Mississippi State celebrates after winning the College World Series 9-0 against Vanderbilt in the deciding Game 3 Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/John Peterson)

OMAHA — It began as a baseball game.

It ended as a wild, maroon and white celebration.

After 129 years of playing college baseball — mostly high quality baseball — Mississippi State claimed its first national championship in any team sport Wednesday night. The Diamond Dogs body-slammed defending national champion Vanderbilt 9-0, as more than 20,000 Bulldog fans roared their approval. State fans cheered, they chanted, they clapped, they high-fived, they hugged, they sang, they danced.

Rick Cleveland

And some cried.

The last few days, they have painted Omaha, a 13-hour drive from Mississippi, solid maroon.

The 2021 Bulldogs have accomplished what so many Bulldog legends — and so many splendid Mississippi State teams — could not. Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, Thunder and Lightning, couldn’t do it. The great Ron Polk, in two stints as State’s coach, couldn’t do it. John Cohen couldn’t do as a player or a coach – but he did as an athletic director. He hired the guy who finally did it: Chris Lemonis.

These Bulldogs all did it. They endured COVID-19. They came back from losing three straight to Arkansas, two of three to lowly Missouri and then two straight in the SEC Tournament. They got hot at the right time, winning an NCAA Regional, a tough Super Regional with Notre Dame and their half of the CWS bracket where they had to be tradition-rich Texas twice.

They came back from losing their first game of this CWS Championship series by an 8-2 score to Vandy. As their coach Chris Lemonis has said so many times here lately: “Nothing comes easy for this team. We keep fighting.”

He added to that postgame Wednesday. “We’re the last ones standing,” Lemonis said. “It’s a special night for all of us. There’s gonna be a big party tonight.”

They won the national championship with their 50th victory of the year. They finished 50-18.

These Bulldogs will be talked about for decades. Some may have reached legendary status already.

Decades from now State fans will talk about how Will Bednar came back on three days rest and pitched six innings of no-hit baseball against the defending national champions. They’ll talk about how Landon Sims almost preserved the no-hitter. They’ll talk about the sharp-fielding Bulldogs played error-less, sometimes spectacular defensive baseball for the entire College World Series.

And so many of them — especially the younger ones — will talk about how they were here when it happened. How they helped will their heroes to victory.

In Starkville, they call it the Dude Effect. They brought it here to what they now call Dudy Noble North. The effect is real. It encourages State players to achieve feats they might not otherwise achieve. It causes skilled players on the other team to bobble the ball on plays they normally make in their sleep.

It surely causes people around the nation who are tuning in to ESPN to wonder: Who cares this much about college baseball?

Mississippi people, that’s who.

Bednar was nails, sharp ones. After a shaky start in the first inning when he walked two batters and needed a double play to get out of the inning, he dominated Vanderbilt. Get this: He retired the last 15 batters he faced. His fast ball was good. His slider was devastating. Vandy couldn’t touch it, and they couldn’t lay off of it either.

Conversely, State stuck to its obvious plan of attack against Vanderbilt pitching hero Kumar Rocker, a legend himself. They “spit on” Rocker’s hard-breaking slider that often looked like a strike before dipping out of the strike zone. They waited on his fastball — in the strike zone — and then made him pay.

Rocker lasted 4.1 innings, 92 pitches. Rowdey Jordan laced Rocker’s first pitch — the first of the game — into right field for a ringing single. He scored later in the inning on Luke Hancock’s sacrifice fly. 

The tone of the game was set.

State added two more runs in the second, two more in the fifth, when they chased Rocker from the game. All the while, State fans got louder and louder and louder. In the seventh inning when both Logan Tanner and Kellum Clark clobbered home runs, you literally could not hear your own voice. It was that loud, like the fourth quarter of a really close SEC football game.

When Sims recorded the last out, State players rushed the field, celebrating in a sure-enough ‘Dog-pile around pitchers’ mound. They had done it. At last. And you know what dear ol’ Jack Cristil would have said: “You can wrap this one up in maroon and white.”

Here in Omaha, on June 30, 2021, Mississippi State’s Bulldogs and their legions of fans did just that.

Check out the first episode with former MSU baseball player Jake Mangum.


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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.