Maybe you've travelled down South in these United States. It's obviously a different lifestyle, different culture, etc.
Those differences apply to baseball as well. While football may be King down in SEC territory, baseball isn't that far from the throne either.
Some of my favorite baseball stories involve our friends to the South. One of my favorite Illini stories of all time involves the 2009 team venturing down to Baton Rouge to take on top-ranked LSU in Week 3 of the season. That Illini team was an intriguing mix of young and old with future stars like Willie Argo, Josh Parr, Casey McMurray and Pete Cappetta playing major roles as underclassmen mixed with veterans like Brandon Wikoff and Dominic Altobelli.
One of those wily veterans was senior righty Ben Reeser. In the rubber match of the three-game set, Reeser went out and threw about 75% changeups and the Illini clinched the series with a 6-2 win. This did not please the boys from Red Stick nor the Tiger faithful. I fielded a phone call from then Illini recruiting coordinator Eric Snider (now at Louisville) as the Illini were boarding the bus for the airport with the help of some police officers
"These people are pissed," Snider said.
They are equally passionate just to the east in Mississippi -- perhaps moreso. One of my former players once described playing right field in Mississippi as something that has always reminded me of this: https://youtu.be/Xql2aNopsy8?t=363 (I apologize if anyone is offended by Robin Williams impersonation of a Louisiana psychic. When the former player told me the story, it was all I could think of).
At least in Louisiana, the folks have the New Orleans pro teams to distract them. Mississippi doesn't have any big-league teams and just two minor-league baseball teams in Jackson and Biloxi, respectively. With no professional sports palaces to fund, the people of Mississippi sink their money into college facilities -- even at the junior college level. Have you seen what some of those squads in Last Chance U have???
(Side note: I just realized I buried the lede. Is that even important in blogging? You're all aware our beloved Illini 9 made the NCAA tournament, right? If you weren't, here's the living under-a-rock version: we're the No. 2 seed in the Oxford, Miss. regional. Ole Miss is the top seed, Clemson is No. 3 and Jacksonville State is No. 4)
I love this draw. As I told Robert, I really believe this is a winnable regional. Ole Miss was not great down the stretch. The Rebels dropped six games in a row at one point during the final two weeks of the season -- a sweep at the hands of rival Mississippi State in Oxford, a mid-week loss to Arkansas State and the first two games of the Tennessee series.
Now, the Rebels got hot in the SEC tournament, winning three games in the loser's bracket to reach the SEC title game before losing to Vandy. Prior to that run, the Rebels were in serious jeopardy of being a No. 2 seed.
As for Clemson, the Tigers dropped four consecutive ACC series to Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State. They salvaged their season by beating Wake Forest in the season-ending series. Then they dropped the first game of the ACC tournament to Boston College.
Now, of course, what we haven't talked about yet is our own Illini's performance in the Big 10 tournament -- 0-2, barbecue is never a good thing. However, I liked the way Dan Hartleb and his squad approached the sudden time off. They brought the squad back to Champaign and had them scrimmaging over the weekend and, according to Illinois staff, the scrimmages were pretty spirited.
And I think there's something unspoken here. And it brings us full circle back to our opener. In baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, people are often ascribed to certain traits or talent levels depending upon where you live. Northern ballplayers hear all-too-often about how much better their Southern counterparts are and the creates a chip on the shoulder. And that chip can sometimes fuel some pretty impressive performances when the lights are brightest.
I'll have more of a preview later in the week. Check back on Thursday or Friday for more!