HATTIESBURG, Miss.-Heading into Selection Monday, it is fair to say that no team in the nation was sweating more than Ole Miss was. The Rebels’ hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament were on thin ice; a sub-.500 conference record will do that. So will a loss in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
But in Hattiesburg, battling Southern Miss in a highly-anticipated, rare in-state super regional showdown, the Rebels did no wrong. Backed by a substantial crowd of Ole Miss supporters donning the red and blue, head coach Mike Bianco’s team followed up a perfect 3-0 showing at the Coral Gables Regional with another flawless weekend, taking down the Golden Eagles on their home field in two games.
If there is a Cinderella story of this tournament, Ole Miss fits the bill. The Rebels, despite a tradition of success in the SEC, were the last team selected to the tournament field, taking the final at-large spot, and sent to a stacked regional featuring No. 6 overall seed Miami (FL) and Pac-12 power Arizona. They took down both, as a 22-6 victory over Arizona sent the Rebels back to their home state for the second weekend, with plenty of confidence in tow.
“This team was 7-14 [in SEC play entering May] and in a place we’ve never been in 22 years,” Bianco said. “We’ve only been to Omaha twice [in those 22 years], but we’ve never been 7-14. So many older guys didn’t let this team go. We started playing at the end like we were capable.”
But there was a question as to how the pitching staff, whose 5.60 ERA in SEC play ranked ninth in the conference, would fare in a series against a lineup as strong as Southern Miss’. In the first regular season meeting between the rivals on April 5, the Golden Eagles had scored 10 runs off the Ole Miss pitchers in a 10-7 win. The second meeting, ironically also in Hattiesburg, went the other way, with a 4-1 win for the Rebels.
That is the exact blueprint Ole Miss followed when they found themselves back at Pete Taylor Park with a trip to Omaha on the line.
The pitching proved to be the x-factor, in fact, as Ole Miss outscored USM 15-0. That’s right. The Golden Eagles did not score once in 18 innings on their home field, as the Rebels opened play with a 10-0 thumping on Saturday afternoon, before coming back in a 5-0 victory on Sunday afternoon. It sends Ole Miss to Omaha for the first time since 2014, and perhaps the more impressive feat is the fact that since the NCAA started seeding the NCAA Tournament in 1999, just three other No. 3 seeds have advanced to the CWS without a loss, Ole Miss being the fourth.
“It has been asked a lot, ‘What does it take [to win a super regional]’,” Bianco said Sunday. “I guess what it takes is not letting the other team score. Then you have a shot to win. I say that sarcastically, but it’s true. You got to play well. We certainly played well.”
The first back-to-back series of shutouts for the Rebel pitching staff since February of 2015 began with a gem of a start from Dylan DeLucia on Saturday. The junior struck out nine over 5.2 innings, with four hits allowed, before Jack Dougherty came through with 3.1 perfect innings, not allowing a single base runner as the Rebels secured the 10-0 victory.
Using just two pitchers in game one kept the options open for Bianco and his staff in game two, but he had no reason to go deep into the bullpen. Hunter Elliott was unstoppable, throwing 7.1 innings, fanning 10 batters. Just three of the 25 batters Elliott faced reached base, all on singles. Josh Mallitz sealed the win in 1.2 innings, as USM mustered only a single walk against the right-hander.
“We always knew [Hunter] was good,” Bianco said of his starter. “He was obviously a high-profile recruit coming out of high school and had a good fall. But like a lot of guys, we weren’t sure what his role was going to be. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the opportunity to start very much. We put him in the bullpen, but once we moved him into the rotation, he’s been terrific.”
Mallitz’s final pitch was lifted high by Christopher Sargent into the air and carried into foul territory, as Tim Elko settled under the ball. The first baseman, whose presence was made known nationally a year ago in his three-home run performance on a torn ACL in the Oxford Regional, watched the ball plop into his glove before raising his hands high in triumph, feet away from the Ole Miss dugout. The Rebels had done what many had thought to be impossible for a team that struggled, and limped at times, through its SEC schedule. Bianco gave the credit for the remarkable turnaround to his players, but his leadership has no doubt been instrumental along with it.
“What an amazing sport this is,” Bianco told reporters. “So many times, like in the Coral Gables regional final, we put Garrett Wood in at third base. In his first start ever, the first ball gets hit to him. Today, the last ball goes to Tim Elko, the guy that came back to go to Omaha. My point being, it’s about [these players]. It’s never been about me.”
Bianco’s leadership and the culture of the Ole Miss program was recognized by USM head coach Scott Berry, who first gave credit to the Rebels for their success in Hattiesburg as he opened up his postgame press conference. A turnaround such as this one would not have been possible for just any program; it took a veteran-laden group with the right mentality for the third CWS appearance under Bianco to be made possible.
“[Ole Miss] is really a classy program,” Berry said. “I told Mike [Bianco] after the game, ‘If it couldn’t have been us, I wanted it to be you.’ I think the world of him and have the utmost respect for the way he runs his program and how his players act.”
In Sunday’s win, the offense took several innings to get going, but established a lead relatively quickly. They had 10 hits, getting onto the scoreboard in a three-run fifth. Justin Bench’s RBI single to left center in the sixth made it 4-0 and TJ McCants’ home run was the cherry on top in the eighth inning. USM turned to its best in the eighth in reliever Landon Harper, who began the inning on fire, striking out the first two batters he faced in a total of eight pitches. His first pitch to McCants was also a strike. But McCants connected on the second, driving a no-doubter beyond the right field wall.
“It certainly wasn’t a day of offense, but like last night, I thought we made [Tanner] Hall really work,” Bianco said. “Sometimes it doesn’t look that way because you’re not scoring runs, and we missed a couple opportunities early. That shows you how good he is.
“But we were able to get the pitch count up a little bit, and got a couple balls that found holes. We were able to push a couple of runs across, and fortunately, with the way we pitched, that’s all we needed.”