Hunter Elliot

Ole Miss, Mike Bianco could soon complete amazing journey

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One more win: Ole Miss, Mike Bianco could soon complete an amazing journey

(25) celebrates as he runs toward home, as he was driven in by Kevin Graham against Oklahoma during the first inning of the first game of the NCAA College World Series championship series (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

OMAHA — The , a team going nowhere in early May, has surged its way to within one victory of a National Championship in June.

And a coach who many wanted to fire two months ago keeps pushing all the right buttons and pulling all the right strings – game after game after game, victory after victory after victory.

Rick Cleveland

’s Ole Miss Rebels combined excellent pitching from perhaps unexpected sources with a four-home run power show in an 10-3 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners Saturday night. The two teams play again Sunday at 2 p.m. If Ole Miss wins, one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college baseball history will be complete.

You could not make this stuff up.

Surely, you know the story by now: Ole Miss, 22-17 overall and 7-14 in the SEC on the first day of May, has won 19 of 25 since. The Rebels have won 9 of 10 in this . And now it seems much of Mississippi has migrated here to see if the Rebels can finish living what once seemed an impossible dream. Ole Miss fans turned Charles Schwab Field into Swayze North.

There were so many heroes on the field Saturday night, but let’s start with one in the dugout, the one who has worn No. 5 for the past 22 years.

Mike Bianco chose sophomore Jack Dougherty to make only his fourth start of 2022, giving freshman sensation Hunter Elliott another day of rest. Hmmm, skeptics wondered, how will this turn out? Dougherty, making his first start in three months, answered that question with five perfect innings.

Then, when Dougherty ran into some trouble in the sixth and with a three-run lead in serious jeopardy, Bianco brought in 19-year-old true freshman Mason Nichols, instead of Josh Mallitz who has been only sensational of late. Hmmmm, again. But Nichols made his coach look like a wizard, working out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam to allow only one run. Then in two innings of heroic work, Mallitz gave up no hits and struck out five after coming in in the eighth inning to finish off the Sooners.

The decision to start Dougherty?

“Oklahoma is such a patient team that takes a lot of walks,” Bianco said. “I thought we needed someone to throw strikes and get ahead and I thought Dougherty was the best option.”

The decision to go with Nichols, instead of Mallitz? “I thought it was a little early to go with Mallitz,” Bianco said. “We still had 12 outs to get. And Nichols was the one up and ready. Mallitz was not ready at that point.”

What Nichols, a just-turned-19-year-old, did came at what was surely the most critical juncture of the game – or as Bianco put it, “That was the game right there.”

Nichols was facing the middle of the powerful Oklahoma batting order. Any butterflies, Mason? “Yes sir, I had plenty of butterflies,” Nichols answered. “I just tried to focus and do my job.”

Mission accomplished.

Thousands upon thousands of Rebel fans, mostly wearing powder blue, cheered every Rebel strike and went bonkers on four home runs, especially the three that were back-to-back-to back in the eighth inning. First TJ McCants, then Calvin Harris and finally Justin Bench all slugged home runs, the first time that has ever happened at Charles Schwab Field. Harris clobbered his 430 feet, by far the longest of the night.

Oh, and did I mention that McCants’ homer came one inning after Bianco inserted him into the game for defensive purposes? It did.

Keep in mind, Oklahoma had won three straight games here at Omaha and none of those were really close. The Sooners had won four straight to win the Big 12 Conference. They won three of four to win a regional at Florida. They won two of three to win a Super Regional at West Virginia. That’s 12 of their last 14 – all against top-shelf competition. They were hot.

So were the Rebels, but Oklahoma seemingly had a clear advantage in that the Sooners had their ace, strapping left-hander Jake Bennett, fresh and ready to go against Ole Miss, while the Rebels had to use their ace Dylan DeLucia to beat Arkansas Thursday night to get to the championship series.

That advantage was negated by Dougherty – and perhaps also by the thousands upon thousands of Ole Miss fans.

“It felt like a football game out there,” Bianco said. “I mean Swayze gets loud but not loud like that.”

Those fans had plenty to cheer from the start. The Rebels went on top 2-0 in the first, added a run in the second and then another in the third on Tim Elko’s 24th home run of the year.

Oklahoma, which was hitting .303 with 19 home runs in the NCAA Tournament, never really stemmed that Ole Miss momentum. Now, the Sooners are in a win-or-else situation on Sunday. Said Sooner coach Skip Johnson, “We woke up today needing two victories to win the national championship. We’ll wake tomorrow needing two victories to win the national championship.”

Ole Miss will wake up Sunday morning needing one victory for a national championship. Said Elko, “We’ve still got one game to win. It’s obviously great to win the first one, but we still have to get one more to win the whole thing.”

The Rebels have their aces Hunter Elliott (Sunday) and Dylan DeLucia (Monday, if needed). Really, they could not be in a better situation.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Podcast: Omaha magic – Mississippi Today

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Podcast: Omaha magic

Coral Gables, Hattiesburg, Omaha. The site seems to make no difference to the red-hot , who have now won seven games, mostly by lopsided scores. The Clevelands caught up with , and to talk about the Rebels’ latest and most important conquest, the Monday night victory over Arkansas, which kept in the winners’ bracket and sent the Razorbacks to the losers’ bracket. Ole Miss is now three victories away from a national championship.

Stream all episodes here.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

The Legend of Tim Elko grows

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The Legend of Tim Elko grows: ‘The dude is a freak with a bat in his hands’

OMAHA – Today’s column, a synopsis: Another game, another victory, and another chapter in the Legend of .

Just when you think the Elko story can’t get any better and any more Bunyan-esque, something happens like happened in the second inning of Ole Miss’s 13-5 conquest of Arkansas in the College World Series Monday night.

Rick Cleveland

To set the stage: Ole Miss, playing perhaps its most important baseball game in school history, led 2-1 with two outs in the second. The unseasonably hot and relentless Nebraska wind was howling in from centerfield. With Justin Bench on second base, Elko came to bat. The count went to two balls, two strikes, and Arkansas pitcher Evan Taylor was just one strike away from getting out of the inning.

Arkansas catcher Michael Turner signaled for the slider, and held his mitt low and inside. Taylor delivered a slider that never slid – high and outside – several inches off the plate.

Most batters would have taken the pitch for ball three. Instead, Elko took a mighty swing, reaching all the way across the plate and almost into the opposite batter’s box. Against that wind, Elko somehow launched a towering home run that landed far beyond the Arkansas bullpen and high up into the left field stands, 416 feet away from home plate. For what it’s worth, we are told the ball left Elko’s bat at 109 mph. It traveled 416 feet in a hurry – the longest home run of this College World Series.

Tuesday morning, prior to an off-day practice session, Elko smiled when asked about the clout.

“I didn’t really realize how far outside it was until I saw it on the video last night,” Elko said. “At first, I think partly because of the location of the pitch, I didn’t realize I got it that good. But then I saw it flying and knew I got it good enough.”

And then some…

Said , “I haven’t seen many balls hit that far in this stadium, especially with that wind. It wasn’t a line drive that got under the wind. It was high, into the teeth of it. It just shows how strong and powerful Tim is.”

Elko’s shot had freshman pitcher Hunter Elliott, chief beneficiary, gushing a day later.

“It was awesome, that’s man strength right there,” Elliott said. “Crazy strength, crazy talent, crazy everything. The dude is a freak with a bat in his hand.”

The freakish dude with Superman shoulders and Popeye forearms has now hit 23 home runs this season and 45 in his storied career. Elko says he finds himself almost needing to pinch himself these days to realize the last three weeks aren’t a dream.

“I don’t know if it’s even sunk in yet and maybe that’s good, because we remain relaxed just going out there and playing ball,” Elko said. “We’ve had some really good teams here at Ole Miss. We’ve had some hot streaks before, but this is some of the best baseball I’ve ever seen. This is about as good as it gets.”

It’s not just Elko, mind you, although he is the captain and the unquestioned team leader. During this postseason run, the Rebels have hit well up and down the lineup. Monday night, Garrett Wood, the eight-hole hitter, was on base four of five times, while nine-hole hitter Calvin Harris slammed two doubles and a home run, scored twice and knocked in four runs.

In NCAA competition, against top-shelf teams, Ole Miss is 7-0 and has outscored the opposition 64-18, which looks like a misprint but isn’t.

Elko takes none of it for granted.

“There’s no place better to end your college career than Omaha,” Elko said. “There would be no better way to end it than by winning the national championship.”

Bianco says that one of the “neatest” aspects of the Legend of Elko is that Elko didn’t have to come back for this season. He could have taken them money and gone pro. He had already come back from a torn ACL – actually played with the ACL still torn – to lift the 2021 Rebels to a regional championship and to within one game of the College World Series.

Said Bianco, “He came back for one reason, which was to play in the College World Series, and here he is doing this.”

What more could Elko possibly do?

Bianco smiled, looked down and shook his head. “I don’t know,” Bianco. “He can invite us to his statue ceremony, I guess.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Ole Miss smokes hottest team in College World Series, continues its postseason dominance

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Ole Miss smokes hottest team in College World Series, continues its postseason dominance

OMAHA — Way back when, after the New York Yankees won several consecutive World Series, the cry around the Major Leagues was: “Break up the Yankees!”

If this remarkable domination of late continues, the cry in college baseball will soon be: “Break up the Rebels.”

This is getting absurd.

Rick Cleveland

Ole Miss pounded Southeastern Conference rival Arkansas 13-5 on a hot, windy Monday night to remain undefeated in the College World Series – and remain the only undefeated team in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

But it’s not just the winning, it’s the dominance. Through seven NCAA games, the Rebels have now out-scored their opponents 64-18. Through two CWS games, the Rebels have outscored opposition 18-6. In their last five games the Rebs have scored 56 runs, while the opposition scored only 13. These aren’t mid-week opponents they are playing, these are some of the best college baseball teams in the country.

There’s hot and then there’s scalding. The Rebels are scalding hot.

They are also comfortably in the driver’s seat on one side of the world series bracket. Ole Miss will enjoy an off day Tuesday, while Arkansas and Auburn play one another at 6 p.m. to try to keep their championship hopes alive. The winner will then have to beat Ole Miss twice in order to advance to the best-of-three championship series.

Another way to put it: Ole Miss, the team that was once 7-14 in the SEC and seemingly headed nowhere, now sits three victories away from a national championship. The Rebels do not play again until Wednesday at 6 p.m.

said all he really needed to say in the first three words of his post-game press conference: “We were terrific…”

The Rebels were – and have been for three straight weeks.

On the other side of the bracket, Oklahoma remains undefeated, while Notre Dame and Texas A&M will play Tuesday at 1 p.m. to see who gets to try and beat the Sooners twice.

Ole Miss’ Monday night heroes should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to this postseason Rebel resurrection:

  • Tupelo freshman Hunter Elliott, 19, pitching with the poise of a man a decade older and more experienced, weathered some early fielding problems from his teammates and for the most part shut down the high-powered Razorbacks. Elliot gave the Rebels 6.1 innings, allowing just one earned run and leaving with a 10-3 lead.
  • , a still-playing Ole Miss legend, hammered the longest home run of this College World Series, a two-run, second inning blast into the wind measured at 416 feet. At this point, it is difficult to fathom why anyone throws Elko a pitch he can reach. Elko hit a slider that didn’t slide. He reached across the plate and yanked the ball deep into the left field stands.
  • Calvin Harris, batting ninth in the order, slammed two doubles and a two-run home run. The Rebels benefitted from four hits, five runs and four runs batted in from their 8- and 9-hole hitters. How good is that?
  • Sweet-swinging Kevin Graham provided two more timely hits and two more runs batted in – and reached base four times.
  • Garrett Wood, making only his fourth start of the season, continued his postseason excellence, playing error-less ball at third base, and reaching base three times. 
  • Justin Bench did what lead-off hitters are supposed to do, hitting three singles and a double and scoring four times, while driving home two more. His third inning line drive might have killed Arkansas pitcher Cole Ramage if he hadn’t gotten his glove up just in time.

There were others, but you get the idea. When a team is as hot as these Rebels are and winning by these margins, everyone contributes. 

How far can they go?

Look how far they have come.

Nothing seems impossible now.

“Getting hot is real,” said Bianco, who also said he has cut back on team meetings during this hot streak and an cut back on the length of the meetings the Rebels do have.

“When they’re playing like this the best thing you can do is to just let ’em go,” Bianco said. “Just get out of the way and let ’em play.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Arkansas marked the low point for Rebs. Now the Hogs stand in their way

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Arkansas marked the low point for Rebs. Now the Hogs stand in their way

, shown here pitching against Miami in the an NCAA Regional will get the biggest start of his life and one of the3 biggest in Ole Miss history Monday night at th3e College World Series. (Associated Press)

OMAHA — There’s a term baseball coaches often use about their teams: “coming full circle.” It’s usually a good thing. With Ole Miss, it’s better than good. When used the term Sunday morning before a practice at Creighton University, “full circle” was more like baseball Nirvana.

As has been well-documented, Ole Miss has been to baseball hell and back in one season.

Rick Cleveland

Think about it. On May 1, Bianco’s Rebels left Fayetteville having lost tough games to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday and Sunday. The defeats dropped the Rebels to 7-14 in the Southeastern Conference and 22-17 overall. They didn’t have their backs to the wall, so much as they were locked behind an impenetrable wall with seemingly no way out and precious little oxygen left to breathe.

Since then, Ole Miss has won 14 of 17. The Rebels are a perfect 6-0 in the , the only team in the tournament that has not suffered a single defeat. They are one of four teams still undefeated in the College World Series. They have out-scored NCAA competition 51-12. They are on the proverbial roll.

So, now, who do they play in the most important game an Ole Miss baseball team has played in decades?

Arkansas, that’s who. Full circle. The winner of Monday night’s 6 p.m. all-SEC matchup will be one victory away from the CWS best-of-three championship series. The loser drops into the losers’ bracket and must win three straight games without losing to reach the championship series.

If Ole Miss is the hottest team in the tournament – and the numbers say the Rebels are – then the Razorbacks are close behind. The Hogs have won four straight and Saturday afternoon crushed Stanford, the highest seeded team in the CWS, 17-2.

Arkansas, 44-19, has won six of seven games in the NCAA Tournament, losing only to Oklahoma State in the Stillwater Regional. The Razorbacks are an offensive machine, having slugged 102 home runs, including two among their 21 hits in the battering of Stanford.

“They can swing it, that’s for sure,” said Ole Miss freshman Hunter Elliott, the left-hander who will start Saturday night’s game. You gotta make pitches against them. If you make mistakes, they hit home runs.

“In the series we played against them, I think every run they scored came on home runs. That tells you they hit mistakes.”

Elliott, who is 19 years young, hasn’t made many mistakes lately. He allowed three hits and struck out 10 in a 5-0 Super Regional-clinching victory over Southern Miss. He pitched five innings of three-hit, one-run baseball against Miami in the Coral Gables Regional. Before hostile crowds and under intense pressure, he has been dominant in NCAA competition.

“It’s unbelievable what Hunter has done,” second baseman Peyton Chatagnier said. “It’s crazy really. He has so much confidence. It’s like he knows he’s going to get the job done.”

Catcher Hayden Dunhurst has watched Elliott’s freshman progression from a distance of just over 60 feet away.

“He’s gotten a lot better over the course of the season, and you can see it in his body language,” Dunhurst said. “He’s acting like a veteran not a freshman.”

Dunhurst said he noticed the unmistakeable transformation happen in the second game of the three-game series at Arkansas. Ole Miss lost the game 6-3 but it was no fault of Elliott, who pitched well. Elliott allowed three runs on just four hits over six innings. He struck out eight and walked only one. All three Razorbacks runs against Elliott came on two home runs.

Said Dunhurst, “He got in a jam, but he worked his way out of it. You could see it happen. He kept his composure, held his head high and his shoulders back. He’s been that way since.”

Asked about how he felt about starting a true freshman in such a huge game as Monday night’s showdown with Arkansas, Bianco responded, “We have all the confidence in the world in Hunter right now. He’s earned it. It’s hard to do what he has done in the conference.”

Bianco pointed out that Elliott’s statistics – as impressive as they are – are even better when you consider the circumstances. The kid’s record is 4-3. His earned run average is a nifty 2.82. Opponents hit only .202 against him.

“But you gotta realize those statistics have largely come against SEC competition,” Bianco said. “We didn’t move him to the starting rotation until the conference season started. A lot of guys pad their numbers in the early season against lesser competition. Hunter didn’t have that luxury. His numbers are really good, but they are better than they look, actually.

“We knew he was going to be good. We knew he was going to be a weekend arm. That’s why we signed him. But we didn’t know when that was going to happen. We’ve had a lot of stars in this program that weren’t stars when they were freshmen.”

This freshman will make the most important start of his life before more than 25,000 people at the College World Series and before millions of viewers on ESPN. Will the stage be too big?

No, he says. There might be some pre-game butterflies, he admits.

Said Elliott, “But once you throw the first couple pitches, you just lock in and it’s just another game.”

Just another game? Just the most important game in Ole Miss history since long, long before he was born – if ever.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

A CWS prohibitive favorite? There’s not one, but Ole Miss is hottest team

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A CWS prohibitive favorite? There’s not one, but Ole Miss is hottest team

OMAHA — If you’ve read it here once, know you could have read it 50 times or more over the years. Winning baseball championships is all about playing your best when it matters most — getting hot at the right time.

Rick Cleveland

What happened in April matters not in June.

That’s why it says here: has as good a chance as anyone in the College World Series field of winning the whole shebang. Nobody has played better baseball through the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals than the Rebels. What’s more, the Rebels began their championship-quality play in the late regular season.

In sports terms, they have peaked at the right time.

Ole Miss may have been the last team to receive an at-large bid to the . They may have squeaked in. They may have entered the tournament with one of the most modest records of anyone in the field at 32-22.

None of that matters now. None of what happened in April and early May matters. The Rebels were ranked No. 1 in the early season for a reason. They have the talent. They just had to put it together.

They have. They have won all five their NCAA Tournament games by a combined score of 46-11. That’s no misprint: 46 to 11. They have 13 of their last 16 games overall. 

Let’s look at how other CWS teams on the Ole Miss side of the bracket have done lately. (We’ll worry about the other side when the time comes — if it comes.) Keep in mind, they’ve all done pretty well or they wouldn’t be there.

Auburn, Ole Miss’ Saturday night opponent, has won five of six games in NCAA play, sweeping through the Auburn Regional and then winning two of three at No. 3 overall seed Oregon State. Of their last 16 games, the Tigers are 11-5. That’s really good — but not quite as good as Ole Miss.

Staying on the Ole Miss side of the bracket, Stanford, the highest seed left in the tournament, has lost twice in NCAA play and holds a 6-2 record. The Cardinal did end its pre-NCAA schedule on a 16-game winning streak, so there’s that. Also, Stanford is the only national seed remaining on that side of the bracket.

Arkansas, Stanford’s opponent Saturday afternoon, is also hot. The Razorbacks have won five of six in the NCAA Tournament. Bur Arkansas wasn’t playing that well coming in to the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs were two-and-out in the SEC Tournament and lost six of their last 10 regular season games before that. 

If you go by what happened all season long, Ole Miss is the long-shot on its side of the bracket. Stanford, Arkansas and Auburn — probably in that order — were better teams over the entire season. 

But if you go by what has happened lately, Ole Miss is the hottest team, a perfect 5-0 in the tournament and 13-3 over the last 16. That’s balling.

Much depends on the first two games, beginning with the Saturday night game against Auburn. Looking at the numbers, it doesn’t appear the Rebels have the pitching depth of the other teams in the bracket. For that reason, it’s critical that Ole Miss remain in the winners’ bracket. Dylan DeLucia and Hunter Elliott, who threw shutouts against Southern Miss in the Super Regional and have been sensational in May and June, need to continue their recent excellence in Omaha.

Win those first two — against Auburn and against the Arkansas-Stanford winner — the Rebels will be in the proverbial catbird’s seat. Lose either and they’ll have to go far deeper into their pitching staff to reach the best-of-three championship series. They would have to win against teams that have deeper pitching staffs, at least on paper.

Bottom line: Tennessee, the best team in the country, is not here. There is no prohibitive favorite. Any of the eight remaining could win it. And, of the eight, nobody has played better baseball lately than Ole Miss.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

There’s a lot of Mississippi at the College World Series

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Ole Miss is in Omaha, but there’s a lot more of Mississippi at the 2022 College World Series

We knew last week there would be a strong Mississippi flavor to the 2022 College World Series. That’s because we knew and Southern Miss were playing for the right to go to Omaha.

Rick Cleveland

But we didn’t know the half of it.

Ole Miss swept Southern Miss and arrived in Omaha Wednesday. There, the Rebels, with their 11 Mississippi natives on the roster, will likely bump into several others with strong Mississippi ties.

Start with the Auburn Tigers, Ole Miss’ first round opponent Saturday at 6 p.m. The Auburn manager is none other than Amory product Butch Thompson, the former pitching coach for John Cohen at Mississippi State. Long before Thompson became a widely respected coach, be was an Amory Wildcats football standout for Mississippi coaching legend Bobby Hall.

“Butch played defensive end for me way back when,” Hall said. “Tough, tough kid. He was from the Wren community, about three miles due west on Highway 78. We had lots of really good, really tough football players from Wren and he was one. His senior year (1987) we made it to the State Championship game.”

Thompson, a lefty, also pitched for Amory and then for Itawamba Community College. He retains close ties across the state. Indeed, Bryson Ware, a part-time starter as a junior in the outfield for the Tigers, played high school ball at Germantown, where he was a first-team all-state selection.

Win or lose Saturday, Ole Miss will run into another Mississippian on Monday. The Auburn-Ole Miss winner will play the the Arkansas-Stanford winner Monday at 6 p.m. The losers will play Monday at 1 p.m.

Freshman All-American Braden Montgomery of Madison Central, Mississippi’s 2021 high school player of the year, is a two-way standout for Stanford. Brady Tygart, a true freshman pitcher from Lewisburg, has been outstanding out of the bullpen for Arkansas.

Montgomery, Stanford’s cleanup hitter and an outstanding defensive outfielder, also started three games as a pitcher and pitched in relief in 12 other games. Seems as though there’s nothing Montgomery, who hit 18 home runs and drove home 57 runs, can’t do in baseball — or in the classroom. He scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, presumably why he turned down what would have been seven-figure contract in professional baseball to attend Stanford.

Says Madison Central baseball coach Patrick Robey, “I am lucky. Some guys coach their entire lives and never get to coach one as great as Braden. The young man is just so talented and so focused. Nothing he does surprises me.”

Should Ole Miss and Stanford play one another on Monday, the game would feature a rematch of Ole Miss freshman left hander Hunter Elliott pitching to Montgomery, as happened in the first game of last year’s 6A North State championship series when Madison Central played Elliott’s Tupelo High School. Montgomery won a 2-0 pitchers duel in what Robey called “one of the best high school baseball games I’ve ever seen.”

Both Elliott and Montgomery were honored this season as freshmen All-Americans. So, too, was Arkansas’ Tygart. The strapping right-hander, who played for Lewisburg and lives in Hernando, pitched in 23 games out of the bullpen for the Razorbacks and led the team in saves with eight — more than twice as many as any other on the pitching staff. He struck out 51 batters in 37.2 innings.

Think about it: Three of the key pitchers on three different teams on one side of the College World Series bracket all pitched just last year in the Mississippi Class 6A baseball tournament.

Says Robey, the Madison Central coach, “It just shows how much talent — and how good the baseball is — in Mississippi. I mean, we’ve got Mississippi State, the defending national champion in college baseball, and Pearl River, which won the national junior college championship, and Ole Miss and Southern both in a Super Regional. All of them have a lot of Mississippi guys. It’s amazing, really, and it just keeps getting better and better and better.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Resurgence of Omaha-bound Rebels is largely about Mike Bianco

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‘It’s about the players,’ Bianco says, but the resurgence of Omaha-bound Rebels is largely about him

HATTIESBURG — and a couple of his star players were holding court Sunday in the postgame press conference after finished its 10-0, 5-0 blitzkrieg of Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg Super Regional.

Most questions were directed to Bianco, the 22-year Rebel head coach, and most questions were about what the team’s resurgence has meant to him in a season when he faced unprecedented criticism from his own fans.

Rick Cleveland

At one point, Bianco clearly wanted the line of questioning to go another direction.

“It’s not about me, I mean that,” Bianco said. “I didn’t throw, catch or hit a ball out there. It’s about these guys …”

He’s right. This is college baseball. It should be about the players. It should be all about the spectacular Sunday pitching performance of 19-year-old Tupelo left-hander Hunter Elliott, who pitched like a 29-year-old Major League veteran. It should be about , the still-playing Ole Miss baseball legend, who came back for his senior year because he wanted to go to Omaha — and now he will. It should be about Justin Bench, another senior and the Rebels’ best defender at any number of positions who pounded out three hits against superb Southern Miss pitching.

But today, especially today, the story is Bianco, the winningest coach in Ole Miss history — and a class act — who was roundly criticized on social media, fan websites and from the grandstands. This wasn’t a vocal minority. This was the majority of a fan base.

Bianco says he doesn’t read what he calls “the noise.”

“I’ve learned a long time ago I can’t live in that world,” Bianco said. “I know it’s out there but I try to stay away from it, and I think I do a good job of it.”

Most everybody else reads it and hears it. And all that negativism filtered all the way down to Hattiesburg where Scott Berry, the Southern Miss coach, heard it and was dumbfounded by it.

“Whenever (Bianco) decides it’s time to go, they ought to build a statue at that stadium for all he has achieved,” Berry said. “He’s one of the best around, and he always does it with class.”

This was a bitter defeat for Berry, mind you. His team won 47 games, set attendance records, hosted a regional and then a super regional. But still, he was genuinely happy for Bianco.

“Obviously, we wanted to be the ones going to Omaha,” said Berry, another coach who oozes class. “But if it couldn’t be us, I’m glad it is them. That’s a classy program. I’ll be pulling for them to win the whole thing.”

Bianco and his staff do deserve much of the credit for keeping the Ole Miss ship afloat when a team ranked No. 1 in the nation early in the season fell to 7-14 in the SEC at one point. The question wasn’t whether Ole Miss would make the . That seemed utterly impossible. The question was whether they could even win enough games to make the SEC Tournament field and whether they would even finish with a winning record.

Bianco deflected any praise for the turn-around to his senior leaders, to his staff, to the starting pitching prowess of the one-two punch of Dylan Delucia and Elliott and to his coaching staff. He even mentioned a talk former Rebel and Major Leaguer Chris Coughlan gave to his team prior to the Missouri series in May.

Coughlan’s message, said Bianco: “He challenged the guys not to listen to the noise. He said don’t you dare let what people are saying on social media take your mind off your goals. Your job is to win the national championship.”

That remains a distinct possibility, truly incredible when you think back to May 1 when the Rebels had dropped to 24-19 overall and 7-14 in the league.

Here’s the deal: College baseball, as has been written countless times, is all about getting hot at the right time. That time is now, and Ole Miss is a red-hot team. The Rebels have won five straight games against top-shelf opposition. They beat two future professional pitchers here, two guys who have been invited to try out for the U.S. National collegiate team Bianco will coach later this summer.

The Rebels are hitting well, pitching well, fielding well. They appear to have genuinely good team chemistry. Now that Tennessee has been vanquished, the College World Series is wide open.

Stranger things have happened. Heck, stranger things already have. Maybe they’ll start on that Bianco statue later this summer.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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