Mississippi State

Mississippi State not taking any chances ahead of SEC Tournament

 Former Poplarville standout Zac Houston will take the mound Wednesday in Mississippi State's SEC Tournament opener.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/FILE Former Poplarville standout Zac Houston will take the mound Wednesday in Mississippi State's SEC Tournament opener.

Last Saturday was a surreal moment for No. 1 Mississippi State and their head coach John Cohen.

For the first time since 1989, a year where Cohen started in the outfield for the Bulldogs, the Southeastern Conference Championship resides in Starkville. As that moment has worn off, more accolades poured in for MSU this week.

Freshman leadoff man extraordinaire earned the Ferris Trophy on Monday as the state's top baseball player, becoming the first freshman to win the award in the process. He followed that up with first-team All-SEC honors, SEC Freshman of the Year.

None of that worries the youngster from Jackson Prep. Currently leading the SEC in batting average at .427, Mangum is more worried about the upcoming SEC Tournament that starts Wednesday for the No. 1 seed MSU against Alabama.

Still, he was proud to join the list of great Mississippi players winning the Ferris Trophy.

"We've got a game to worry about on Wednesday. We've got to figure out who we're going to play and prepare for that," Mangum said. "Getting to meet Boo Ferris was really special and being able to do it with your teammates is so much better. It was special."

'Little to prove'

The Bulldogs start tournament play with very little to prove. They've likely locked up a top eight national seed with the opportunity to host both a regional and super regional in Starkville the next two weeks. Even so, the eighth-year head coach doesn't want to take any chances.

"Some crazy things can happen in that room. I know that our RPI isn't as good as others. There's a lot of things that can go wrong in that room," Cohen said. "A team in the ACC can reel off five in a row in a league that's ranked No. 1 in the country in the RPI. The easiest things to do is just win our ball games and let the chips fall where they may."

On the mound

Cohen will go with junior and Poplarville native Zac Houston for Wednesday's game on the mound and will piece together the bullpen as it goes. Cohen said he hopes he won't have to use late relievers Reid Humphreys and Daniel Brown in the opener so he can save them for the rest of the tournament.

As for MSU's weekend starters, Cohen wants both Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton to get work in the tournament which means winning at least one game.

"The real issue in this tournament is everybody short a day turning their guys around so we're going to stay with Dakota on Thursday and give him the full week," Cohen said. "I'm very hopeful that if we can win a game we've got to get Sexton out there. If he goes two weeks without pitching, that's going to be difficult for him."

Cohen isn't throwing Hudson just to get the All-SEC pitcher work before next weekend; he wants to win ball games, as does the rest of his team. He understands the pros and cons of the tournament, but he also understands that he and his team just don't want to lose.

"There's two extremes. If you lose two there's that taste in your mouth of not playing well. The opposite extreme of that is if you win five or whatever and your team can be a little tired and it's hard to work when your team is really tired," Cohen said. "We'll take all of those things into account. Our kids want to win just like everybody else in this tournament."

Record-setting season

At 40-14-1, the Bulldogs finished off the regular season as well as they ever have. State won a school record 21 conference games and nine series out of 10 finishing the year with three-straight sweeps and a 10-game winning streak.

For Mangum, he and his teammates had a feeling a special year was on the horizon.

"There's not one selfish person on this team. It really is a group of selfless guys that would do anything for each other, that aren't worried about themselves," Mangum said. "At the beginning of the year our first goal was to be SEC outright champs. We accomplished that and now we're going to the SEC Tournament."

The Bulldogs will take a relatively healthy team into postseason. Two freshmen second basemen, Hunter Stovall and Luke Alexander, have been battling injuries. Stovall had a partial tear in his tibia during the Thursday night ball game against Alabama and missed the last three series of the season. Cohen said that he's close to making his way back into the MSU lineup but won't be rushed.

Alexander has had a hamate bone injury for the majority of the season but has played through it at times. If needed, he will be available for Cohen's club before requiring surgery at the end of the year.