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On to Omaha

 

Mississippi State baseball players celebrate Sunday after a 10-6 victory over Vanderbilt in the Nashville Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament. The win earned the Bulldogs a berth in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. It marks the 10th time in program history MSU baseball has advanced to Omaha and the first time since 2013.

Mississippi State baseball players celebrate Sunday after a 10-6 victory over Vanderbilt in the Nashville Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament. The win earned the Bulldogs a berth in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. It marks the 10th time in program history MSU baseball has advanced to Omaha and the first time since 2013. Photo by: Kelly Donoho/Mississippi State Athletics

 

Brett Hudson

 

 

NASHVILLE -- The details will never be lost on Gary Henderson.  

 

The meeting that started his team's roller coaster ride of a season was on Feb. 21 at 7:15 a.m. -- not 7:30, as junior center fielder Jake Mangum thought -- and every up and down stays in Henderson's memory to the point he could recall them Sunday even in his state of euphoria. 

 

For time's sake, he didn't list them all. Instead, he chose to sum it up this way. 

 

"We started with humiliation and we're sitting here going to Omaha," Henderson said. 

 

The most improbable of Mississippi State baseball seasons is bound for the College World Series after Sunday's 10-6 win in 11 innings over host Vanderbilt (35-27) in the deciding third game of Super Regional play. 

 

The victory extended a season for a team that endured a head coaching change early on, entered April with a losing record and put together a miracle May to keep its postseason hopes alive. Now, MSU (37-27) remains as one of eight teams still contending for a national championship. 

 

Nashville's Super Regional provided a wild, three-act drama of its own that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the nature of the Bulldogs' entire season. 

 

Two days saw two games end with walk-off home runs, one from Elijah MacNamee sending the Bulldogs to the brink of a breakthrough and another from Vanderbilt's J.J. Bleday to force the series to a deciding Game 3. 

 

On Sunday, MSU jumped to a 2-0 in the third inning that was gone by the end of the fourth. But with the game tied at 3 in the top of the ninth, Mangum -- whose standout three years at MSU made him a fitting hero for the moment -- doubled to push across the go-ahead run and later scored on a passed ball to give the Bulldogs a 6-3 advantage. 

 

Then Mangum was forced to watch it crash, as two Vanderbilt home runs sent the game to extra innings and beyond midnight before MSU finally got the best of the Commodores with four runs in the top of the 11th. 

 

It was reminiscent of the same cycle from March: Mangum saw a team rebounding from its early-season coaching change in a five-game winning streak to start the month, just for all of that to disappear as it, "got punched in the mouth by the SEC." 

 

A 2-7 Southeastern Conference start -- three of those losses to the Commodores (35-27). 

 

From that poor start, the team bounced back, winning three of four against Ole Miss and notching home sweeps against Arkansas and Florida en route to a 9-1 record on the season against Top 5 opponents and -- when down to its last strike -- used a three-run homer against Florida State to stave off elimination in the Tallahassee Regional. 

 

The team has come to accept its identity as one that takes a step back to take two steps forward and has to trail so it can lead -- as it has now done in 21 of its wins. 

 

"Why wouldn't we blow a lead and win at the end in extra innings?" Mangum said as Sunday's ninth-inning lead vanished. 

 

Henderson has followed a similar arc. He started this odyssey as the subject of heckling, being labeled as, "Mr. Interim," by a specific set of opposing fans he recalls to this day. He has coached a team with unchecked aspirations while people around the nation vie for and guess at who will take his job after the season's end. 

 

But on Sunday, the arc of Henderson's season found him Gatorade soaked and hoisted into the air, his fists clenched and raised over his head. 

 

"You don't get that ride in life," Henderson said. "That's why people are attracted to athletics. That's why we do what we do. ... I told them they're going to remember this season for the rest of their lives (with) the journey we've been on." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson.

 

 

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