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Column: Spartans’ bid gives team spotlight on NCAA stage

May 28, 2012
Junior second baseman Ryan Jones waits to catch the ball while Iowa's infielder Jake Mangler dives to secure his position in the game on May 11, 2012 at McLane Baseball Stadium at Old College Field. Justin Wan/The State News
Junior second baseman Ryan Jones waits to catch the ball while Iowa's infielder Jake Mangler dives to secure his position in the game on May 11, 2012 at McLane Baseball Stadium at Old College Field. Justin Wan/The State News —
Photo by Justin Wan | and Justin Wan The State News

The Spartans are heading to the Golden State as NCAA Baseball Tournament participants for the first time in more than 30 years. MSU earned its first NCAA bid since 1979 yesterday as the No. 3 seed in the Palo Alto Regional in Palo Alto, Calif., where it will meet No. 2-seed Pepperdine.

The selection came as a surprise to some, after many news services predicted the Spartans would be left out of the field for the second consecutive season, following a disappointing exit from the Big Ten Tournament last weekend in the semifinals.

MSU failed to qualify for the tournament in 2011 despite a 36-21 record and regular season Big Ten championship, so the postseason tour of duty will be a fresh experience for every player on the roster.

“A few years ago, we wouldn’t expect this at all,” junior second baseman Ryan Jones said. “I mean, just getting to the Big Ten Tournament was something to be proud of here, so just watching the selection show was something that we’ll remember forever.”

One person who won’t be awestruck in the moment is head coach Jake Boss Jr., who will be making his sixth total appearance at an NCAA Regional. Boss made four previous trips as an assistant at various schools and for the first time as a head coach in 2008 in his lone season at the helm at Eastern Michigan.

This 2012 squad has earned its spot in MSU baseball lore — not only for earning its first NCAA Tournament bid since gas was 86 cents per gallon — but for replacing three first team All-Big Ten performers from 2011, including the conference Player of the Year Jeff Holm and Pitcher of the Year Kurt Wunderlich.

Boss has his team on an upward trajectory right now, mirroring many other MSU athletic programs throughout the past few years. The MSU football team has become a postseason regular under head coach Mark Dantonio, and the women’s basketball team is keeping pace with the men’s after reaching four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, while the hockey team also made a NCAA Tournament appearance under first-year head coach Tom Anastos.

“You look up and down the department, and there are teams competing for the NCAA Tournaments right and left,” Boss said. “I think we can learn an awful lot from them, learn how to compete on a national level, and I think we have a chance to do that.”

Overall, it appears to be the relative start to a great era in MSU athletics as the most popular and revenue-producing sports are becoming more and more relevant at both a regional and national level.

And if Boss continues to bring in the kind of talent such as freshmen first baseman Ryan Krill, pitcher Mick VanVossen and right fielder Jimmy Pickens — all of whom were selected in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft — then MSU baseball could, rather than being a blip on the radar, put its stake on the map permanently.

With basically no pressure on MSU, I would expect the Spartans to play both relaxedly and confidently at the regional against, ironically, the same first-round opponent from 1979 in Pepperdine. The depth of MSU’s pitching staff, as well as continued production from the bottom of the lineup will be critical as the Spartans try to make a deep tournament run.

“Coach Boss and the rest of the coaching staff just want us to believe in ourselves and the rest of the team,” Jones said. “We can compete with anybody, especially this year with this ballclub.”

Stephen Brooks is a State News sports reporter. He can be reached at brook198@msu.edu.

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