While the Missouri Tigers tried to practice Tuesday like they would for any other game, there was a constant reminder that the upcoming weekend’s games are anything but normal.
The letters “NCAA”, emblazoned in deep blue on the grass behind home plate, indicated Taylor Stadium will be the site of a four-team regional tournament, the first step on the road to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
For the past four years, Missouri has played on a field featuring those letters. Last year’s venue was more than 1,700 miles away, at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. The Tigers beat UCLA, UC Irvine and the host Waves to win the Pepperdine regional before falling in the Super Regional at Cal State Fullerton.
While this year’s team won’t have to travel for its postseason opener at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Kent State, the experience of last year’s regional is still fresh in the players’ minds.
“We have a lot of guys that have played in the postseason,” coach Tim Jamieson said Tuesday after practice. “That’s an advantage for us. They’ll be able to help the guys that haven’t played in a regional.”
While the Tigers return most of their starting lineup from last year’s team, they are still young. Missouri’s top two starting pitchers, Aaron Crow and Rick Zagone, are only sophomores, but they already have postseason experience.
“Crow and Zagone pitched in the regional last year out in Pepperdine,” Jamieson said. “They started and beat UCLA and Pepperdine, so I think that’s a tremendous advantage for us.”
Senior first baseman John McKee echoed his coach’s statements.
“We have a lot of young pitchers, but a lot of the positional players have been there before,” McKee said. “Even guys that didn’t play much last year have the experience of being there and what it feels like to be at a regional. That’s going to help us out immensely.”
With many holdovers from last year’s team, McKee said the older players are attempting to explain what to expect this weekend. Freshman catcher Trevor Coleman, however, said the upperclassman are having trouble articulating last year’s experience.
“Coming back from Malibu last year, they almost couldn’t explain it to me,” the Big 12 Freshman of the Year laughed. “For them to go out there and win it, they said it’s like nothing you’ll ever experience. They said, ‘You gotta do it for yourself.’
“They just felt a great sense of accomplishment for them to come together as a team at the right time and achieve a goal of theirs. They hope they can share it with us this year.”
Because the 2007 Tigers include many members of the 2006 team, comparisons can be made.
“Particularly the last few weeks of the season, I see a team that’s gotten hot offensively,” Jamieson said. “I see a team that’s eager to win. We’ve seen a lot of guys like Brock (Bond), Evan (Frey), Jake (Priday) and John McKee who got hot at the end and helped us score more runs.”
Statistics don’t measure heart, however. In that key area, Jamieson said the 2007 team has a distinct advantage over last year’s team.
“Last year’s team didn’t come together as a team until that (postseason) run,” he said as his team worked together in the background to roll up the tarp. “It’s hard to put your finger on it though. Everyone that was returning had an opportunity to learn from problems that we had last year when guys were a little bit selfish at times. But I think too is that this team is a collection of good personalities. It’s just more a collection of who the guys are.”
Though he didn’t know the details regarding the 2006 Tigers, Coleman agreed with his coach about the team’s ability to bond.
“From the start, it was real cool to see how the upperclassmen really accepted the underclassmen and included us in the team,” Coleman said. “We gelled from there. You take baseball out of this, and we’d be a big group of friends. You could put me in a room with any three people on the team, and we’d have a blast. It doesn’t matter who you pick, we all really enjoy each other’s company.
“We’re friends first of all, brothers on the field, and we have each other’s back. It’s a lot of fun.”
Friendships and close relationships make for a feel-good story, but there is more to a successful baseball team than fun, Coleman admitted. He added that the fun the 2007 team has helps them succeed on the field.
“It’s almost like a comfort level,” the catcher said. “I know other people on the team well, and since we sweat and bled together in the fall and did everything we had to do to get to this point, we know that each person wants a championship as much as the other.”
The comparisons between the 2006 and 2007 team end quickly when the location of the regional is mentioned. Jameson said the fact that the weekend’s games give Missouri a home-field advantage will help this year’s team both on the field and in the community.
“I’m excited about playing in Columbia, Missouri,” Jamieson said, “and giving the people of Columbia an opportunity to experience an NCAA regional.”
Coleman said he is hoping for a big turnout this weekend to help support his team.
“We want to show the community of Columbia what Missouri baseball is all about,” Coleman said. “If we haven’t done anything so far to put ourselves on the map in the community of Columbia, hopefully by hosting a national regional we can open the eyes of the people in Columbia.”
After a pause, Coleman looked past this weekend’s action.
“People outside of Columbia will know Columbia, Missouri, because of the Missouri baseball team.”