In some parts of America, people are doing weird things, off-the-wall seasonal stick-based rituals, like "lacrosse" and, stranger, "hockey." This is a sport whose proper performance requires ice and, ipso facto, winter. It is a winter sport, and classified as such by the NCAA.
Yet so, too, is our own stick-based ritual of the South, the one where the sticks are made from metal and associated generally with the scorching summer; in NCAA parlance, it is at least a "spring" sport. But college baseball is underway, and we certainly are well shy of the permanent mid-March thaw.
Because Mississippi is also one of America's football-mad states, and baseball attendance is so dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands that swarm to see the state's big three in the fall, even gridiron recruiting din can drown out the first aluminum pings of February. Not to mention basketball, entering playoff season in high schools and the regular season stretch in college, which means even most sports fans can probably be forgiven for missing Ole Miss' opening series last weekend, a two-game home sweep of New Orleans.
But the numbers, they don't lie: Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss all finished in the top 15 nationally in attendance in 2006, the fourth straight year all three have been among the top 20 and matched last year only by Texas (Texas, Texas A&M and Rice). Mississippi State averaged nearly 6,900 per game, behind SEC West rivals LSU and Arkansas, schools that effectively monopolize their respective states' sporting attention and were the only baseball programs anywhere to top 7,000 fans per home date. In all, a reported 477,659 people watched major Division I baseball in Mississippi in 2006, more than 4,900 per game, which in per capita terms puts the state completely off the map, even when the map is restricted to the few Southern and Western states that dominate the collegiate diamond. Ole Miss' opener Saturday drew more than 4,500, just a couple hundred shy of its '06 average.
It helps, of course, that all three teams were winners again, and earned spots in the NCAA Tournament last June. Ole Miss, off an SEC Tournament championship and its first back-to-back 40-win seasons in school history, opened this season ranked 18th by the first USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll in late January. Southern Miss and Mississippi State, which spent part of last season as the top-ranked team in the nation, appear in neither.
On paper, the Rebels are the best-suited of the three to make a run to the College World Series in June, where no state school has appeared since Mississippi State in 1997 and 1998. Nearly half the Rebels' returning starting lineup hit better than .325 last year, including all-American shortstop Zack Cozart and infielder Justin Henry, a preseason All-SEC pick from Vicksburg who combined with Cozart to steal 33 bases. Lance Lynn, Brett Bukvich, Craig Rodriguez and Corey Satterwhite made 47 starts, and Satterwhite set a school record for wins by a freshman. So Ole Miss is equipped to at least match its appearance in the tournament's Super Regional round, if not finally move past it.
The Rebel hurlers are behemoths, Burkvich weighing 235 and Lynn a lineman-esque 260, but the state's most dominating pitcher in '06 was Mississippi State's Justin Pigott, a relatively meager 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. Pigott's 1.66 ERA in 19 appearances as a sophomore is an eye-popping number in the offensively-inflated college game, best in the SEC by more than a run per game and coming amidst a 7-1 record that included three complete games and just four batters walked in 65 innings. Most of the rest of the staff returns with Pigott, along with five batters who hit better than .300 on the season. MSU will not be satisfied with another losing season in the SEC (it finished 12-17 in conference play after last year's lightning start), that slump being the main reason the Bulldogs find themselves outside the polls early this season. State always expects to compete for the SEC championship and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and should be in fine shape to do so when it opens Feb. 23 for a three-game home stand against Murray State.
It's virtually impossible to be as optimistic about Southern Miss, which competes in Conference USA against Rice, the nation's No. 1 team this preseason and winners over USM in 2006 by an average score of 7-2 in four games. League coaches picked the Eagles fourth out of nine teams in C-USA last month, and picked one player, infielder Trey Sutton, for the all-conference team. Not in Friday's opening night lineup, though, for the first time in four years, will be Marc Maddox or Toddric Johnson, the key cogs in USM's tremendous power offense (81 team home runs and 7.9 runs per game each led C-USA in '06). A pitching staff that struggled is also losing its top starters, though the mostly new staff could be fine if senior Patrick Ezell finally returns to the all-America form he flashed as a freshman after two straight seasons of diminishing returns.