Mike Bianco

Ole Miss Head Baseball Coach Mike Bianco named National Coach of the Year

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www.wxxv25.com – Jeff Haeger – 2022-06-28 22:03:20

Coach of the Year awards can sometimes be subjective, but in the case of skipper , who nearly watched the entire from the seat of his couch, there was really only one clear option.

Today, Bianco named National Coach of the Year courtesy of Collegiate Baseball, fresh off leading his school to their first-ever College World Series crown.

It’s his second time in three years to win the…

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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.

‘Legendary’ DeLucia puts Ole Miss in title series

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‘Legendary’ DeLucia delivers, puts Ole Miss baseball in championship series

pitcher Dylan DeLucia celebrates the final strikeout of the team’s win over Arkansas during an NCAA College World Series baseball game Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/John Peterson)

OMAHA —  called Dylan DeLucia’s Thursday pitching performance on college baseball’s biggest stage “legendary.” It was that — and more.

With this remarkable Ole Miss baseball season hanging in the balance, Bianco handed the ball to DeLucia, and the sturdy right-hander delivered the game of his life. DeLucia pitched a four-hit shutout for a 2-0 Ole Miss victory that vaults the Rebels into the College World Series best-of-three championship series against Oklahoma.

Rick Cleveland

That championship series begins Saturday night, which gives Ole Miss fans – and college baseball fans in general – 48 hours to discuss one of the most impressive pitching performances ever seen here.

Listen: No Razorback baserunner ever made it to third base. Only two made it to second base. No Razorback leadoff hitter ever reached first base. Not only did DeLucia never walk a batter, only three times did a Razorback batter see a three-ball count. He struck out seven and induced 11 ground ball outs.

DeLucia gave up two first inning singles – and then only two hits for the rest of the game. He needed 19 pitches to finish the first inning – and then only 94 for the last eight innings. Bianco had his two ace relievers Josh Mallitz and Brandon Johnson fresh and ready to go. He never needed either.

But Ole Miss did need every bit of DeLucia’s heroics, because Arkansas ace Connor Noland was nearly as good. Said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who knows a thing or two about Omaha and the College World Series, “It was one of the best pitchers’ duels I’ve ever seen here.”

The game lasted a mere two hours, six minutes. That’s how good the pitching was. Let’s put it this way, those Ole Miss fans who couldn’t wait to get home from work to watch the last few innings of the most important baseball game in school history were bad out of luck. By the time they got home, it was over, and they could pop the corks.

Remember, DeLucia was pitching on short rest, having lifted the Rebels to a Saturday victory over Auburn, going 7.2 innings and giving up only one run.

Surely, given the short rest, Ole Miss coaches were hoping against hope for five, maybe six, good innings from DeLucia and then to turn it over to the likes of Mallitz and Johnson. Asked how many innings he thought he could go, DeLucia answered, “I just stayed with it. … I just looked and saw all those zeroes going into the eighth, and I was just like it’s my time to finally finish this game.”

He did it in style, retiring the last seven batters he faced. Remember, these weren’t ordinary hitters he was dealing with. Arkansas packs a wicked punch. The Razorbacks were hitting .335 with six home runs and 14 doubles in their four previous World Series games.

Asked about DeLucia, Rebel captain responded, “Hat’s off to him. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better pitching performance in a clutch situation.”

DeLucia said he lacked command of his fastball early in the game and went mostly with sliders. Van Horn noted that DeLucia’s fastball, which is often in the mid-90s, was topping out at 90-91 mph, probably due to the short rest.

“… But he located and he pitched,” Van Horn said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s about pitching, and he did.”

So did Arkansas’ Noland, who matched DeLucia’s zeroes through the first three innings, facing only nine batters, the minimum.

Ole Miss got the only run it would need in the fourth. Ever-dependable Justin Bench singled to right field and then moved to second on Jacob Gonzalez’s grounder to second base. Elko struck out for the second out, which meant that the Rebels needed a timely, two-out hit from Kevin Graham, who promptly laced a double down the right field line scoring Bench easily.

Said Noland, when asked about the pitch Graham hit, “It was a curve ball right down the middle. He’s a hitter, he turned on it.”

Van Horn went a little further later in the press conference, saying, “Thank God, I don’t ever have to see Kevin Graham hit against us again. Seems like that guy is always up. I have nightmares about him, I’ll be honest with you.”

The Rebels added an insurance run in the seventh when Elko singled, followed by Graham – that man again! – beating the Arkansas shift with a well-placed ground ball through the spot where a shortstop normally plays. Elko moved to second on Graham’s hit and then scored on a Calvin Harris’ single to right.

Other than the first inning, DeLucia endured only one tense moment. With two outs in the seventh inning, Arkansas put runners on first and second on an infield hit, followed by an infield error. That brought up Brady Slavens, who had hit a massive home run over the centerfield wall in Arkansas’ Wednesday night victory.

Slavens was almost a hero again, bouncing a ground ball between Elko and second baseman Peyton Chatagnier. Chatagnier ranged far to his left, reached and stabbed the ball and threw a strike to Elko to nip Slavens at first. It was a Major League play.

Arkansas made a few of those type plays, too, which made for such a classic game. Said Van Horn, “I like offense. I like defense. I like good pitching. I just like good baseball, and that was a good baseball game.”

Next up for the Rebels: Red-hot Oklahoma, which went through its side of the bracket without a defeat. The Sooners (45-22) have a decided advantage in that they will have a rested ace – and a rested pitching staff. 

Bianco said he has only seen brief patches of Oklahoma this season and here. “We’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then,” he said.

Van Horn didn’t mind talking about the championship series. In fact, he brought it up.

“It’s going to be a good series for them with Oklahoma,” the Arkansas coach said. “Oklahoma is going to be rested and have all their arms loaded and ready to go. But the way Ole Miss has been playing down the stretch, it might not matter.”

The victory was Ole Miss’s 40th of the season against 23 defeats – amazing when you consider they were once 24-19 and going seemingly nowhere. Now they are in Omaha, college baseball’s Valhalla, on the precipice of a national championship.

Who would have believed it?

“We did,” Elko answered a similar question on Wednesday. “If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re beaten before you ever play the game.”

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

Arkansas ends Ole Miss’ run of perfection, now it’s one game for all the marbles

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Arkansas ends Ole Miss’ run of perfection, now it’s one game for all the marbles

Arkansas’ Cayden Wallace (7) slides to second on a double in the eighth inning against second baseman Peyton Chatagnier (1). The call of “safe” was upheld upon video review, and Wallace eventually scored the winning run. (AP Photo/John Peterson)

OMAHA — Here we go: It’s Ole Miss vs. Arkansas. Loser goes home. Winner moves on to play for the National Championship.

The two Southeastern Conference Western Division rivals will play Thursday at 3 p.m., thanks to the Razorbacks’ nerve-wracking 3-2 victory over the Rebels Wednesday night.

After five days and 11 games of mostly blowouts in the 2022 College World Series, Arkansas and Ole Miss, two familiar combatants, played a nail-biter that went down to the final pitch with more than 25,000 fans nervously watching.

Rick Cleveland

It was, as said, “a tough one to lose.” It was, as Bianco also said, “a great college baseball game.”

So now Ole Miss find itself where it has been for weeks — that is, playing a game the Rebels have to win.

Said Peyton Chatagnier, the Rebs’ second baseman: “We’ve been in this situation for a while now … I can’t promise you the outcome of tomorrow’s game, but I can guarantee you we’re not scared. We’re not going to back down. This is nothing new to us.”

The Rebels got the pitching they needed Tuesday night. Hitting was a different story. Three Arkansas left-handers — Hagen Smith, Evan Taylor and Zack Morris — limited the Rebels to just five hits and the two runs, negating outstanding pitching from the Rebels’ John Gaddis, Jack Washburn and Jack Dougherty.

Problems with left-handers are nothing new for the Rebels, who came into the game hitting .241 against lefties, to .294 against right-handers.

But on that front, there may be some good following this tough night for the Rebels: Arkansas ace Connor Noland, who will start Thursday, is right-handed. Ole Miss beat him 6-4 at Fayetteville back in late April, although Noland pitched well allowing four runs over eight innings. Noland went 7.2 innings in the Razorbacks’ 17-2 victory over 3-seed Stanford on Saturday.

The Rebels will counter with an ace of their own, right-hander Dylan DeLucia, who beat Noland in that game back in April and who has been lights out for the Rebels in the postseason.

Said Bianco, “If you had asked four or five months ago in February, would you like this opportunity to have your ace on the mound in a winner-take-all game to get you in the Championship Series, everybody would have said, ‘Yes.’”

No doubt.

Bianco, again: “So rather than look at what happened tonight, I think the thing is to flush this and to look forward to tomorrow with an opportunity to win and be one of the last two teams competing for the National Championship. So rather than woe is us, how about looking at what a great opportunity we have tomorrow?”

Duty dictates we take at least a brief look at what did happen Wednesday night, which was a largely unexpected pitchers’ duel. 

Arkansas took the lead with Chris Lanzilli’s second inning solo homer, which barely got out of the park. Ole Miss countered in the bottom of the second with Kemp Alderman’s no-doubt homer. If Alderman clobbered his, then Arkansas’ Bradly Slavens slobber-knocked his fifth inning home run that traveled 436 feet over the center field wall and was hit in to a slight breeze.

Those two Arkansas home runs were all Ole Miss starter John Gaddis allowed in five innings,

Arkansas got what proved to be the winning run in the eighth inning amid some controversy. Cayden Wallace smashed a drive that almost took the glove off Ole Miss third baseman Garrett Wood. Wallace never checked up at first. Meanwhile, Wood retrieved the ball in shallow left field and threw a strike to Chatagnier, who swipe-tagged Wallace, who slid head-first into second.

The call on the field was safe. Ole Miss asked for a review. After a two-minute stoppage, the call on the field was upheld. It could have gone either way. Wallace then scored on catcher Michael Turner’s single.

Asked about the call after the game, Bianco said, “That’s why they have replay. … We thought that Peyton tagged possibly the finger, but again, they got, I think, 22 cameras, and they’ve got people, and they see different views than we do on the board. I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on a call. They do a great job out there. This is about as smooth as you can do it with instant replay.”

The Hogs led 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth when the Rebels loaded the bases with nobody out on Alderman’s single (his third hit of the night) and then two hit batters.

But Morris then struck out pinch hitter Hayden Leatherwood and got TJ McCants on a shallow fly ball to left field. With two outs, dependable Justin Bench hit a run-scoring, infield single to make it 3-2.

Jacob Gonzalez then flew out to left field to end the game. The Rebels have thrived on timely hitting in the postseason, but not this night.

“Again, it’s disappointing, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, we have a chance to win it,” Bianco said. “That will take a little time to get over tonight. 

“But I would think that everybody, besides what you’ve been through, this is what you play for,” Bianco continued. “Their backs are against the wall, too. They have to win, too. So this is really cool, and you should appreciate the opportunity and the moment and try and be at your best at that moment.”

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 Rebels, 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 Ole Miss 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.

College World Series: Ole Miss vs. Arkansas

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www.wxxv25.com – Jeff Haeger – 2022-06-20 22:37:27

Catcher Hayden Dunhurst said, “We were kind of at the all-time low in Arkansas, and well just kind of looked at each other, and it was either the season was going to be over after that weekend if we didn’t start winning, and we were just going to keep playing our baseball and see what happens. We ended up getting in, and we’ve just been playing good baseball recently.”

Ole Miss Head Coach said,…

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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.

Ole Miss faces off against Arkansas tonight in College World Series

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-06-20 17:26:11

baseball will be squaring off with Arkansas in the Rebels’ second game of the College World Series in Omaha.

They played the Razorbacks earlier in the year in Fayetteville where the Razorbacks took two of three, but that series was incredibly significant for Ole Miss.

When ’s group lost the final game, the team officially hit rock bottom. They were 7-14 in SEC play and their backs were to the…

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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.

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