Tanner Allen (left) and Rowdy Jordan are playing in their third College World Series but will play for the first time in the championship series beginning Monday night. (MSU athletics)
State fans stayed and cheered long after the Bulldogs’ victory over Teas Saturday night. State players and coaches soaked it in . (MSU athletics)

OMAHA — So there’s a narrative making the rounds – particularly on social media – that no matter who wins this College World Series, it’s a tainted championship.

You know why. It is because North Carolina State, a CWS semifinalist, got eliminated by COVID-19, and not on the field. You know the story. No reason to rehash it all. It’s a terrible, horrible, awful, regretful thing that happened to the Wolfpack, who were a Cinderella story if there ever was on in college baseball. 

Chris Lemonis may have said it best. “Man, it sucks what happened,” he said in a Sunday press conference

Rick Cleveland

But don’t try telling Lemonis or his Bulldogs that if they somehow defeat Vanderbilt – the defending national champion, after all – in a best of three championship series that Mississippi State’s first-ever national championship would be stained, that there would be an asterisk beside it. Don’t tell me either. That’s just not right. 

If anything, North Carolina State’s elimination from the CWS made State’s road more difficult – much more difficult, actually. Now, the Bulldogs will face well-rested Jack Leiter – “the best arm the country,” says State star Tanner Allen – in the first game of the championship series.

While State needed to use its ace, Will Bednar, to beat Texas Saturday night, Leiter and Vandy rested. To win the championship, State will have to go through both Leiter and Kumar Rocker, who probably will be the top two pitchers taken in the Major League draft next month. Tainted? An asterisk? Come on… 

“I don’t see that,” Lemonis said Sunday. “I mean, I see us having to play. They way that we came through it and the games that we’ve had to play and now you’re having to play Vandertbilt. There will be no asterisk for us.

“And I hate it for N.C. State,” Lemonis continued. “I have three coaches who worked for (NC State coach Elliot Avent) on my staff I have a long relationship with Elliot. My nieces and nephews all went to N.C. State. I have a lot of respect there. Man, it sucks what happened.

“But for our guys, that stuff’s out of our control. All we can do is show up and play., and whoever is in the other dugout we compete against. … Actually, it probably makes our job a little harder – not easier…”

Oddsmakers certainly agree. Vegas has made Vanderbilt a -200 betting favorite, meaning if you want to bet on Vandy you have to risk $200 to win $100. In baseball, that’s a heavy, heavy favorite.

But nothing ever seems easy for this State baseball team, which has won three one-run ballgames here in Omaha. These Bulldogs really do seem to play their best when they have their backs against the wall.

In Vanderbilt, they play a team they know well and respect. They played the Commodores a three-game series at Nashville in April. Vandy won two of the three. (But State beat Leiter and roughed him up in a Game 2 victory.) In recent seasons, the rivalry has been fiercely competitive and so much fun to watch. Indeed, State’s memorable victory in the Super Regional at Nashville in 2018 was just about as good as college baseball gets.

“They have been here, they know how to win,” Lemonis said of Vandy. “They are a very formidable opponent, and they just know how to play the game and they are well-coached. It will be a tough matchup. It will be who gets the big hit or who makes the big play because they are very good.”

Tanner Allen (left) and Rowdy Jordan are playing in their third College World Series but will play for the first time in the championship series beginning Monday night. (MSU athletics)

Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin had similar praise for State Sunday, and what you can tell listening to both men is that it’s not just coachspeak. Vandy knows State. State knows Vandy. It must seem to Corbin like he’s been facing Rowdey Jordan and Tanner Allen forever. For sure, it must seem to Jordan and Allen that they’ve been facing Kumar Rocker forever.

Now, they’ll face off at least two more times, maybe three, with the national championship on the line. Yes, it’s a shame what happened to North Carolina State. Nevertheless, this ought to be good stuff.

Mississippi State has been playing baseball for 136 years. The Bulldogs have won 18 SEC championships, played in 39 NCAA Tournaments, won multiple NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals and have played now in 12 of these College World Series. There’s one trophy missing from the case.

Here, in Omaha, State has endured much heartbreak.

Lemonis was asked Sunday if this team feels the burden of all that past history.

“We can’t — you know, you can’t go back. We know our whole university and our whole state is behind us, and we just want to play good and represent our fan base,” Lemonis said. But the reality is, these poor kids, I mean, Tanner Allen I don’t think was born when some of these we lost or whatever. They are here. They are making their own mark on history. That’s our goal.”

And if, they somehow do it, there’ll be no asterisk.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.