HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Mississippi State University baseball Andy Cannizaro aptly summed up the kind of competition each of the four coaches in the Hattiesburg Regional said they were expecting this weekend.
"I think I saw where this regional was being called the "Group of Death," or something like that," Cannizaro said during a Thursday afternoon news conference at Taylor Park.
For the first time in 14 years and only the second time in the program's history, the University of Southern Mississippi was tapped as a regional host after winning a record 48 games. Twenty-five of those victories came during Conference USA play as Southern Miss won an outright regular-season championship.
Starting Friday, the Golden Eagles will welcome their guests _ MSU, University of South Alabama and University of Illinois-Chicago _ to a ballpark where Southern Miss has gone 24-6, including six walk-off victories.
The Golden Eagles (48-14), who were awarded a No. 1 regional seed for the first time, will face No. 4 UIC (39-15) at 1 p.m. Friday. No. 2 Mississippi State (36-24) will take on
Too boot, Southern Miss announced the regional had sold out in less than 48 hours. That means plenty of black-and-gold will be on display whenever the Golden Eagles take the diamond.
"The atmosphere will be electric," Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. "No one will be disappointed in the turnout, obviously."
And though Southern Miss and Illinois-Chicago will be meeting for the first time, UIC coach Mike Dee said he has clear memories of Taylor Park from a 1997 trip to Hattiesburg when he was University of Minnesota baseball.
"I've been here before and am familiar with the environment," Dee said. "It's a great environment and there is some interesting stuff going on down in that right-field corner."
Dee later was asked to elaborate.
"They liked to offer our guys a lot of advice," Dee said of the proximity of the Right Field Roost to the visitor's bullpen.
But none of the four coaches appeared to be kidding about the depth and difficulty of the teams in the regional.
Dee said prayer may be the only remedy after looking at a Golden Eagles' offense that ranked second nationally with a school-record 521 runs, with 85 home runs, fourth in scoring (8.4 runs per game) and seventh in slugging percentage (.502).
"After looking at their power numbers, I'm lighting candles, praying the wind is blowing in," Dee said.
But the Flames offer their own challenges. Left-hander Jake Dahlberg (10-2, 2.09 ERA) has been a three-year, Friday-night starter for UCI. He anchors a pitching staff that currently ranks second nationally in team ERA and has the nation's top-ranked defense playing behind it.
"You look at the numbers, and they pitch very, very well," Berry said. "As one person told me, 'They're going to give you everything you could want.'
"They're playing good baseball right now, or else they wouldn't be here."
Berry said left-hander Kirk McCarty (10-2, 2.96 ERA) would get the nod against an UCI team that hit .288, led by catcher Rob Calabrese's .357 batting average, 23 doubles and 48 RBIs.
Both South Alabama and MSU are no strangers to Southern Miss and Taylor Park, nor to each other.
The Jaguars and Golden Eagles are long-time foes with a long tradition of home-and-home season series. Likewise, Southern Miss and MSU are annual rivals, though the Bulldogs have not played in Hattiesburg since 2010.
The Golden Eagles went 3-0 against the Jaguars and Bulldogs this season, sweeping home-and-home against USA, while topping MSU at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
This spring, MSU and USA met three times, with the Bulldogs winning twice in Starkville and the Jaguars winning in Mobile, Ala.
"A lot of our players know their players, like we know Southern Miss' players and they know ours," USA coach Mark Calvi said. "A lot these kids have grown up together, have played together, the travel ball circuit and then the high school circuit. I think that makes for an exciting atmosphere.
"But I don't know if common opponents if it helps you or not, but I know we're excited to be here and excited about the game (Friday)."
And both MSU and USA are expected to bring considerable followings to Hattiesburg.
"I think it's going to be a good crowd (Friday) for both teams," Cannizaro said of the 6 p.m. showdown with the Jaguars. "I think it's going to be a good weekend for college baseball in the state of Mississippi.
"We played these guys three times, and they were three absolute dogfights. All three games were extremely close."
Which about sums up what is expected this weekend, dogfights and close games, in what Berry called the "one of the toughest regionals in the country.
"Personally, with our guys, we just need to stay the course," Berry said. "We've been a one-game-at-a time kind of team all year, trying not to get ahead of ourselves and concentrating on the opportunity that's in front of us, which is that game that's the most important, which is the one in front of us.
"It's been a long road since Feb. 17. We did a lot of great things during the regular season and we had a great run in tournament play. But you don't worship the past, and you don't neglect the present. We have to stay humble and stay with our approach."