The Southland Conference champion University of Central Arkansas Bears are headed to familiar territory where they have had prior success for their first appearance in the NCAA baseball tournament.
The Bears will play the host team in the Starkville Regional, hosted by Mississippi State, a team they won two of three from in Starkville earlier in the season. UCA’s opening game against the Bulldogs in the double-elimination tournament will be at 7 p.m. Friday.
The Bears, who have won a school-record 39 games this season, took two of three games from the then-No. 3 ranked Bulldogs at Dudy Noble Field on March 8-10. UCA lost the weekend opener 4-2, won 7-5 in 10 innings to even the series, then won the finale 7-3 to earn their first NCAA Division I national ranking.
"I’m really excited about the draw just for the fact that it’s close enough that we’re going to get a lot of fans,’ said third-year UCA head coach Allen Gum. "And we’ve been over there before. But I know it will be an even bigger atmosphere this time. We went over there for a weekend series, and it was big, but there’s no question this will be bigger.
"But I think the one thing with our guys, wherever we go or whoever we play, they’ve not been overwhelmed by going into big stadiums or playing big teams. So I don’t think anything like that will affect them. The only thing now is, we’ll have a target on our back. The last time we went in there, they were 18-0, ranked in the Top 5 in the nation. We just came right at them and played ball.
"But we talked about this last week, we need and want to be a program that has a target on our back."
Mercer and South Alabama will be the other two teams in the regional, which begins this weekend. The UCA-MSU winner will face the winner of Mercer-South Alabama at 7 p.m. Saturday. The losers will play at 2 p.m. Saturday. The regional final is set for 7 p.m. Sunday.
Regional tournament tickets are available through the host institution. The Mississippi State ticket office can be reached at 888-GO-DAWGS.
The Bears entered last week’s Southland Conference Tournament without much of a target on their back after finishing the regular season in a slump. But after losing their tournament opener to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the Bears reeled off five straight elimination-game victories to claim their first SLC championship and first NCAA Tournament bid.
And now they get the Bulldogs (43-17) on their home field again.
"Really, it’s going to come down to the same thing it has all year," said Gum. "If we pitch it well, play good defense, and do some good things on offense, move runners and get the timely hits, that’s what it’s going to come down to. Baseball is baseball."
Monday, Gum was already looking at UCA’s first-round matchup on the mound, sending right hander Caleb McClanahan (10-5, 2.17 earned-run average) out first. The senior first-team All-SLC selection from Wynne came back on two days' rest to win Saturday morning’s semifinal win over Oral Roberts.
"Caleb’s been really good about that,’said Gum. "Just come right at them, here it is. He’s definitely led the charge for our pitching staff in that regard. He’s shown that if you just fill that zone up and let your defense do the work, good things will happen. And I tell you, the rest of the staff, the ones that have done really well, have just followed his lead. He’s just been a horse for us. I’m proud as heck for him."
Gum said he was as excited to see his players’ reactions to the NCAA announcement as he was actually finding out their first opponent.
"The whole reason I got into coaching was to see players reach their goals, whether it be individually or collectively,’ he said. "We as coaches are just a part of it, we run side by side with them, And the great players actually outrun us. We can’t keep up with them.
"But what’s fun is, all this started at 5 a.m. on the first day we could work out in the weight room. Just to see all their hard work, and the long grind of the season... just to see their faces when that named popped up there on the TV screen. There’s not a better feeling than that."
The other first-round matchup in the regional will be South Alabama (42-18) and Mercer (43-16). The winner of the Mississippi State Regional will face the winner of the Virginia Regional, which features the Cavaliers (47-10), Army (29-21), Elon (32-28) and UNC Wilmington (37-21) in the Super Regional.
Some analysts from ESPNU ranked the Starkville Regional as the toughest among the 16. The Bears go into the regional with a 62 RPI. Mississippi State is 10, South Alabama 17 and Mercer 29.
The University of Arkansas will travel to the Manhattan Regional, hosted by Kansas State. The Hogs will play Bryant of the Northeastern Conference in the opener. That regional is paired with the Corvallis Regional at Oregon State for the Super Regional.
Champions of each of the 16 regionals will play a best-of-three in their corresponding Super Regional for the right to advance to the College World Series.
North Carolina is the top national seed. Vanderbilt is No. 2.