The opening weekend of Mississippi State's baseball season couldn't have been much more demoralizing. The proud Southeastern Conference program dropped three straight games, lost its head coach and had multiple excuses to totally fall apart.
Instead, the Bulldogs' season will end at the College World Series.
The tournament starts Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska, with Oregon State (49-10-1) taking on North Carolina at 3 p.m. and Washington (35-24) facing Mississippi State (37-27) at 8. Other first-round games are Sunday — Arkansas (44-1) and Texas (42-21) meet at 2 p.m. and Texas Tech (44-18) and Florida (47-19) play at 7.
The Bulldogs are in the CWS for the 10th time, and this is their first berth since finishing as runners-up in 2013.
This year, though, they took an unlikely road to Omaha, where they are in the title hunt less than four months after coach Andy Cannizaro resigned for off-field conduct. Pitching coach Gary Henderson took over on an interim basis when Cannizaro stepped down Feb. 20, and then the struggle to save the season began.
It was not an overnight turnaround.
"There was no miracle cure, that's for sure," Henderson said.
The Bulldogs started 14-15, including 2-7 in the SEC, and looked nothing like a team that would come close to being a factor in the NCAA postseason. Over time, they started to play better.
Center fielder Jake Mangum credits the coaching staff with giving the offense a "stubborn" identity that has served it well throughout its turnaround.
"We never gave up," Mangum said. "Our coaching staff continued to push us every day, and they're still pushing us."
The Bulldogs gained confidence with good performances in the second half of the season against some of the nation's top teams. Mississippi State swept three-game series in SEC play against Arkansas and Florida to finish the regular season 31-25 overall and 15-15 in the conference.
That was enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and the Bulldogs have taken advantage of the opportunity, putting together a postseason run punctuated by huge moments to win close games. The Bulldogs were one strike from elimination in a regional early this month before Elijah MacNamee hit a three-run homer to beat host Florida State.
MacNamee had another walk-off homer — a two-run shot — to beat Vanderbilt last weekend in the first game of their super regional in Nashville. The win that clinched a spot in the CWS also had plenty of drama. Mississippi State jumped ahead 6-3 in the top of ninth inning before Vanderbilt tied the game in the bottom half. The Bulldogs finally prevailed after a four-run 11th.
Mangum said it's been stressful and thrilling at the same time. Henderson said it's just part of the postseason.
"You've got to get comfortable playing tight games and winning late," Henderson said. "You just have to, especially on the road. It's part of the deal. You signed up for it. Embrace it, love it, appreciate it and be grateful for the opportunity to compete at Mississippi State.
"If you can be grateful for the opportunity, it can turn your perspective in the right direction."
Henderson, the head coach at Kentucky from 2009 to 2016, has been grateful for a second chance to lead an SEC program and said he would "absolutely" like to remain at Mississippi State and keep the current coaching staff intact. The man who will make that decision — athletic director John Cohen — coached the Bulldogs from 2009 to 2016 and knows Henderson better than most.
Cohen coached at Kentucky for five seasons before coming to Mississippi State, and Henderson was his pitching coach. Cohen said Henderson "has a great baseball mind" and he "hasn't taken anything off the table" when it comes to the coaching search.
Like everyone else at Mississippi State, the AD is just happy the Bulldogs are still playing baseball in mid-June after the season's rough start.
"They have all the excuses in the world why this shouldn't happen, but it happened because they didn't use any excuses," Cohen said. "To me, that's what I'm most proud of."