In ‘Mid-Major Year’ Three Small Conference Teams Aim for Mississippi State Baseball

Campbell coach Justin Haire doesn’t have to look far to highlight the successes of intermediate college baseball programs this season.

Two of them – VCU and Samford – make up 50% of this weekend’s Starkville Regional, while the Camels make up another quarter of the field. The three schools are just a handful of successes in a 2021 season, according to Haire, who has often been called “the year of mid-major.”

This is mainly because the NCAA has allowed players to request a waiver for an additional season of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led seniors and other veteran players to return to small schools. where they came from.

“Having depth and experience in the high end, especially at the mid-major level, is a really big advantage,” Haire said.

The 2021 NCAA tournament features 28 teams that are not part of the Power Five, Conference USA, or American Athletic Conference. This means that almost half of the pitch is made up of teams that don’t often make it to this stage, especially in other sports. Haire noted that even the Group of Five conference teams never qualified for the college football playoffs; men’s and women’s basketball tournaments rarely feature a mid-major Cinderella.

This is not the case in baseball. Not this season anyway.

“This year in the country, with so many kids coming back because of COVID, you see a lot of mid-majors are having great years,” Mississippi state coach Chris Lemonis said Monday.

VCU, Campbell and Samford are all among them. Each of the three teams have at least 35 wins (the Rams have 37) and won on the home stretch. Samford won the Southern Conference Championship, VCU won 21 straight games – the longest streak in the country – and Campbell won 10 in a row before being knocked out by Presbyterian in the Big South tournament.

But the Camels still won a general bid for the NCAA regionals, a rarity for such a small conference team. Four other mid-majors this year, however, have done the same: Liberty in the Atlantic Sun, UC Santa Barbara of the Big West, Indiana State of the Missouri Valley, and Fairfield of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. (The Stags finished No. 2 in the RPI with a 37-3 record.)

General selections are part of the reason the 2021 NCAA tournament is packed with more mid-majors than usual. In 2019, only eight conferences received multiple offers, and the Missouri Valley was the only small conference to have more than one team in the field. Now, two years later, 12 leagues have at least two participating teams.

And with so many senior and seasoned players returning, it’s not much of a surprise. With the MLB freshman draft dropping from 40 rounds to just five, only the top schools typically had multiple key players drafted. (Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg were both top 30 picks for the state of Mississippi.) Small schools, on the other hand, have seen most of their talents go undrafted.

Most of those unselected players have chosen to return. The day after the 2020 season closed, a group of older players walked into VCU coach Shawn Stiffler’s office, telling him they were ready to return.

“When you have guys who want to come back and finish what they started, then you realize that your culture can be a little stronger, a little better than you sometimes think,” Stiffler said.

The Rams have won 21 straight wins, still on what Stiffler called “the nation’s most boring winning streak.” He said he didn’t even realize the team was on a roll until the No.16 win, because VCU just stayed hot for good reason – first to land a berth in the Atlantic tournament. 10, then keep his RPI afloat for a regional, then make sure he hasn’t been upset in the conference tournament.

“It just got to the point where the next loss was going to be something that could really cripple us,” Stiffler said.

This next loss still has not happened. Instead, the Rams got a regional offer and something they’ve never had before: a charter flight to Starkville. One team used to leave Richmond in the middle of the night with two connecting flights totaling an eight-hour trip instead of getting to Starkville in just an hour and a half on Wednesday.

Lemonis, on the other hand, is used to shorter getaways. As the No.4 seed while playing for The Citadel in Charleston, he was usually sent to Clemson or South Carolina – one of the closest regional hosts. Samford was sent about two and a half hours west of Birmingham, while North Carolina-based Campbell made a longer trip.

But when each team arrived in Starkville, the travel time seemed to be worth it. Campbell star Zach Neto took note of the large LED panel in right field; teammate Matthew Christian watched the batter’s eye and the outfield platforms.

VCU’s Liam Hibbits said he “couldn’t be more motivated” to play at Dudy Noble Field.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Hibbits said. “I can’t wait to see everyone clapping, screaming. It will be a good time.
Samford, the first team to face Mississippi State in regional, is already used to it. The two Bulldogs teams met on March 16 in Starkville as MSU claimed a 10-2 midweek victory. This time around, however, Samford coach Casey Dunn has promised improvement.

“I think you’re going to see a better baseball team at Samford than the one you saw in March,” Dunn said.

Lemonis said he knows one of the Bulldogs’ three opponents is capable of winning. Mississippi State was eliminated by Samford in the 2012 Tallahassee Regional, and Lemonis recalls being eliminated from an NCAA tournament by VCU early in his career.

So, in the year of mid-major, he and the Bulldogs know they need to watch their backs.

“These are very good programs, and they are hot,” he said. “All of these teams come here after playing a good ball, so we have to be ready to go. “

Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi state sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.

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