After a 42-year absence from the College World Series, Ole Miss (48-21) defied all odds and launched a post-season run that led all the way to Omaha.
Before the season began, the Rebels were picked to finish next-to-last in the SEC West. Luckily, the team paid no attention to preseason prognostications and went about its business, using solid pitching and strong hitting to propel itself to the Holy Grail of college baseball.
In the end, after winning Regionals in Oxford against a tough Washington Huskies team and Super Regionals in Lafayette against the top-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, Ole Miss was rewarded with a trip to the College World Series (CWS). They joined seven other elite teams: Vanderbilt, Louisville, UC-Irvine, Texas, Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech.
A dream realized
For Rebel head coach Mike Bianco, it was a dream 14 years in the making. Though he’d come tantalizingly close on several occasions, only to see heart-breaking defeat wrenched from the jaws of victory, Bianco did not have a CWS appearance in his tenure at Ole Miss.
“The road to the College World Series is one that’s bumpy and winding,” said Bianco following the Super Regional win. “I didn’t expect it to take this long to get there, but you have to have a special group to do that and this is certainly a special group. We talked about it in the fall and then in the preseason. I’m really proud of this team,” he added.
Exceeding all expectations
Ole Miss shattered the preseason expectations of coaches and sportswriters on its way to claiming the SEC Western Division Championship with a conference record of 19-11. The team’s 48 overall wins tied an Ole Miss record set in 2005, and an NCAA-leading nine Rebels were drafted by the pros.
With accomplishments such as these, it is no wonder Ole Miss kept playing long after all but seven other teams in the nation were through for the year. They faced elimination games five separate times throughout the post-season run; however, these clutch Rebels won four of those games—including two in a row in Lafayette against the hometown Rajin’ Cajuns.
Though many baseball aficionados, as well as all Rebel fans, felt Ole Miss should have been rewarded for its excellent season by being named a Super Regional Host, that was not to be the case. If the Rebels were going to make it to Omaha, they were going to have to do so the hard way–by going through Lafayette. But that did not deter the scrappy boys from Oxford who were used to being underestimated. It was just one more opportunity to prove naysayers wrong.
After dropping the opening game of the best-of-three, Super Regional series against Louisiana-Lafayette (UL-L), Ole Miss found itself on the verge of elimination against the No. 1 team in the nation. As was the case all year, the team would not back down.
For the Rebels to erase a four-decade long CWS absence, they would have to notch two consecutive wins over Louisiana-Lafayette, something very few–outside of the team and those who bleed red and blue–thought possible. Again, the Rebels remained undaunted.
Though UL-L had not lost twice in a row at home all season, its streak came to an end against an Ole Miss team who needed every ounce of heart and soul from each of its players in order to come back and win the series.
Not just happy to be there
When they did finally reach the pinnacle of college baseball success, the Rebels made it clear they weren’t happy merely getting invited to the party; they wanted to stay a while.
Ole Miss began its CWS run by dropping a close, 2-1, opening game to Virginia, the nation’s new No. 1 team. With one more loss, the Rebels would experience an “0 and 2 and a bbq” exit from the field of dreams in Nebraska.
Facing yet another elimination game, the Rebels showed the grit and resiliency that brought them to the CWS. They battled their way through the loser’s bracket, beating both Texas Tech and TCU to reach the championship of the bracket.
Unfortunately, Virginia was there waiting for the Rebels. Ole Miss needed to beat the Cavaliers twice in order to advance to the finals of the CWS; however, it was not meant to be–at least not this year. The Rebels lost the elimination game 4-1, setting up a CWS championship showdown between Virginia and fellow-SEC member Vanderbilt.
After his team’s loss, Coach Bianco congratulated the Cavaliers and praised them for being tough competitors. “They just make it hard on you. Man, they’re good. They’re just an outstanding ball club and obviously deserve to win,” he said.
A team to remember
At the post-game press conference Bianco sat with pitcher Chris Ellis, third-baseman Austin Anderson and catcher/DH Will Allen, and spoke with pride about how much the older players meant to him and to the team. “This is a special group of guys, a special group of older guys,” he said.
“Three of the guys sitting next to me (Ellis, Anderson and Allen) were such great mentors to this younger group that is so talented, but who weren’t sure what to do when they got here. These guys put them on their back and were tremendous all year.”
For many Rebel fans, the memories this team created will last a lifetime. They captured the hearts of the Ole Miss faithful and made them feel there was just “something special” about the group. As one Rebel fan said, “I wanted it (CWS title) more for the players, than me as a fan—they had exceptional talent and heart.”
In his final press conference about this year’s team, Bianco praised his players and told the media assembled:
“So I sit here sad that it ends, but, more importantly, sad because these 35 guys that wore the uniforms this year for Ole Miss—just great representatives for the university—will go down as the best team that ever played at Ole Miss. And we won’t ever be together again, and that’s what makes it sad.” — Head Coach Mike Bianco
To this special Ole Miss baseball team who took Rebel fans on a heck of a ride—all the way to Omaha—we offer one last “Hotty Toddy!” and our sincere thanks for showing us what hard work, perseverance, and the love for your teammates can produce.