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Mississippi State fills the stands, UCLA wins Game 1 of the CWS

OMAHA, Neb. -- Things would have gone slightly better for Ed Tonore if he hadn't hit a deer at 75 mph with his Chevy Tahoe on his way to the College World Series.

"Two-hundred-pound deer," Tonore said, "Ten thousand dollars worth of damage."

Tonore's Tahoe is in the shop until Wednesday, which might be about perfect for the native of Madison, Miss. By that time Mississippi State hopes to have wrapped up the school's first team championship in any sport.

That's why they're here by the thousands, these Bulldogs fans flocking to Omaha for the CWS championship series. Their school -- one of the most tradition-rich in the sport -- is oh-for-135. That would be years since the school was founded in 1878 without one of those championships.

"That," said Gary Simons, a 1974 Mississippi State grad yearning for that first title, "would be as big an event that happened in Mississippi in sports, ever."

Bigger than Archie Manning and all he brought to the pride of the state?

"Way bigger than Archie," Simons said.

When I tweeted that out before UCLA's 3-1 win in Game 1 of the best-of-3 championship series, it caused a minor stir. Rebels and Dawgs going at each other over baseball is kind of a story in itself. In late June it is relevant that Mississippi State, Archie Manning and college baseball can still be a narrative.

That other sport down south still has a couple of months to go before kicking off. For now, there are cowbells in Omaha. The lines ringing TD Ameritrade Park for tickets showed the passion that has resulted in seven consecutive BCS titles for the SEC. That passion made the pregame look just like one of those SEC tailgates.

"It's going to be 20-1 in that stadium," said Rusty Mullen, a 46-year old Mississippi State fan, referring to the ratio of Bulldogs to Bruins. "I ain't seen but like five [UCLA fans] since I've been here."

You take your thrills where you can get them in the SEC West. No, this wasn't quite the Egg Bowl or Archie or the Grove, but it was something special compared to what UCLA has done. The Bruins came into this series with 108 team championships to Mississippi State's zero.

Both schools are looking for their first baseball national championship, but unless the Bulldogs rally, the goose egg is going to stand at least another year. UCLA's David Berg set an NCAA record with his 24th save. Meanwhile, Mississippi State left eight men on base while it's two biggest sluggers -- Wes Rea and Hunter Renfroe -- went a combined oh-for-six.

Now the Bulldogs have to win two in a row to take the series and continue SEC baseball's dominance here. Southeastern Conference teams (South Carolina, LSU) have won three of the last four titles.

Mississippi State's only SEC football title came in 1941. In baseball, it revels in past glories achieved by Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen. Only 13 schools have made more trips to Omaha than MSU's nine.

"On my bucket list about 20 years ago I wrote up the 44 greatest sporting events in the world. I've been to about 35 of them," Tonore said. "Everybody asked me what I like the most. If I was got to an event every year, it would be the Masters and the College World Series.

"The fans are so laid back. Football in the SEC, you don't like each other."

Tonore had driven 11 hours from Mississippi on Thursday when he handed the wheel over to a friend while driving near Rockport, Mo., about 90 minutes south of here. Thirty minutes later Bambi kissed the Tahoe.

"We hit that deer so hard," he said, "it was ridiculous."

Tonore's Bulldogs will need to start hitting, period. They were held to six well-spaced singles by a UCLA staff that has given up four runs in four CWS games while scoring only 11.

We are well into college baseball's small-ball era. UCLA has hit a total of 19 homers in 65 games. It is batting below .200 in the CWS. With the wind blowing in from center on Monday, outfielders could play so close to the infield at times it looked like they were backing up bases. That setup sucked the life out of a Mississippi State squad that came into the game leading the CWS in scoring, average and slugging.

In fact, the biggest play of the game came on a play that looked straight out of the SEC West. Rea, a first baseman, went knee-to-knee with UCLA's Brian Carroll as the Bruins' centerfielder crossed the bag at first on a wild throw. The 6-foot-5, 272-pound Rea, who was recruited by the likes of Alabama as an offensive lineman, lay on the infield momentarily before figuring he was still in one piece.

When Rea was asked before the series why he picked baseball over football, he said, "I can show them the [championship] ring and say, 'That's why.' "

Now we know why that ring has been so elusive. Two batters after Rea was laid out, UCLA's Eric Filia knocked in two runs with a single to make it 3-0 in the fourth. With the ball already dead in college and the Bruins rotation set up for Games 2 and 3, the Bulldogs may have blown another championship chance.

Not without the support, though, among the crowd of almost 26,000.

"There were all kinds of Mississippi State people," UCLA coach John Savage said. "We've embraced that kind of stadium-against-us philosophy. On the West Coast you don't that as much. We're a top-five, top-10 team, and we're fortunate to get 1,000 people. We're starting to draw better."

One game away from a 109th school championship, at this moment, does it matter?

 
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