Southeast Missouri State University baseball coach Mark Hogan received a pleasant surprise Monday when the NCAA released the field for its 64-team Division I Tournament.
"It feels like I'm going home," Hogan said.
The Indians, who locked up an automatic NCAA bid Saturday after winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, will head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., one of the 16 regional sites. Southeast (36-18) will play host Alabama (48-13) at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Florida Atlantic (43-18) will face Auburn (34-24) in the other first-round game of the double-elimination event.
Alabama is the regional's top seed, followed by Auburn, Florida Atlantic and Southeast.
Before coming to Southeast in 1995, Cape Girardeau native Hogan spent 13 seasons coaching in Alabama, the first eight at Wallace Junior College and the last five at Livingston University, a Division II school about 50 miles from Tuscaloosa.
"My family and I lived in Alabama for 13 years. We'll have many friends to call," a grinning Hogan said. "Personally, if I could have picked a place to go, I would have picked Alabama."
Hogan said Alabama's baseball program receives great fan support, which should make for an exciting regional, but he added, "I don't think anybody on our team will be overwhelmed by the situation. I think we can go down there and compete."
And speaking of fans, Hogan said he was a bit overwhelmed by the large turnout at Drury Lodge's Cedar Street Restaurant & Bar, where the Indians and their supporters gathered late Monday morning to watch the NCAA selection show on ESPN2.
"To see all these people out here on a holiday, it's just unbelievable," Hogan said. "Our fans have been great all year and this is just another tremendous example of that."
Hogan's players couldn't have agreed more.
"This crowd is really awesome," said senior second baseman Clemente Bonilla, the MVP of the OVC Tournament. "Southeast baseball is pretty big in Cape and hopefully it keeps getting bigger."
Said junior third baseman Denver Stuckey, "Our fans have been wonderful. We got a lot of support in Paducah and the more fans we can get for the regional, the better because I'm sure Alabama will have a lot of fan support."
Added senior right-hander Brad Purcell, the OVC Pitcher of the Year, "It's fantastic. I just love to see all this fan support. They've been great to us all year and I hope they follow us down there."
Which shouldn't be difficult, thanks to the NCAA selection committee grouping teams largely on geographic proximity. Tuscaloosa is about a six-hour drive from Cape Girardeau.
"It's not a bad trip at all for our fans to get there," Hogan said.
Southeast, which won the OVC regular-season and tournament championships, drew a formidable first-round opponent.
Sixth-ranked Alabama, which was awarded a No. 3 national seed, won the Southeastern Conference Tournament after placing second in the SEC during the regular season. The SEC is rated the nation's top conference this year and has seven teams in the NCAA field, the most by any league. Last year, the SEC had a record eight NCAA Tournament squads.
The Crimson Tide have been to the College World Series five times, with two appearances in the championship game. Alabama finished second in 1983 and 1997.
Alabama, while having a solid team batting average of .313, has a particularly impressive pitching staff. The Crimson Tide's 3.54 earned-run average ranks 12th nationally.
"They've got one of the premier programs in the country and they'll be a tremendous challenge," Hogan said.
Crimson Tide coach Jim Wells, in a statement issued by Alabama's media relations department, expressed respect for the Indians.
"The OVC is not as strong a conference as the SEC but in baseball it only takes some good pitching and a few hot hitters to make a run in the tournament," Wells said. "Any team still playing at this time of year is a pretty good team. We are going to spend the next 24 to 36 hours trying to learn as much as we can about Southeast Missouri."
Bonilla said he is glad to go to a regional with teams the Indians have not played this year.
"I think we'll be a big secret," he said. "Nobody will know much about us and that could work to our advantage."
Said senior center fielder Vern Hatton, "It doesn't matter where we went, we're confident. I believe in my teammates. We might take people by surprise, being from a no-name league."
***The Indians went 2-8 against NCAA Tournament teams this season. They were 0-3 against both Oklahoma and Southwest Missouri, 0-2 against Wichita State and 2-0 against Arkansas.
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