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Mississippi State Fulfills Grand Vision With First CWS Championship

OMAHA—Dudy Noble Field stands at the corner of the Mississippi State campus, a college baseball palace built on what used to be a cow pasture. The grandest stadium in the country built for perhaps the most audacious program in the country.

Because it took an audacious vision to turn Mississippi State into a powerhouse. The Bulldogs have had to work hard at it over the last 50 years in Starkville. Paul Gregory led them to their first College World Series appearance in 1971. Five years later, Ron Polk arrived in Starkville and took the program and the SEC to another level. He led the Bulldogs to the CWS three times in his first 10 years as head coach and nothing was ever the same for Mississippi State again.

Fans came by the thousands to watch the Bulldogs, building makeshift personal boxes beyond the left field fence in truck beds. The Left Field Lounge, as it became known, was a unique experience and became part of the program’s charm. Only Mississippi State has ever drawn a crowd of more than 14,000 fans to an on-campus college baseball game—and it has done so six times.

The program kept growing, getting bigger and bigger. Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro brought the thunder and lightning to Starkville before being drafted in the first round in 1985. The stars kept coming—B.J. Wallace, Paul Maholm, Hunter Renfroe, Brent Rooker, Jake Mangum—and the Bulldogs won more and more. Mississippi State in 2013 played for the national championship but couldn’t break through, losing that series to UCLA and falling short of the ultimate goal.

The Bulldogs would not be denied, however. Bigger and bigger the program grew. Dudy Noble Field was rebuilt, turning one of college baseball’s iconic venues into a modern palace. The New Dude, a $68 million project opened in 2019, bridged history and tradition with modern amenities and a luxury condo building just beyond left field. The Lounge remains a unique experience but is no longer a makeshift series on contraptions and is instead built into the stadium.

Bigger and bigger, a behemoth growing in eastern Mississippi. All that remained undone was winning a national championship. Chris Lemonis, hired as head coach in 2019, knew his remit. Asked if the New Dude was missing anything, he could think of just one thing.

“A national championship sticker on the wall,” he said. “That’s probably the only thing we’ve got left to put in. I think our fans are waiting on it.”

On Wednesday in Omaha, the wait ended. Mississippi State defeated Vanderbilt, 9-0, in game 3 of the College World Series finals to win the national championship.

Mississippi State did it big, the only way befitting the program. Its fans flooded TD Ameritrade Park, which on Wednesday packed in 24,052 fans and set a record for a CWS finals game. Among those fans were Polk, former Mississippi State righthander Jonathan Papelbon and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, one of Mississippi State’s most beloved alumni. They were there to see history as the championship was not just the first in program history but the first team sports championship in school history.

The Bulldogs routed the Commodores in a championship performance for the ages. Righthander Will Bednar, a projected first-round pick, threw six hitless innings on three-days rest. Righthander Landon Sims, Mississippi State’s All-American relief ace, nearly completed the no-hitter but had to settle for three scoreless innings and holding Vanderbilt to one hit.

Mississippi State’s offense for the second straight night ground out quality at-bat after quality at-bat. The Bulldogs in the fifth inning knocked out All-American righthander Kumar Rocker, who had never before lost an NCAA Tournament elimination game, and ended the night with 12 hits, including two home runs.

The Bulldogs again didn’t make an error, completing their seven games at the CWS with a perfect fielding percentage.

In short, it was an exemplary all-around effort.

“What an awesome night,” Lemonis said. “Our kids played as free as you could be on the biggest stage, from the pitching to the defense, to the grind of having to be one of the best pitchers in college baseball history and the defending champions.

“So proud of them. And it's so awesome to bring back the trophy to Starkville. It's our community and how much they love their baseball, it's pretty special.”

Bednar was named CWS Most Outstanding Player after going 2-0, 1.47 in 18.1 innings over three appearances in Omaha. He struck out 26 batters and held opponents to three runs on five hits and six walks.

Bednar said it was “unreal” to be named MOP and was still trying to absorb the enormity of his performance in the aftermath of the game.

“I just kind of went out there treated it like every other outing, to be honest with you,” he said. “So, I just kind of treated it like it was any other game, and just kind of rolled with it.”

Bednar on Wednesday improved to 9-1, 3.13 on the season with 139 strikeouts and 26 walks in 92.1 innings. With his powerful stuff and performance on college baseball’s biggest stage, he is rising on draft boards and could be the highest drafted pitcher from Mississippi State since Maholm went eighth overall in 2003.

Offensively, outfielders Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan again led the Bulldogs offensively, as they have all season long. Jordan collected three hits and two runs and Allen added two hits and a run.

Jordan and Allen hit in the top two spots of the Mississippi State lineup all season long and were the Bulldogs’ top two hitters. Allen, a first-team All-American and the SEC player of the year, this season hit .383/.456/.621 with 11 homer runs and 11 stolen bases, while Jordan hit .323/.417/.546 with 10 home runs and nine stolen bases.

Jared Mckenzie Courtesybaylor

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Allen, Bednar, Jordan and the rest of the 2021 roster will take their rightful place in Mississippi State history. In an unprecedented season that was played through the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring new restrictions and protocols throughout the year, Mississippi State found a way.

Lemonis continually told his team it wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t. The Bulldogs were swept at home by Arkansas early in the season and lost a series at Vanderbilt in April. They went 0-2 at the SEC Tournament and were blown out in both games. They overcame a tough Notre Dame team in the Starkville Super Regional and then had to fight past Texas, the top-seeded team to make it to Omaha. Their reward was a CWS finals against the Commodores, the reigning national champions. After losing game 1 against righthander Jack Leiter, a first-team All-American and a projected top-five pick, Mississippi State faced two must-win games.

The Bulldogs won them both and, with them, the national championship. Mississippi State finished the season 50-18 and at last, dogpiled in Omaha.

To the end, the Bulldogs were gritty and resilient, the two ways Lemonis most often described his team. Now, that team has etched itself into the program’s proud history.

“This team won't be together (again) on the field together,” Lemonis said. “I'm just glad they'll finish as legends.

“When you go to Starkville, Miss., and you're around 20 years from now, they'll be remembered by everybody.”

Mississippi State turned a cow pasture into a palace. It brought thunder and lightning to college baseball. Its most revered coach is known as the Godfather of SEC baseball for his role in turning the conference into a power.

But only now is the grand vision complete. The Bulldogs are finally national champions.

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