OMAHA, Neb. – In the middle of his post-game interview inside a locker room at TD Ameritrade Park, Jake Mangum had a conversation with Ethan Small.
"You remember that night, in Rice (Hall)?" Mangum asked. "Oh, no. You weren't there were you?"
"Oh yeah, you were," Mangum said. "In Rice Hall, we made a promise we were going to bring a national championship. We fell short, brother, but we fought like hell doing it."
"We came twice, though," Small said.
"Came to Omaha twice, just couldn't–"
It was July 5, 2015. Mississippi State's freshman class gathered in a room in Rice Hall, a dormitory on MSU's campus. There were 16 players present. Only five of them – Mangum, Small, Peyton Plumlee, Trysten Barlow and Keegan James – were in the locker room after Thursday's loss to Louisville in the College World Series.
The main takeaway from the freshmen's meeting was as straightforward as Mangum made it sound in his conversation with Small.
"We made a promise we were going to bring the first national championship to Mississippi State," Mangum said. "No matter what it took."
That's what Mangum thinks, anyway. Sitting next to his now former head coach on the dais after getting eliminated from the CWS, Mangum had strong words for what he thinks Lemonis can do for Mississippi State.
"You're going to bring the first national championship to this baseball program," Mangum said. "You are. And it's going to be awesome. I can't wait to see it."
Mississippi State has made it to the College World Series 11 times. Mangum was a part of two of those trips. He will not be a part of any future ones, but he thinks they're coming.
So do the players who have been through so much with him.
"You have guys on this team now that have been to Omaha twice," Small said. "They've failed in Omaha twice. That's a big part of it. They're going to come back next year and take giant steps. You have several future first-rounders on this team, and the recruiting is going well. Coach Lemonis has this program in a way better spot than it has been recently."
Small said the unique thing about Mississippi State baseball is that the program can be good regardless of who is leading the way. Last year, the Bulldogs made it to the College World Series in spite of a mid-season coaching change. This season, they made it back in much better shape thanks to the stability Lemonis provided.
Still, State was closer to winning it all in 2018 than it was in 2019. Small said that's a product of just how hard it is to win games in Omaha.
"This tournament can be an absolute crapshoot," Small said. "Once you get here, it's anyone's game."
If it's anyone's game, then could it be it the Bulldogs'?
Mississippi State loses plenty of players, but it brings back a lot of its most important ones. While the team loses the likes of Mangum and Small, it brings back the likes of first baseman Tanner Allen and starting pitcher JT Ginn.
While it loses Elijah MacNamee and Peyton Plumlee, it brings back Justin Foscue and Eric Cerantola, who sources inside the building think will be State's Saturday starter in 2020.
It's certainly not ideal to lose the caliber of players Mississippi State is watching go. A plethora of juniors, including Small, is on the way out. Bullpen cogs Colby White, Trysten Barlow and Keegan James are likely all gone. Junior catcher Dustin Skelton does not have much incentive to stay either. Not to mention senior pitchers Jared Liebelt and Cole Gordon.
Rising sophomores Brandon Smith and Bryce Brock will need to be stout on the mound in their second seasons. Seniors Riley Self, Spencer Price, Jack Eagan and Tyler Spring all have opportunities to step up too. Lemonis needs Smith to compete with Cerantola and red-shirt freshman Christian MacLeod for a spot on the starting rotation. Eagan could be in that mix as well.
In the field, junior Rowdey Jordan likely transitions from left field to center. Junior Josh Hatcher and sophomore Brad Cumbest will probably flank either side of him. Sophomore Luke Hancock is the most likely candidate to replace Skelton behind the plate. Sophomore Hayden Jones could give him a run for his money.
The infield shlook almost identical to the way it did during the latter half of the 2019 season. Allen at first, Foscue at second, junior Jordan Westburg at shortstop and senior Gunner Halter replacing Marshall Gilbert at third.
Lemonis was fortunate to inherit the talent pool he did when he arrived in Starkville a year ago. He'll have to coach a lot harder in his second season at State than he did in the first.
Like Small said, it's the players who make the difference. And while the pitching staff will look drastically different next year, the departing players believe the makeup is still there to be successful.
"The team moving forward, the guys coming in and the guys that are here, they want to be back and I know that they want it," MacNamee said. "I know it hurt a lot of the younger guys (to lose at the CWS), but the talent level is there."
More: Why JT Ginn's College World Series start gives Mississippi State baseball hope for future
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