MSU back on scene after rough stretch

Published 7:40 pm Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Mississippi State hired John Cohen to lead its baseball program in 2008, the new coach’s hard-edged personality was a huge change from laid-back predecessor Ron Polk.

The results weren’t always fun.

But after two brutal seasons plunged the program to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, the Bulldogs have resurfaced on the national scene in Cohen’s third season. This weekend, Mississippi State (37-23) is playing for a spot in the College World Series when the Bulldogs travel to face Florida (48-16) in the best-of-three super regional round of the NCAA tournament.

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Senior Ryan Collins is one of the few players who survived the transition from Polk to Cohen, a former Mississippi State player who led Kentucky to two NCAA tournaments before being hired by his alma mater.

“They’re two totally different coaches — complete opposite ends of the spectrum,” Collins said. “Their personalities and the way things are run in the program — it’s much more intense now and not as laid back. You can win both ways, but it was just a total 180-degree switch and it was a big adjustment.” Polk, an MSU legend who led the Bulldogs to six College World Series appearances in 29 seasons, was famous for his easy-going demeanor. He’d chomp on cigars in the dugout after games, and was much more likely to share light-hearted stories than rip his team following a tough loss.

Cohen is intelligent and can certainly be engaging, but his intensity radiates from the dugout on every pitch.

Initially, Cohen’s personality and Polk’s recruits proved to be an oil and water mix. The Bulldogs had a 15-44 combined record in the SEC during the 2009 and 2010 seasons and the once-packed stands at Dudy Noble Field dwindled to just die-hards.

But slowly, Cohen built a roster that mirrored his philosophy.

“The kids who are attracted to the program are attracted to the way you run it. So yeah, I think there’s a level of toughness for the kids who are coming here,” Cohen. “There’s no secret in the recruiting process — if you’re going to come here and play for our staff, you’re going to have to push yourself.

“That’s not attractive to some kids, but we’re going to get the right kids.”

And that’s often meant recruiting athletes who don’t necessarily look the part of an SEC ballplayer. Left-hander Luis Pollorena stands just 5-foot-6, but has been one of Mississippi State’s consistent pitchers. He threw six scoreless innings in the Atlanta Regional during the opener against Southern Miss.

Then there’s leadoff hitter C.T. Bradford, a 5-8, 159-pound true freshman who was 7-for-13 during the Atlanta Regional and had three hits and four RBIs in the championship game.

Even the normal-sized Bulldogs are often overlooked. Third baseman Jarrod Parks led the SEC in batting average for most of the season, yet wasn’t a hot commodity in this week’s Major League Baseball draft. He was selected in the 24th round by the Los Angeles Angels.

But Cohen stopped short of calling them overachievers.

“I don’t ever want to shortchange our guys, saying they are scrappy and mistaking that for skill level,” Cohen said. “C.T. Bradford is a little guy, but he has skills. Luis Pollorena may be 5-foot-6, but he throws his fastball 90 miles per hour occasionally.”

Mississippi State will need every bit of that talent to get past Florida — the No. 2 national seed that’s already beaten the Bulldogs three out of four games this season. The Gators have arguably the nation’s deepest pitching staff and breezed through last week’s Gainesville Regional with three straight victories.

But Mississippi State should be used to adversity. Nothing’s come easily this season for a team that finished just 14-16 in SEC play and went two-and-out in the SEC tournament before its impressive run through the Atlanta Regional.

Collins said that resiliency is a sign that Cohen’s approach is finally taking hold.

Now the Bulldogs are just two victories away from their first CWS appearance since 2007.”If you look at the hard work we put in and all the things we’ve been through — it gives a certain edge and a chip on our shoulder,” Collins said. “We know we’ve outworked everyone else and that gives you a little extra grit once the games come.”