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Rebels' rapid ascension cut short due to COVID-19

67 days ago
Ole Miss Athletics

Ask any player, coach, or manager, and they'll tell you that this baseball team was different.

On the field, their accomplishments were unprecedented. In one month, the Rebels got out to one of their best starts ever, boasted the nation's longest active winning streak, and worked their way from unranked in some preseason polls to a top-five national ranking over the course of just 17 games.

Beyond this opening month is anyone's guess, but while they fielded a team, this Rebel group was special. Picked to finish sixth in the SEC West by the league's coaches, they rocketed to the highest ranking among all teams in a division that carries with it a special mark of distinction throughout all of college baseball.

"There's no doubt we were one of the best teams in the country," Bianco said. "Do I think this team was good enough to go to Omaha and win a championship? Yes. The only sample size I had - those 17 games - I think we're as good as any team in the country. Without a doubt."

Off the field, however, their bond was unrivaled.

"Physically, this team did a lot of things well, but in the dugout, in the locker room, you could sense that chemistry that you usually hear about at the end when teams look back on their success," Bianco said. "They'll talk about that love for each other more than they will their batting average and ERA."

This team bought in early, and by August of 2019, they knew they had something special brewing.

"It was the first week back after summer," junior Anthony Servideo said. "It was early August, Austin Miller's house, and everyone was there. The whole team was getting along, meeting everybody, and I knew from that moment, 'Okay, this team cares about one another and we just met. We're going to be something special.' And when we finally got on the field together, I said, 'We're going somewhere.'"

Exactly where that was remained to be seen until the season finally opened up with a home series versus the top-ranked Louisville Cardinals in early February. When the Rebels dethroned the nation's best team on opening weekend, they were sold.

"I just see everyone balling out against the best team in the country and I said, 'We are that team,'" freshman Derek Diamond said. "I remember all the older guys saying then, 'There's no reason we shouldn't be in Omaha.'"

After a season-opening loss to the Cardinals, the Rebels wouldn't drop another game. By March 11, Ole Miss was tied for the best record in the nation at 16-1 and had worked to their second longest winning streak in program history, just one more win shy of the school record.

"Going into LSU, we had all the confidence in the world," junior Tyler Keenan said. "We didn't look back and say, 'Alright, time to coast.' We said, 'It's time to do more.' We weren't trying to make a regional, we were trying to win the SEC, host a regional, a super regional and get to Omaha. Not a lot of Ole Miss teams have been able to do that, so it's been pretty special to us."

Heading into the SEC opener versus the LSU Tigers, the Rebels were victors of 16 in a row, and call it wishful thinking, but a loss just didn't seem soon in the making. They had won their last nine games by an average margin of victory of almost eight runs per game. They worked their way up to third in the country in scoring, averaging 9.5 runs per game and just continued to shut down opposing offenses on the mound.

"I really thought we weren't going to lose another game," freshman Peyton Chatagnier said. "We thought we were the best team in the country."

Chatagnier could easily be excused for a case of first-year naivety, but his confidence wasn't lost on his teammates.

"We were going to be playing some tough games," Diamond said. "I don't know about 55-1, but we were damn good. I've never been on a team where we knew we were better than anyone on the other bench. We just had it."

The Rebels' 16th consecutive victory came in an 18-7 drubbing of ULM. Spirits were high when the team bus departed Monroe, but perhaps the better description of that bus ride home to Oxford was the palpable sense of anticipation that grasped each member of the team as they awaited their first SEC test.

"We knew what people thought of us," Keenan said. "They didn't think we could do what we did, and that just added fuel to the fire. When we were picked to finish second to last in the SEC, we all looked at each other and said, 'Okay, they're about to find out.'"

That sense of anticipation hit a roadblock not long into the trip back from Monroe as news began to permeate down from the league office.

In the two days following the Rebels' final game versus ULM, Bianco held four meetings with his team. His first, an impromptu address on the bus ride back from Monroe, held the news that the series against LSU would take place with no fans. For the players, that stung - but the silver lining was that they would still be playing baseball.

"That was a cool story actually," Diamond said. "We were playing mafia when he told us, and right after, we just took it in for a minute and went back to playing our games. We were still playing baseball, and we didn't care. That's just how much we loved playing together."

With the second meeting came the news that all play was suspended until March 30, meaning no LSU, no Texas A&M, no Arkansas. The very next day, the NCAA announced that the College World Series was cancelled, crushing what little hope that remained for the future of the 2020 season.

Bianco's last meeting with his team, his fourth in 48 hours, was at that time almost a practicality. On Thursday, March 12, Bianco stood in front of his team and told them in no uncertain terms that their season was over.

"At that point, I was just numb," Bianco said. "I think we all were emotionally spent. I cried. They cried. I told them the SEC was sending everybody home, and to clean out your lockers. I don't think anything prepares you for that, and I hope I'll never have to get up and address the kids like that ever again."

There are about 300 Division I baseball teams, give or take a few, competing for a championship on any given year. For 299 of them, the season will end in heartbreak. For some, the pain is gradual - the slow realization that a postseason tournament isn't in your future. For others, the pain is abrupt - a season-ending loss that brings an entire year's work to a close in one fell swoop.

This wasn't Bianco's first time addressing his team after a tragic conclusion to a season, nor is it likely to be his last. The talks are never easy, but each year you suit up, you accept the rules of the game: win or go home.

This year, however, COVID-19 didn't play by the rules.

"I always felt those talks were really tough, but at least you know, when you give those talks, that there were rules about this," Bianco said. "You need to score more runs than the other team, or your season will end. That's the rules of the game. This wasn't like that. We were getting ready to play a weekend series against LSU and all of a sudden, the season is over. That's why it stings so much more because this season had so much promise. Top-five ranking, 16-game winning streak, and we were just getting started."

Bianco's veterans have endured some heartbreaking finishes over the years, be it a home regional loss or a winner-take-all super regional defeat. This, though, was worse than anything they've ever experienced.

"Oh man, that was tough," Servideo said. "There were lots of emotions. Everyone's crying. Everyone's upset just because we had such a special bond and our energy was unmatched. It was heartbreaking to have to see that come out of Coach (Bianco's) mouth, to see everyone crying, and us all thinking if this was the last time this team is ever going to be put together."

"Everyone was upset," Keenan said. "Everyone was sad. You don't ever really see emotion from Coach (Bianco) like that and to see that kind of emotion from him just really brought it out of us. One of the worst meetings I've ever been through."

It hurt because a season with so much promise was cut short at just 17 games, it hurt because the Rebels wouldn't be able to put their streak to the test of SEC play, but above all else, it hurt because every time these guys stepped foot on a baseball field, they were having fun.

"It's the most fun I've had on a baseball field and the best team I've ever been a part of," Servideo said. "We didn't worry about the accolades, we just went out there and left it on the field every single night. We just had fun out there, and it wasn't planned. Some teams go out there and try so hard to end up so close, and we just brought it. It was effortless."

For this team's veterans, the 2020 squad was distinct from years' past. Sure, they had the potential to completely rewrite the record book, but it was their connection away from the diamond that made this team different.

"I think this team could've been one of the best in Ole Miss history," Keenan said. "The talent, the camaraderie, was one of a kind in my eyes, and really special to me. Looking back, I was really proud to be a part of that team."

People around the program took notice. To the managers, support staff, and coaches, this team was unique, and that's coming from a staff with nearly 50 combined years of experience in the Ole Miss Baseball program.

"It's hard to put into perspective," Coach Carl Lafferty said. "They did a lot of neat things-they had the streak, they threw a no-hitter-but just look at just the sheer joy they had to play the game. I've been here 13 years, and it will be one of my most favorite teams to be around. Period. I recruited these kids and obviously I love them all, but this team was unique. It was an absolute pleasure to show up every day and work with them."

By the time they finally assembled on the diamond on February 14, they viewed their success as a foregone conclusion. They had seen it all offseason, but they still had some people outside the program to sway. And boy, did they deliver.

Servideo stepped back into his natural position at shortstop and looked at home from day one. You'll struggle to find many 5-foot-11 shortstops in the SEC (or the country, for that matter) hitting nearly .400, slugging nearly .700, reaching base at a mark of almost 60 percent, competing for the team lead in home runs and all the while leading the club in stolen bases.

"It was special, and it felt good," Servideo said. "I was out there back at my main position and I just had to be that guy. Part of the reason we had success was because (Tyler) and I were able to step up and be the guys that the team could depend on."

One position over, Keenan was swinging a bat as hot as anyone in the country. He's been a run producer all throughout his career, and worked to the SEC lead in RBI with 33 and also led the league with a slugging percentage of .791. By March 11, he was hitting .403 with seven home runs.

Sure, a regression to the mean was bound to pull some of these numbers back down to a reasonable average in the gauntlet of SEC play, but the feats accomplished by these Rebels through 17 games is undeniable.

"They are terrific," Bianco said. "I still feel that Anthony's the best shortstop in the country and Tyler's the best third baseman in the country. But that's not a surprise to those around the program."

Leading up to the season, while the nation's No. 2 recruiting class was the main storyline of the offseason, Bianco just continued to hammer home the importance of his few veterans.

"I really thought the bigger picture was how the veterans would play," Bianco said. "How would the guys that had been in the fire before continue with their success? They were certainly on their way to doing that."

Tim Elko was finally living up to his acclaim coming out of high school. Justin Bench was reaching base in every single game he played in - literally. Cael Baker had captivated the entire city by his second day in a Rebel uniform, and his fellow Junior College transfers Hayden Leatherwood and Ben Van Cleve were filling any gaps that remained as mainstays in the Rebel lineup.

"What was so special about our team was that it wasn't always (Keenan) and (Servideo) who had to get the job done," Chatagnier said. "Someone different had a good game every single day. Even when our nine hole hitter came up to bat, I had no doubt that this guy was going to get a hit. I've never been on a team like that."

The Ole Miss offense could rely on as many as 13 or 14 guys on any given day, but two pieces were a constant every day: Keenan and Servideo. The pair of juniors were the only Rebels to start in all 17 games this season, and the two combined to account for almost 60 percent of the team's runs this year.

During winter scrimmages leading up to the start of the season, Keenan had just two hits in eight games, stoking fears that the Rebel offense might falter behind a poor showing from their resident slugger. But alas, it proved to be just a case of friendly fire that merely highlighted the weapons Bianco had in his pitching staff.

"We knew they were nasty," Keenan said. "I mean, look at our offense now; if we couldn't hit them, we knew nobody else could."

Speaking of the Rebel arms, they were quietly amassing one of the most complete weekend rotations in the entire SEC. Opposing batters worked to a paltry .120 batting average against Rebel ace Doug Nikhazy, while his counterpart in Gunnar Hoglund was pitching like the first round pick he was, slicing through opposing lineups and working to a 9.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio through four starts.

"Doug and Gunnar are as dominant as anyone, and can perform with anybody," Lafferty said. "There's not a college pitcher that is going to walk out there that I'm not scared to run our two guys against them."

By the time the ball finally got to Derek Diamond each Sunday, the freshman had nothing to worry about.

"Those guys - Gunnar and Doug - I can't say enough about them," Diamond said. "They made my job a breeze. I watch them go out there every weekend, and it was, 'Shove, shove, my start. Shove, shove, my start.' It was a routine. They showed me how it's done. All I had to do was just follow their lead."

Oh, and by the way, the Rebels return all three starting arms in 2021. Lafferty has a message for the rest of the SEC next year: look out.

"I think they have a chance to be as good as any rotation we've ever had here - there's no question about it," Lafferty said.

Nikhazy, Hoglund, and Diamond set the tone early and often on the weekends, but any coach will tell you that you're only going to go as far as your bullpen can take you.

"On a conference weekend, it's going to take more than one guy," Lafferty said. "Any coach in America will tell you if you're getting quality starts and a deep bullpen, you don't have to tell me anything more, you have a shot to win it all."

In years' past, Bianco and Lafferty have relied on a committee of relievers who have traditionally complimented one or two truly dominant arms out of the bullpen. This year, however, there were four.

Taylor Broadway, Max Cioffi, and Austin Miller allowed just four earned runs in 20 combined appearances this year. Braden Forsyth was shaping up to become the latest in a string of great Rebel closers, and finished the year tied for first in the SEC with five saves.

"It reminded me in a lot of ways of '14," Lafferty said. "One guy could close it out one day, another guy the next day. When I looked at the bullpen, I thought there was a huge similarity to 2014."

The story of 2020 was veteran leadership, from an experienced weekend rotation and a tested bullpen to a gauntlet of dangerous bats at the plate.

On paper, however, the Rebels were very young. After all, the team had as many freshmen as they did sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined. To Bianco, however, having a 'young' team offered his players an excuse if they didn't have success early on, and so he implored first-year guys to shred this notion that they were still young beyond the fall of 2019.

"He said that as soon as we stepped on campus," Chatagnier said. "By Thanksgiving, he told us to get that out of our heads. We couldn't be a young team anymore. I think the reason this team was so good is because of how welcoming the older guys were. We never thought we were a young team because we thought we were all one."

Chatagnier took Bianco's advice and ran with it, becoming the Rebels' everyday second baseman by opening weekend. Perhaps even more crucial to the team than his .311 batting average, though, was his unbridled energy that seemed to follow him everywhere.

"I had a meeting with Coach (MacMillan) early in the season, and I told him, 'I know I'm not the biggest, I know I'm not the fastest, I know I'm not the strongest, but I can bring the energy,'" Chatagnier said. "I always ask myself what I can do to help the team out, and I didn't really think I would be playing, but I knew I would bring the energy. And from there, it was just contagious."

Chatagnier backed up his off-the-field persona with a season that would have been impressive for any classification, but he was hardly the only freshman turning heads.

Hayden Dunhurst shot to national stardom on opening weekend with an electrifying strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out to seal a series win over top-ranked Louisville. John Rhys Plumlee and Jerrion Ealy, if they needed any more clout, found it on the diamond as two of the boisterous voices from the dugout, and they were growing more comfortable at the plate with each at-bat. On the mound, six freshmen recorded significant innings to lay the groundwork for their future in Oxford.

"From day one, when you have 20 new faces - more than half our guys are putting on the uniform for the first time - you knew some of the guys would have to have success," Bianco said. "A lot of guys don't allow themselves to have success because of the newness, just mentally. We challenged those guys, and fortunately, some of those guys were ready to step into big roles."

This team wasn't a loose confederation of different classifications, they were one unit. When they stepped on the diamond, each one of them - be they young or old - played for the name on the front of their jerseys.

That's why the anguish of a cancelled season hurt equally across the classification spectrum. For the freshmen, their first taste of college baseball cut short at just 17 games. For the draft-eligible juniors, the prospect of an uncertain future. For the seniors, the weeks of waiting and pondering if their careers had just been ended in the most inglorious of ways. For everyone, regardless of age, just entertaining the notion that these 34 guys have met together on the diamond for the last time is almost too much to handle.

"There are a lot of emotions-sadness for the kids, for the team, angry like everybody at the situation, disappointment-just a lot of emotions," Bianco said.

It's been about a month since the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a grinding halt. Sports are hardly anybody's first concern right now, but firing up the grill in the outfield of Swayze Field on a sunny April weekend sure doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world.

In the meantime, though, we wait.

"It's taught us a lot about handling things, it's given us some time with our families that we wouldn't normally have, and it's something that-just through perseverance-we'll get out on the other side and be better for it," Lafferty said.

More questions than answers remain for the future of Ole Miss baseball and the sport as a whole. Amid all the uncertainty, however, the players have found solace in looking back at the 2020 baseball season-in the words of Diamond, a "beautiful trip."

"A lot of questions I wish I had answers to, but one answer I do have is that this was the best team I've ever been a part of, and I'm just thankful to be a part of that team," Servideo said.

Ole Miss fans may have to endure a longer-than-usual offseason, but the Rebs will be back. In February 2021, when these boys finally return to Swayze Field, they'll be back with a vengeance.

"It's more powerful than a couple of guys for us," Diamond said. "It's a team program that we've built, and every single person is on it. We're in on being the best, and we'll be back next year. You can count on that."