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The road back to the NCAA Tournament was long. And, more literally, the road to Central Michigan baseball's opening site is no peach either.

On Wednesday morning, the Chippewas will bus from Mount Pleasant to Grand Rapids, then fly to Minneapolis, then fly to Memphis, Tenn., and finally will take a bus the final three hours to Starkville, Miss.

"I'm starting to learn that getting from Mount Pleasant to Starkville is kind of like trying to get to the North Pole," Jordan Bischel, Central's first-year head coach, said with a chuckle. "But it's better than staying home, that's for sure."

 The Chippewas (46-12), winners of 18 straight games as well as the Mid-American Conference regular-season and tournament championships, will mark the program's first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1995 when they open play at 8 Friday against Miami (Fla.), a traditional powerhouse which enters the game at 39-18.

On the other side of the four-team pod, host Mississippi State (46-13), the nation's No. 6 seed, will play Southern (32-22) at 1 p.m. at Duby Noble Field.

The regional is full of tradition, with Miami a four-time College World Series champion who made 44 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances until its streak was snapped in 2017. It's back for the first time since 2016, with a young but explosive team, particularly at the plate. The Hurricanes have made 25 CWS appearances.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State has made 10 CWS appearances — a CWS bid going to teams that win the regional and Super Regional.

So, as solid as Central's baseball history is, it only has made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances.

Still, Central drew the regional's No. 3 seed, nothing to sneeze at, especially coming out of the poor-RPI MAC.

"That's a really big deal for the MAC," Bischel said. "That really shows you what we accomplished."

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Bischel arrived in Mount Pleasant after a stint at Northwood, and took over a team that had some returning talent but was 29-30-1 last season — despite a few players who would go on to be selected in last June's Major League Baseball Draft.

He knew the cupboard wasn't bare, but he didn't have any grand expectations, either.

Then the Chippewas went on the road to start the season with four games at Troy, an NCAA Tournament participant from a year ago, and after losing the first two games by a run each, Central won the last two. That opened Bischel's eyes. There also was a night practice in February, and on a Saturday, no less — truly a coach's nightmare, Bischel said — but one set up because several recruits were on campus for a camp.

"I couldn't figure out how we were gonna get the kids excited for that," Bischel said. "But they came out and had one of the best practices I've seen.

"That's when I thought, 'These guys are kind of starting to get it.'"

And the season really took over from the early going, and never really slowed, not even in early April with back-to-back games at Notre Dame and Michigan State. This wasn't a great year for either the Fighting Irish or the Spartans, but they were still impressive victories to the Chippewas' coach.

"That's still ACC and Big Ten," Bischel said. "As a coach, you started to feel like they really can beat just about anybody."

That mantra certainly will be put to the test in this week's NCAA regional, but not all No. 1 seeds get through to the Super Regionals. No. 3s have made it plenty of times, and the Chippewas hope to add their name to the list.

Senior right-hander Pat Leatherman (10-1, 2.56 ERA), of Jenison, Mich., is likely to get the start for Game 1, with junior right-hander Cam Brown (10-0, 2.72 ERA) in line to get the start for Game 2.

Sophomore right-hander Jordan Patty, from Midland who first got on Bischel's radar when he was coaching at Northwood, should be the first guy out of the bullpen, especially if Leatherman or Brown gets in trouble early.

Patty was brilliant in pitching the Chippewas past Ball State in the MAC championship, tossing eight scoreless innings. Normally, Patty would be the No. 3 starter, but in this quick regional setup, a No. 3 starter isn't really a thing.

Unlike Central baseball, which suddenly is a big thing again.

"It's a pretty cool moment for these guys," said Bischel, whose team arrived back in Mount Pleasant from Avon, Ohio, on Sunday afternoon, then had the evening off following Saturday night's MAC championship.

They gathered Monday to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, and didn't have to sweat it out. The Chippewas had their automatic bid.

Now if they could only find an automatic pilot to get them to Starkville.

Corvallis Regional

At Goss Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.

FRIDAY

Game 1: Michigan (41-18) vs. Creighton (38-11), 4 p.m.

Game 2: Cincinnati (30-29) vs. Oregon State (36-18-1), 10 p.m.

SATURDAY

Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser

Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner

SUNDAY

Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser

Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner

MONDAY

Game 7: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner (if necessary)

Starkville Regional

At Dudy Noble Field, Starkville, Miss.

FRIDAY

Game 1: Southern (32-22) vs. Mississippi State (46-13), 1 p.m.

Game 2: Central Michigan (46-12) vs. Miami (39-18), 8 p.m.

SATURDAY

Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser

Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner

SUNDAY

Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser

Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner

MONDAY

Game 7: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner (if necessary)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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