro was hired away from Louisiana State, where he had been an assistant coach, to succeed Cohen. He lasted little more than a year before abruptly resigning one week into the 2018 season. Mississippi State rallied around interim head coach Gary Henderson for an improbable year that saw them get hot just in time to make the NCAA Tournament. Then, with their backs against the wall in an elimination game against Florida State in the Tallahassee Regional, MacNamee hit a stunning walk-off home run that sparked a magical postseason run.

Mississippi State was the team of destiny last year in the NCAA Tournament, coming through the losers’ bracket in Tallahassee and then winning a wild super regional at Vanderbilt. It rode that magic all the way to the final four, where it finally succumbed to Oregon State, the eventual national champion.

That run’s effects are still being felt today, Cohen said.

“When that happens, your kids start thinking we’re supposed to win, something special’s always going to happen,” Cohen said. “Then you have that whole group coming back here. We felt like this was going to be a good group.”

Cohen hired Lemonis away from Indiana to lead that group, and the match has proved to be an excellent one. He is the winningest first-year head coach in SEC history and has led the Bulldogs to their fourth ever 50-win season. Mangum has authored another All-American season and broken Eddy Furniss’ all-time SEC hits record. Ace Ethan Small was named SEC pitcher of the year. The Bulldogs matched their 2016 record with 11 players drafted. They have won 51 games, matching a program record set in 2013.

And, now, they are headed to the College World Series for the 11th time in program history.

Cohen said he knew these Bulldogs had that potential and that Lemonis was the right person to lead them. But coaching transitions are always tricky, leading to some uncertainties.

“What’s not easy to do is to be a new coach and with the total collection of personalities on the team immediately adjust yourself to them instead of them having to adjust to you,” Cohen said. “I think that’s the real strength he has. He’s been able to connect with a group of kids that he had never met before and (do it) quickly.”

As well as this season has gone for the Bulldogs, they aren’t satisfied yet. As a program, they are still chasing the national championship that has eluded them throughout their history. It is what Mangum returned to school for and what Lemonis was hired to win.

So, while Sunday night was perfect in many ways, Mississippi State isn’t comfortable with it being the end to this story. The Bulldogs have been through it all—except the exhilaration at the end of the season of lifting a trophy aloft in Omaha.

That will be their mission next weekend when they begin play at the College World Series.

“Four supers, four years, two trips to Omaha,” Mangum said. “There’s one thing left to do. It’s still in front of us, so let’s go do it.”

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