Jody Hurst knows how much work the Mississippi State baseball players put into this season and the pressure under which they played.
A former Bulldog, Hurst played for MSU from 1986-89 and took a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, this week to see the Bulldogs play in the College World Series finals against Vanderbilt. When MSU got the final out to win Game 3 Wednesday night and secure the school’s first national championship, Hurst said he couldn’t help but feel excited.
“It was really good to see the players finally accomplish what has been a long time coming,” said Hurst, who is an assistant baseball coach and athletic director at West Lauderdale. “Every year we think we’re going to win it, and we just hadn’t been able to get over that hump, and it was great to see these guys accomplish that. There’s satisfaction knowing that Mississippi State has proven it’s one of the best baseball programs in the country.”
The Bulldogs finished the season with a 50-18 record and were 5-2 in Omaha, capped off by wins of 13-2 and 9-0 in Games 2 and 3 of the championship series against the Commodores after losing the first game 8-2. In watching them play, Hurst said it was more than talent that led MSU to such a special season.
“Throughout the year I probably didn’t watch as much as a lot of people did, but the games I did watch you could tell there was a never-die, never-quit attitude,” Hurst said. “They seemed to believe they would win this thing.”
A friend of Hurst’s, Danny Miles of Meridian, began following MSU baseball in 1987 during Hurst’s playing career due to Hurst being a fellow member at Midway Baptist Church.
“The thing that blew me away was back in 1989 they had a chance to go to Omaha and got put out in the regional by North Carolina,” Miles recalled. “That was a shock to everyone. I still think that’s the best team they ever had.”
Even after Hurst got drafted in 1989, Miles remained a Bulldogs fan, and watching this year’s team win a national championship brought tears to his eyes.
“It was overwhelming emotions,” Miles said. “I was nervous — not the whole time, because when we got up 9-0 and (Landon) Sims was in the game I felt comfortable we would win, but not before that.”
That’s not to say Miles didn’t have doubts throughout the season, though, especially after losing a home series to Missouri in mid May and being run-ruled in both of the Bulldogs’ SEC Tournament contests.
“They dropped low, but I felt like they had the team to go (all the way),” Miles said. “They were competitive and had good leadership from Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan and some other guys, but mainly those two. Of course, they had a good supporting cast, and they played good defense. In the College World Series, they didn’t make any errors. Their pitching was inconsistent but would come through, and they had the talent. We knew that all along before the season, and they hung in there. They persevered.”
Meridian resident Justin Sollie, a 2013 graduate of MSU, said he became spoiled by that 2013 team that finished runner-up in the College World Series and was thrilled when this year’s team completed the task Wednesday.
“It’s just surreal, like a relief,” Sollie said. “I feel like a lot of State fans are saying that it was a relief. We finally did it.”
A Red Sox fan, Sollie said he enjoyed Boston’s championships in 2004, 2007, 2013 and 2018, but there’s something even more special about watching his alma mater capture the ultimate prize.
“Seeing your school win is just different,” Sollie said. “There’s like a personal pride with this one.”
Sollie is boys basketball coach at Enterprise, and he said one of the things he appreciates most is how the low points in the season weren’t dwelled upon by the MSU coaches and players.
“Those two losses in Hoover had me and a lot of people nervous about losing national seeds,” Sollie admitted. “In sports you play so many games that you’re going to have letdowns. It’s impossible to avoid, and I think they responded well. (Chris) Lemonis did a heck of a job coaching, and to have those disappointments but let them be simply that and not anything more, that’s what I respect the heck out of. It’s hard as a coach when you have those bad moments to make sure they end there and don’t carry over.”
A fellow staff member at Enterprise, John Welch coaches the school’s baseball team and said he appreciates what Lemonis and the rest of the MSU staff accomplished in light of the pressure they face every season.
“I watch the games from the aspect of a baseball coach,” Welch said. “Fans second guess us all the time, but Coach Lemonis is making these decisions with the best info he has available. I’ll cheer regardless of whether or not I agree with a decision. I’m definitely not going to make it public when I disagree because I know those decisions aren’t easy, especially on his level. He’s under a way bigger microscope than us at the high school level.”
There’s also extra satisfaction finishing with a championship just due to how long a baseball season typically runs and how difficult it is to maintain momentum over a marathon season, Welch said.
“It’s unlike football season in the aspect of, to get yourself into the national championship, you almost have to win every game or all but one game,” Welch said. “It’s also a short season compared to baseball. There are a lot of games, and you have the ups and downs of your offense and pitching. If you have a bad weekend offensively, then you may lose two out of three. If you get a guy injured in the middle of the week, you may lose some games.”
Most of all, though, as an MSU alumnus, Welch said he’s happy the Bulldogs finally brought home a national championship.
“I’m just really happy for any school in our state that does well in baseball,” Welch said. “I’ve been a State fan since birth and went there, and it was really exciting for me to watch it happen and watch the entire playoffs and watch this team play this season. I’m not able to watch as much as I’d probably like because of my job, but the times I did watch were fun. I’m happy for them, the coaches and players, and I’m really excited for the university that I really do love and enjoy going back to.”