Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis lifts the NCAA championship trophy 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 was a couple hours after The Game late Wednesday night, and a few of us media types were making our way out of the main entrance of TD Ameritrade ballpark. And, there, beginning at the iconic “Road to Omaha” sculpture that greets College World Series fans, a long line of people began.

Rick Cleveland

And it went, and it went, and it went. What, I thought, is going on? The game is long since over. The championship party is a few blocks over in downtown. And then it hit me.

Nearly all the fans in line wore maroon. They were waiting, politely, in line, most with dreamy looks on their faces. They were lined up for selfies to be made in front of the statue.

They wanted this moment for posterity. 

“It’s winding down,” one smiling fan said. “You should have seen how long it was earlier.”

I’ve seen a lot of historic stuff in more than 50 years of doing what I do. But I truly have never seen a fan base enjoy what happened here over the last 10 days more than Mississippi State fans have enjoyed this.

They had waited a long, long time. And that just made it all the sweeter.

It is appropriate that Mississippi State’s first NCAA team championship comes, finally, in baseball. State people embrace college baseball as no other fans in America. It matters so much to them. The passion dates back to the days of Dudy Noble and Boo Ferriss, runs through Ron Polk, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, moves on to legends such as Hunter Renfroe and Jake Mangum.

And now another group of legends have finally won the whole shebang — guys named Tanner (lots of guys named Tanner), and Luke and Will and Landon and, well, you know them all by now. They were led by a steady even-keel guy named Chris Lemonis, who really did push all the right buttons at all the right times for these Bulldogs.

And this begs the question: What was it about these Bulldogs that enabled them to achieve what so many remarkable Mississippi State teams in the past could not achieve? They weren’t necessarily better than some of those other great Diamond Dog teams. Hell, I’m not sure we’ll ever see a better college baseball team than Clark, Palmeiro, Brantley, Thigpen and those Boys of ’85.

Here’s the deal and I have written it many times: Winning championships in college baseball is all about getting hot at the right time. It’s about your players coming together and playing their best when it matters most. It’s about matchups. It’s about staying healthy. It’s about breaks, like when the opposing shortstop gets a ground ball stuck in the webbing of his glove. 

It’s about playing well in all phases of the game: pitching, timely and patient hitting, base running and fielding — oh, yes, my gosh, fielding. Mississippi State played seven pressure-packed games without committing a single error in this College World Series. They made sensational plays, yes, but they made all the routine ones.

Yes, it’s about the stars — guys like Will Bednar, Landon Sims, Tanner Allen, Rowdey Jordan and Logan Tanner — but it’s also about key contributions from lesser lights. I’m talking about a slick-fielding shortstop Lane Forsythe, who saved his hits for when it mattered most. I’m talking about his back up, Tanner Leggett, who long waited for his chance, got it and had a shining moment if there ever was one. I’m talking about backup outfielder Brayland Skinner, who out-ran a baseball to turn a sure double into an out in the championship game. “My juco bandits,” Lemonis proudly called Leggett and Skinner.

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Pitchers Hootie Harding and Preston Johnson stepped up, big-time, in Game Two of the championship series and provided a sturdy bridge to Game Three and the remarkable combo of Bednar and Sims.

There are many more names that could be mentioned. They know who they are. You know who they are. To win it all, it really does take a village. 

In the case of Mississippi State baseball, you just cannot overlook the larger village: the fan base. Bulldog faithful — at least 20,000 of them — lifted these ‘Dogs on their collective shoulders here in Omaha. They cheered themselves hoarse. Not only did their unbridled support make the Bulldogs better, it made it far more difficult for opponents. In college baseball history, there has never been a more un-neutral neutral site than Omaha in 2021.

Dudy Noble North, it really was. The OmaDawgs, they really were. National champions.

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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.