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Ole Miss completes incredible turnaround with title

435 days ago
Joe Menzer | SEC Network
Photo: Ole Miss Athletics

Prior to Ole Miss actually winning the program's first national championship by capturing the College World Series in 2022, there was the not-so-small matter of simply getting into the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Mike Bianco remembers waiting to learn if it would happen along with his fellow coaches and players.

"We were sitting in our Dugout Club on that Memorial Day morning, hoping to hear our names," Bianco said. "When our names were called, well, I've been there for 21 of those. And 18 times our name was called. Of those 18 times, I don't recall ever seeing that type of emotion from our team. ... These guys were super excited to hear their names called."

It turned out that the Rebels were the last team to make the 64-team tournament field. Less than a month later, they were the last team left standing after dispatching Oklahoma in consecutive games in the best-of-three national championship finals.

The only Ole Miss loss at the CWS in Omaha was 3-2 to fellow SEC foe Arkansas. The next day, Dylan DeLucia spun a four-hit shutout to beat the Razorbacks in a rematch and send the Rebels to the finals. DeLucia was named CWS Most Outstanding Player after allowing one earned run, striking out 17 and walking none in 16⅔ innings. He went 2-0 with a 0.54 ERA in Omaha, but did not appear in the finals.

Ole Miss, which won the finals opener over Oklahoma, 10-3, was down 2-1 going into the eighth inning of Game 2. But they scored three runs, two on wild pitches by Oklahoma, and got a game-tying RBI single from Jacob Gonzalez to earn the title-clinching 4-2 win.

It was the first title-clinching win for a team that had been trailing in the final game after seven innings since LSU turned the trick in 2000, and it was indicative of the never-give-up attitude of this Rebels' team.

Bianco was blunt about their up-and-down march to making program history. "We've kind of been to hell and back," he said.

His statement was pretty accurate. After beginning the season ranked in the top five in the nation and rising to No. 1 in some polls briefly early on, Ole Miss unexpectedly fell on hard times.

At their lowest point, as the month of May dawned, the Rebels were an unthinkable 7-14 in SEC play and it looked like a trip to the SEC Tournament, much less Omaha, was in mortal danger. Ole Miss righted the ship, though, and won seven of its last nine SEC contests to finish 14-16 in the conference.

But when the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt in a play-in game and were bounced from the SEC Tournament, their future for even getting into the NCAA Tournament went from cloudy to murky. So when the Rebels gathered for a watch party at their Dugout Club, Bianco wasn't sure his team would make the field. And it almost didn't, as it was the last at-large team to claim a spot.

"We weren't sure on selection day if we would get in," Bianco said. "We felt we were good enough to be in, but you never know. Thankfully we were in the tournament."

Bianco credited senior leader Tim Elko for helping hold the team together until the Rebels could get their once-promising season turned around.

"We kind of struggled to figure certain parts out, especially the pitching side of it, and maybe most specifically the starting pitching," Bianco said. "But a lot of credit has to go to our captain, the captain, Tim Elko, and a lot of the older guys. We had an older team that held it together.

"We were at a bad spot 7-14 in Southeastern Conference at one point. But they didn't let it go and continued to fight, continued to play and work and grind. And we put it together at the end of the year."

Elko said he thinks the Rebels were able to turn it around was because they didn't panic when the season was not going the way they or anyone else expected or wanted.

"We continued to have belief in each other and ourselves... We didn't listen to all the outside noise and let that bring us down," said Elko, a three-time team captain who finished his career with 46 home runs, including two at Omaha and a single-season school record 24 in the 2022 season. "We just stayed within ourselves and played together as a team. We didn't point fingers. Didn't try to do too much.

"Just really tried to keep believing in ourselves and know that we were one of the best teams in the country. We just kept thinking, 'We've got to just go out there play better.' So we were able to do that and got on a roll."

The Rebels had to get in position to take it all in Omaha by first sweeping the Coral Gables Regional as a No. 3 seed and then sweeping favored Southern Mississippi in their super regional on the road, so they certainly grew comfortable playing away from home during their unlikely NCAA Tournament run.

The Rebels finished the season on a 20-6 run, including 10-1 in the national tournament they once feared they would not get in, giving Bianco the title he had been seeking for the school since his arrival as coach 22 years earlier.

"It means the world that we were able to get Coach B a national championship here," said Elko, who also was quick to credit the entire Ole Miss coaching staff. "It brings joy to my heart to win a national championship for them."

Bianco obviously felt the same way about being able to win it for an Ole Miss fan base that was well represented in Omaha.

"During the trophy presentation, when you look in the stands, the stadium holds 28,000, and it looked almost still packed. That's how many fans we had here," Bianco said shortly after the title-clinching win. "This group of young men, I think people have fallen in love with them, their story and where they come from.

"They had a lot of people rooting for them, and not just Ole Miss fans. I've gotten so many texts over the last couple weeks from a lot of our rivals, a lot of the people that we compete against every single day that says they're pulling for us, that they've fallen in love with this story and these guys."