STARKVILLE, Miss. — It’s taken just five years for John Cohen to revitalize Mississippi State’s baseball program and return the Bulldogs to championship contention.
The journey hasn’t been easy. But a remade roster constructed with Cohen’s ideals of hustle, intensity and just enough talent have led the Bulldogs to the College World Series for the first time since 2007. It’s only their second trip since 1998.
This group of blue-collar Bulldogs also has a healthy sense of humor.
“We’re just 27 dumb guys,” Mississippi State pitcher Luis Pollorena said. “But once you put us all together, you won’t beat us.”
Mississippi State (48-18) will face No. 3 national seed Oregon State (50-11) in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday.
The Bulldogs do have one legitimate superstar. Junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe — who was the 13th overall pick by the San Diego Padres last week — leads the offense with a .360 batting average, 15 homers and 61 RBIs.
But the rest of the roster has been filled with interchangeable heroes. The most recent is senior left-hander Chad Girodo, who has struck out 24 batters in 13 innings during the postseason.
“Everybody kind of fits into this thing, and you’ve got a nice mix,” Cohen said. “It’s like any recipe — it involves a lot of different ingredients.”
Cohen was an outfielder for Mississippi State during the program’s glory years, when the Bulldogs went to Omaha three times in 10 seasons, including his senior season in 1990. He was brought back to his alma mater before the 2009 season, charged with rebuilding a program that had turned mediocre.
But he looked like a bad fit in Starkville for the first two years, especially during the awful 2010 season that included a 6-24 record in the Southeastern Conference.
But a young group of players — including Girodo — believed in Cohen’s approach and helped the program grow.
The Bulldogs made a surprise run to the NCAA tournament’s super regional round in 2011 (they lost to Florida), then won the SEC tournament in 2012. A veteran team returned this spring, started the season on a 17-game winning streak and hasn’t slowed down much since.
“If anyone watches what we do on a daily basis, you would understand that we’ve put in the work and the time,” Girodo said. “We’ve worked so hard on what we do and we’re finally getting rewarded for it. It’s so awesome.”
Cohen said it’s gratifying to watch players like Girodo — who threw just 7.2 innings last season — mature into quality players.
“There’s a bond that forms; there’s no doubt about it,” Cohen said. “Those bonds will last forever and ever and ever.”
As Mississippi State’s roster has changed, so has Cohen. The 42-year-old is known for his aggressive personality, but there hasn’t been much yelling lately.
The 48 wins have helped ease his blood pressure, but so has a group of players that he recruited and now trusts.
“The batter’s box doesn’t have enough room for two people in it,” Cohen said. “The mound doesn’t have enough room for two people on it. Eventually, they’ve got to do it on their own.”
Mississippi State first baseman Wes Rea said Cohen’s fiery reputation is well deserved, but also a bit exaggerated. Rea said Cohen gives the team captains a lot of input on decisions.
An example: Cohen relaxed the team’s no-facial-hair rule after pitcher Trevor Fitts put together a full PowerPoint presentation that included successful players who sported a scruffy face.
“If you come to him with an idea and have evidence to back it up, he’ll listen,” Rea said with a grin. “That’s one reason he’s so good.”
Mississippi State might pride itself on a loose attitude, but they’ve been quite efficient when the games come. The Bulldogs have won 12 of their last 15, including an impressive two-game sweep over Virginia in the super regional round to advance to Omaha.
Now Mississippi State will try to win its first national championship in baseball. This is the Bulldogs’ ninth trip to Omaha, but they’ve never finished higher than third.
“The only thing we haven’t done is win a national championship,” Cohen said. “I think that’s great motivation for our players.”
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