Mississippi State will square off with UCLA in the College World Series championship series beginning Monday at 7 p.m. CT. Find out what both teams had to say in Sunday's Pre-Championship Series Press Conference.
An interview with:
THE MODERATOR: Let's start with comments from our coaches and we'll start with Coach Cohen. Please begin.
COACH COHEN: We're certainly excited about this opportunity against a great UCLA ballclub that's very well coached, managed very, very well. It's obvious when you look at their club they don't make a lot of mistakes. They don't make errors. They're very efficient offensively. They have a great pitching staff and one of the great closers in all of college baseball.
But we're excited about that opportunity. I feel like we've had really solid preparation, and I know that John's had a similar experience, but after you have the 900th person ask you what would this mean to your school and to you and your players, and that's a very valid question. But I think our kids are really grounded and just looking forward to this opportunity. I think the one thing that our kids have been able to do is have fun through it all. Through three hours and an airplane hangar in Charlottesville, Virginia, they had fun. When they're practicing, they're having fun. When they hang out on the bench, they're having fun.
So that's our identity. It's part of who we are, we're going to continue to do that. We're going to do our very best against one of the great teams and great coaching staffs in the country today.
THE MODERATOR: Coach Savage?
COACH SAVAGE: Well, I feel very similar. I have a ton of respect for Coach Cohen and their program and their players. They've kind of gone down the same path that we did. They didn't win their conference. They went on the road in the Super Regionals like we did and had a terrific run through Virginia. We had to go to Fullerton. They won their bracket in three games as we did.
So I see a lot of similarities. They've got terrific pitching, great starters. Their bullpen is as good a bullpen in the country. When you have two guys coming out of the bullpen with 22 wins and zero starts, that's hard to describe.
Offensively, they're tough minded. They're versatile. They can run. They have left handed hitters, right handed power, of course. So we're honored and privileged to be in this position. And given the opportunities, we have good players. They know how to play. They like each other. They like to compete. There are a lot of qualities I think on both sides of the ball that really sets up for a great National Championship series. So we're excited and looking forward to the challenge.
Q. Adam, how do you get yourself psychologically ready for that?
ADAM PLUTKO: It's really exciting. It's been a long road to get here. I've taken the ball Friday night the last two years. So preparation is not much different, you know? I'm just going to focus on what I do and executing pitches and that's pretty much it.
Q. Kendall, Wes and Pat and Adam, Kendall and Wes, your thoughts on UCLA's student athletes, their style of play, what do you admire about UCLA? And for Adam and Pat, what do you admire about the style of play of Mississippi State?
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Yeah, I agree with Coach Savage when he says there are a lot of similarities between the two teams here. The way they compete is one thing that really sticks out to me. Watching them in the hotel room at the Double Tree and watching them on TV, I really see how they compete. They don't give into situations. It's a lot like our team.
This is going to be a great series starting tomorrow, and we're looking forward to it.
WES REA: Like Kendall said, just really similar to what both of these coaches said. We have tremendous respect for UCLA and know the kind of ballclub they are. They know how to win, I feel like. That is how you get here. They know how to win and that's why both of these teams are in the situation they're in right now. I think it's going to be a tremendous series, a lot of respect for those guys and may the best man win. Adam, what's not to like about Mississippi State's team? Big Wes Rea gives a hug to the umpire after he punches him out and says you missed that one and walks away. So there are not too many guys in the country that can do that. They're likeable guys. Played with Adam Frazier this summer, and nice slow drawl, and smooth talker. They're a fun ballclub to watch.
PAT VALAIKA: Yeah, Mississippi State's a great team. They play real loose and have a lot of fun. We have a lot of respect for them. They're a great team. They come from the SEC, and that is great baseball. They have fantastic beards as well.
Q. Kendall and Wes, I'll get this out of the way here. Have you seen the YouTube video of your coach interviewing Scott Mitchell and what are your thoughts about it?
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Yeah, our players have a group meet that we can all communicate on, and yesterday we posted it on there. So I'm sure everybody on our team has seen it. But the most impressive part was to see Jim Ellis, our radio announcer that many years ago and how well he looked and how good of shape he was in. So I think that was the funniest part. From what I hear, that wasn't the only one that they did while they were playing with Mr. Mitchell. So I think maybe we can get our hands on the rest of them.
WES REA: Yeah, I don't have a comment on that.
Q. Adam, how much pressure do you pitchers feel with the 180 batting average of the other side of the ball, just trying to do what you have to do when you know the offense may not be as pro civic?
ADAM PLUTKO: I'm not sure there is a lot of pressure there. We've played with each other all year long and there is a lot of trust. So I mean, I'm sure you can look at it one way and say that is a lot of pressure to hold a team. But at the same time there is a lot of trust in the guys behind you. We feel with the best teams in the country, there are that our fielding percentage is pretty good. And the trust comes from the defensive side too as well as the offensive side.
Q. Adam and Pat, was there a point I know it's hard to predict you'd go this far, but was there a point in the season where you guys kind of knew you had this kind of team?
PAT VALAIKA: I think we've been getting better all year. Each series throughout the year we've continued to strive and get better and grow as a team. I wouldn't pinpoint one series that I knew. But one thing that comes to mind is the Fullerton Super Regional. We kind of came together as a team. No one thought we'd win a game there, and that was really special.
ADAM PLUTKO: For me, it was actually we beat LMU two out of three, but we lost on that Sunday. So it was kind of like a wake up call, I felt, for our team. We all came pretty close together after that and we said, you know, we've got to play better. We've got to finish weekends, and we've got to handle details better. That is when I felt like we started playing a better style of baseball.
Q. Kendall and Adam, I guess, being on opposite sides of the brackets and a couple time zones away as well, how much did you know about each other's teams coming into the series? And what have you discovered since?
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: To see what they've done all year, we noticed with the social media and everything that's out there, it's kind of easy to find out what other teams are doing across the country. But for us, once we saw them playing in the Fullerton Super Regional, then we really started noticing things and we knew they were on the other side of the bracket.
For us to kind of notice everyone on the other side of the bracket is one thing that we did. It's hard not to see, hey, if you make it to the National Championship, who might you be matched up against. So for us, we started noticing the Regional, Super Regionals that time of year.
ADAM PLUTKO: Yeah, with everything that ESPN did this year with the Bases Loaded and all that kind of stuff, you were able to watch a lot of other teams around the country. I really started watching teams on both sides of the bracket. It didn't matter, the SEC, and the Pac 12 and ACC, all of those teams. It was a really fun couple of weeks to watch college baseball.
Q. Wes and Kendall, I know as a team y'all travel together all the time, and I know it's different cities, but to be here in Omaha for a week plus, a different town together, a hotel, the practice, the games. Has that drawn y'all even that much closer together as a team?
WES REA: I don't think so. This team has been close since day one. I feel like that's where our confidence came from. Just the team chemistry we've had from the fall. It's been unbelievable. It's like a team I've never been a part of. So I really don't think a venue or a different set up is going to change that. We've been doing the same thing we've been doing all year long and it's work, so why change it now?
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Right, when we were at home, like Wes said, even when we're not playing baseball, it could be 8 or 10 of us go to the golf course or go fishing, things like that. It's a special group of guys that we really don't do things alone, it's always with each other. So to get here and be around each other every day is the same thing just like we're in Starkville. That's the one thing that I've noticed in this team that I haven't noticed the past three years is how much we hang out even when we're not on the baseball field.
Q. Kendall or Wes, I guess what's that say about the baseball team when the size is similar, but maybe when you look at it from a national perspective, you have Los Angeles and Starkville. But when it comes on to the field, the styles are so similar.
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Yeah, I've never been to the west coast, so I can't speak for them. But for us, the things we do outside of baseball are a lot different, I'm sure. But once you get down to it, baseball is baseball no matter where you come from. They have a bun of great baseball players on their team as we do also. So for us to go out and play baseball on 90 feet bases and a 60 inch mound is something we've done since we're growing up and I know they've done the same thing. So outside of baseball, yeah, it's different, but once you step on the field, baseball players just play.
WES REA: I don't know how much deer hunting or bass fishing they do in Los Angeles, so off the field is probably going to be a little bit different. But, yeah, two teams playing for a national title, I mean, they're both doing something right in my opinion.
So the style of play, I don't know how similar it may be. It may be different, but we're both here for a reason, and that's just something that you can say good about both of us. We're just two respectable teams. No matter what the style of play, we're both here for a reason.
Q. Adam and Pat, what about looking from the LA perspective into small little Starkville?
PAT VALAIKA: Yeah, I mean, it's two totally different worlds. LA is a big city; you have the beach and a lot of things to do. Starkville is Starkville. I mean, I can't say I've ever visited. But some bass fishing does sound pretty good, so maybe after the season ends I'll hit up Starkville.
But, yeah, as they said, two great teams. Doesn't matter where you come from. We're still playing the same game. It's going to be a hell of a series, and I can't wait.
ADAM PLUTKO: We do the bass fishing on the video games and big game hunting and all that kind of stuff, so it's pretty similar there. No, you know, it's the style of baseball. Where you're from doesn't matter. Major leagues proves that. Guys from the Dominican that have nothing or guys from here that have everything. It's just baseball when it comes down to it.
Q. Kendall, John said he figures you may be knocking on the door this week to convince him to get on the mound at some point. Do you feel like you can contribute in some fashion this week?
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Yes, sir. I've already talked to him right after the game the other day. So I'll be knocking at his door, but that's up to their decision. For me to be honest with them and to really open up to if I can't help my team, then that's what I need to do. For me to be honest with Coach Cohen and Coach Thompson when it comes down to it, making a decision, that's the only thing I can ask, and the only thing they can ask from me is to be honest with how I feel.
Q. Kendall and Wes, it seems that you guys flip a switch once you get to the ballpark between goofing off and doing whatever it is you do with the bench mob and everything and wanting to cut your heart out on the field. Can you talk about mentally flipping that switch and going to a different kind of place?
WES REA: Yeah, I think good teams can do that when it's time to have a little fun, but they know when it's business time too. So I think all great teams know when it's time to flip the switch on, like you said.
We show up on the ballpark, and it's go time. There's no time to play around and mess around. I know UCLA must do a hell of a job with that too because they're here with us.
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Yeah, for myself and Wes to be honored to be captains on this team, but we're not the only two that hold that honor up there.
For Adam Frazier and for Brett Pirtle to come in in his first year and things like that to be competitive, the guys on this team are so competitive that if we're playing putt putt at the other place, the other day we went, everybody wants to win. It's not the fact that we're goofing around and all of that, but the competitive nature of everyone on this team. I'm sure UCLA can say the same thing for their team. That's what gets ballclubs to this point.
Q. Obviously Mississippi State has great baseball tradition, but what would winning it all mean to this program?
KENDALL GRAVEMAN: Like Coach Cohen said earlier, we're honored to be here. It's something that we still have some work to do. It's not over.
But for us to be here and the rich tradition, the Rafael Palmeiros, the Will Clarks, the people that have gone through here that haven't had the opportunity, but have been great ballplayers at Mississippi State, to have the opportunity to do what we're going to do starting Monday is something that's special. It really resonates with Starkville and the people of Starkville.
WES REA: Yeah, just a quick story maybe to explain what these people back home are feeling right now. My good buddy works for Sanderson Seed. They provide corn and everything. So they work in a corn field all summer long. He called me after we won the game the other day and said he looked across the corn field and everybody was jumping around, going crazy. So that is the kind of thing people are doing back home.
It's just small town type living, and they haven't been able to say we have a National Championship to claim. I know UCLA's a very prestigious program and they've brought National Championships back home to Los Angeles. But the people in Starkville, I'll let them answer that to see what happens after the series.
THE MODERATOR: Our first question for coaches.
Q. Coach Cohen, talk about how the rebuilding was so difficult in Mississippi since you're 1 of 2 programs are going to play for a National Championship? And Coach Savage, why is it so difficult to be overshadowed with all of the other programs at UCLA and especially with where your program is situated?
COACH COHEN: I think probably every successful coach in this country has had to rebuild or be in a situation where your program's not where you want it at a given moment. So it's always a challenge, and it's a challenge when you play in the Pac 12 or the SEC because when you're down, everybody around you wants it to stay that way. That's what makes it a bigger challenge.
I think maybe in some other leagues in Division I, if you're down, can you go like that. Through recruiting and some other things, you can rejuvenate things quickly, but not in these types of conferences because the programs around you didn't get to that elevated position overnight, and they're not going to relinquish that overnight either. It's just so competitive. I'm not going to say it was a struggle, but it was a challenge.
Lane Burroughs is not on our staff anymore. He's a Division I head coach at Northwestern Louisiana, had a big impact. It was a lot of work.
In fact, Coach Thompson, our associate head coach says this all the time, he has the exact number of days we've been in Mississippi State. We'll say this is day whatever 1500 whatever it is. And he'll say it took us a while to do the thing that's we wanted to do. So that part is really satisfying.
But there are other things we want to accomplish. You don't want to look in the rear view mirror. We want to move forward. We feel like these kids have accomplished a lot.
The neat thing about it for us, and I'll end it here, because I know John needs to answer this, but our seniors from our first recruiting class are now seniors. Our first wave, that first cycle of kids are now seniors. To have them here doing what they've done, that's pretty gratifying as well.
COACH SAVAGE: Coming from UCLA, the first thing you think of is Coach Wooden, and he's the coach of all coaches. He set the ground work for so many staffs, so many programs outside of basketball that it's hard to put into words what he's meant to the UCLA family, the UCLA community, and all coaches across the entire country from football, basketball, baseball, everything. So it goes to his messages, his pyramid of success. A lot of people have part of that in their coaching philosophy.
So we look up to Coach Wooden. He's been our leader forever and ever, and that's where it starts. UCLA baseball, this is our ninth year. Like Coach said, it takes time. It takes time to build that sort of environment and attitude that you want in your players and it doesn't happen overnight. It's not only tough going up, but it's tougher staying there.
Like Coach said, with as many people around you that have good players, good facilities, good weather, certainly finances, it's challenging. You have to have a lot of pieces in the right place. Fortunately for us we've had some good players, we've had some star players, some grind players. A combination of things. It's hard work. From Coach Peters to Coach Bruce to Coach Silverman, their recruiting efforts. To everybody. Their academic support, strength coach, everything matters in a good program. I think until you realize that, you're not going to be in a position that the great programs are.
It's through hard work and through everyday details, setting a culture to where you give yourself an opportunity. Your preparation, and the results are tough. It's baseball. You don't win every time you go out there. We'd all like to, but it's much more of a difficult game than sometimes people realize. But if you prepare and you set yourself up, then good things eventually will come your way.
Q. John, is there one thing or a couple things you can take from 2010 that help you this week?
COACH SAVAGE: You know, playing for a National Championship in 2010 against a Southeastern Conference team, I just got to see how good South Carolina was, Coach Tanner and his staff, they lost the first game of that year and battled back and were very, very competitive and a great team. It's similar in the sense that there are two brackets, and you focus on your bracket, you focus on your game. You definitely have an eye on the other one. We're familiar with Oregon State, and we know how good they are, and they beat them twice. I think that says a lot. They were a national seed.
I think we have one player from 2010, Cody Regis who has been to Omaha three years out of four, so I think he's given them some insight in terms of what to expect. You've just got to go with it and believe in your team in the time that you're in it.
Q. Coach Cohen, you came here as a player with the same dreams your players brought here. What's it mean to you to be the coach that brought these players here and have them in this position?
COACH COHEN: It's a pretty special feeling. I've told our players it was obvious that it was a thrill then, but everything about Omaha has become exponential. The stadium, the national media, every part of it has just gotten better and better. It's a real credit to many people, the NCAA, the city of Omaha, and certainly ESPN. I mean, it's become an incredible event. I've heard and I've seen and I've been back a few times to watch. This is an incredible event.
As a player, nothing seems to be as big a deal to your player because you don't have anything to reflect upon your experiences. It's more special. Because when you're older, you don't take as many things for granted.
Q. The Pac 12 has won 27 national baseball titles and the SEC nine. Neither of your programs have won the national title, but what makes those two conferences so tough in this setting to win more than half of all NCAA baseball titles?
COACH SAVAGE: Just players, great coaches, depth, tools, you know, recruiting. Both of those conferences are getting some of the best players that are going to college. Professional baseball is signing a lot of players right now. It's difficult to be able to hold on to guys. I don't care where you're at. They're going to find them.
It's a rich, rich tradition, from Rod Dedeaux to Jerry Kindall to Marc Marquez; and, you know, you've had some phenomenal programs and coaches. So I'm just honored to be a small part of it, really. You know, trying to make UCLA a relevant program in the national scene year in and year out. I was at USC in the late '90s, and that's when my first introduction to LSU was in '98 and again in 2000 in Skip Bertman. Coach Polk, of course, at Mississippi State, those are the founding fathers of college baseball and those conferences. You know, I'm just honored to be, like I said, a part of it, and trying to carry the Pac 12 flag in the national picture.
COACH COHEN: Yeah, certainly, and I don't think you can I know the ACC hasn't won a National Championship in a while, but it's hard to leave them out of this conversation when you consider the quality of baseball they're playing as well. Just a phenomenal league. I just think college baseball is at an all time high, in terms of the level of baseball that's being played on the field, and the players that are being produced, certainly the Pac 12 and the SEC, and the Big 12, the ACC. I mean, just great, great, great. When you look at a club like Louisville and what they've done out of the Big East, I think there has been an incredible tradition, as John just mentioned. You can't have those conversations without talking about the Skip Bertmans, Rod Popes, Rod Dedeauxs. Just to be sitting here is a humbling experience. But you do know that you represent a lot. When you're the loan representative of the SEC, it means a lot. I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and if I got within eye shot away of Bear Bryant, it was a frozen moment in time. We really take those things seriously, seriously, as I know UCLA does. I've always lived in a college town, and I've always just been enamored with college athletics and certainly the SEC and the Big 12 and all of these conferences represent the highest level of that.
Q. John Cohen, your pitching plans for this week? And could you give us some insight into your thinking there?
COACH COHEN: We're probably going Trevor Fitts is probably going to start tomorrow. We're going to finalize that this afternoon. Certainly I always feel like that is the question that always gets asked. But for us, it's as important who is available for us in the middle of the game. Certainly Chad Girodo and Ross Mitchell among others will be available. But for now, it's Trevor Fitts. We'll confirm that this afternoon.
Q. I was wondering, you guys were originally supposed to practice here and now you're going back to Creighton. Is that a routine superstition thing for your guys or what was the change?
COACH COHEN: I just looked at the weather and thought it was going to rain. I felt like it would probably be easier to get on their surface over there. I don't know, maybe a little easier parking or something. I don't know. I felt like that's what we've been doing the last week so we'll probably stay with that.
Q. Coach Savage, you mentioned Coach Wooden and your 100 plus UCLA championships. How gnawing is it to know baseball hasn't had one of those? And does it surprise you that it hasn't?
COACH SAVAGE: It's not a surprise because there are only a few teams that have one, certainly USC having 12 and LSU and it goes down from there. There are fours and threes and twos. So it's not like they hand them out. Let's be clear on that. You have to earn it.
Coach Adams, who I respect very much, was at UCLA for 30 years and came here in 1997. They had some great teams, some teams that were close. So we do pay attention to that. We do hear about that. We're aware of it. But I think right now our goal is to be ourselves because that's been good enough. We need to come out and play the way we're capable of and play Bruins baseball.
But a National Championship is always going to hang over any program that's an elite program that hasn't won one. You could problem mention 25 schools. We just happened to be playing for that one prize. You have to have at least a shot on goal, and we both do have that opportunity, but both teams have earned that right.
Q. I talked to Coach Thompson's players about the unique nature of this pitching staff. You kind of affirmed it and with the exception of Holder, there are really not a lot of true, traditional classic guys enrolled, but it works.
COACH COHEN: Yeah, it does. Butch has done a great job with our pitching staff. From the very beginning in the fall we've tried to structure it to where you're going to face left handers and come into this situation. Our kids feel really comfortable in that role. When we've removed from those roles, we've taken Ross and made him start and just the comfort level hasn't been there. It's a combination of things, what our club needs and what the young man is comfortable with, and we're trying to make both of those things work. So far it's worked nicely. I can't say enough things about Coach Thompson, Butch Thompson; he's done an amazing job with our pitching staff.
Q. Coach Cohen, Wes kind of gave us an idea of what the National Championship would mean to the folks back home? Can you add anything to that?
COACH COHEN: I have to agree with John. I think who would it not mean a lot to, you know? There are around 300 Division I schools, and I feel great about the fact that there are two standing, two left standing. Neither one of us are satisfied with that. But the minute your brain goes into what happens next, whatever, three, four days from now, you're starting to lose perspective of what got you here. I know that's John's perspective and our perspective.
It's kind of like a chess game; whoever loses that perspective first is going to have a disadvantage in this series.
I know it's a great question. If I were sitting in your shoes, I'd probably ask the same question. But we're going to practice here in 45 minutes, and that's what our focus is. I know exactly what our focus will be on and that is what they're going to eat, and that will be a huge focus to our club for sure.
Q. Coach Savage, when the bats changed and the power element got eliminated from the game, it almost seemed like your program from afar rubbed their hands together and said, cool, we want to play this way anyway. We were recruiting these type of kids anyway. Is that more or less accurate?
COACH SAVAGE: I think you'd say it's accurate because of the recent success. Pitching has been our main I don't want to say focus but I guess we've had some really good recruits that have passed up professional baseball. Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, of course would be two significant guys that established our program. It's been pitching that's kind of put our stamp on our program.
I really thought in '10 when the bats were somewhat still, I thought the bats hurt us in 2011 with Cole and Bauer, because it made some average pitchers closer to those guys. Those guys could pitch against any bats. Then I think we kind of found our footing on it a little bit again in '12.
So from afar, I think you'd have to say that. It's West Coast a little bit. We just don't have the physicalness as I look at it as the Southeastern Conference, and the bodies, and the speed. You look at our teams, and sometimes I look out there and say, oh, God, we're stretching. It's not a real physical looking team. I think everybody in the room knows that, but they're ballplayers. They're baseball players, and we have good players and we have talent. But it's just a little different way of creating a team.
So I think the bat has helped. I've also learned a lot from Coach Gillespie during that time when I got to USC and the bats were hot. He taught me the emphasis on pitching and defense and details. So it's a transformation, a little bit, but at the same time you have to bob and weave and you have to make adjustments in this game, rather than sit there and complain about what bat manufacturer is making them and the size of the ballpark.
I mean, come on, we keep on talking about certain things, and it gets back down to good teams and good players. That's why you see, I think, teams not being in a position where they are in terms of excuse wise. Then you see some teams that are still locked in and focused on what they need to do.
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