By Robert Wilson
Ole Miss has had the most outstanding pitching staff in the country during its NCAA Tournament run, winning eight of nine games, including three shutouts, having a 1.88 earned run average with 97 strikeouts and only 17 walks (a superb 5.7-to-1ratio).
A large part of the credit goes Ole Miss assistant coach and pitching coach Carl Lafferty, who is the longest tenured assistant baseball coach the SEC.
Lafferty, a Pine, Bluff, Ark., native and former Ole Miss All-SEC catcher, is in his 15th season as a full-time assistant coach, including 12 years as the recruiting coordinator.
Lafferty has produced great pitchers for many years, but this year’s NCAA run is the best in his stay in Oxford and his pitchers have led the way.
Ole Miss, 40-23, goes for its first national championship in school history this weekend. The Rebels meet Oklahoma Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN in the first game of the best of three series for the national title.
Ole Miss is coming off possibly the best pitching performance, considering the high stakes, in school history. Junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia pitched a complete game shutout – the first SEC pitcher to accomplish that feat in the College World Series since 1994 – and allowed only four hits with seven strikeouts and no walks. DeLucia was pitching for Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Fla., a year ago. It was Lafferty who found him and developed him once he got to Oxford. And then he and Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco made the decision to bring him out of the bullpen during the season and the rest is history. DeLucia has been solid, with an 8-2 record and been dazzling in the post season. In his last three appearances, DeLucia has allowed one earned run and 12 hits with 30 strikeouts and only two walks in 22 1/3 innings. He has not walked a batter in his last 17 innings.
In addition to DeLucia, Lafferty has put together a deep pitching staff this season. Freshman left-hander Hunter Elliott from Tupelo has emerged as Ole Miss’ second ace and was named freshman All-American and has a 5-3 record and a 2.70 ERA. Brandon Johnson has been solid as the top closer with a team-high 11 saves in a team-high 23 appearances. Josh Mallitzhas been stellar in relief, a 1.24 ERA and two saves in 16 appearances. Many others like Oregon State transfer Jack Washburn and Jackson Prep alumnus and freshman right-hander Mason Nichols have contributed.
Madison Central alumnus Josh Laxer is a product of Lafferty. He pitched for Ole Miss from 2011-2014 and led the Rebels with six saves as a senior on the 2014 College World Series team, the last one to go to Omaha before this year’s team.
“Coach Laff is a big believer in mental toughness and just about every practice he would challenge the pitchers in some sort of way to get us mentally stronger,” Laxer said. “There were a few guys, including myself, on that 2014 pitching staff that really needed that. That combined with a pitching coach that always had your back was the recipe for success that year.
“Also, Laff was always the guy that no matter the situation you knew he was someone that was always going to be himself. During that whole year whether things were going well or things were going badly, he was always the same guy every day. He was the one who always had your back and was going to do everything in his power to make you a better player and person. That level of consistency that he gave us helped keep us as a pitching staff even keel, whether we were winning or losing. We wouldn’t have gotten to Omaha without seeing that from him day in and day out.”
Laxer has also been impressed with Lafferty’s coaching this season.
“The job he has done with the pitching staff has been incredible,” Laxer said. “They had some struggles early, but if you watched most of the guys that struggled early on that are pitching now, they look completely different guys. That comes from day in, day out really knowing your guys and what they need to work on individually to get better and there’s no one better at that than Laff. This staff has really gelled and developed in a short amount of time and they’re a huge reason the team is where they are right now.”
Lafferty is considered one of the best recruiters in the country. Eleven of his recruiting classes have been ranked in the Top 25, including six in the Top 10 and four in the Top 5 in the country. His 2016 class was ranked No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America and DIBaseball.com.
Jackson Prep coach Brent Heavener has seen six of his players sign with Ole Miss. He is a big Lafferty fan.
“Coach Lafferty is not just a great coach, but he’s also a tremendous recruiter,” Heavener said. “He takes time to get to know the guys both on the field and off. He is great at building relationships that has more to do than just kids he’s recruiting. Coach Lafferty has done a great job at Ole Miss and is one of the reasons they are successful as they are. College coaches spend so much time trying to find the best players in the country, but Coach Lafferty is very personable and always takes time to talk, and he wants the high school coaches in Mississippi to be successful as they are and will help us any way he can. We are lucky to have great college coaches in Mississippi, but they are also great men. Coach Lafferty is no different. I’m glad to call him a friend.”
Lafferty has developed 36 pitchers at Ole Miss who went onto to play in the pros. Two of those – Drew Pomeranz and Ryan Rolison – were first round picks in major league draft in 2010 and 2018. Pomeranz was named SEC Pitcher of the Year and an All-American.
Bianco and Lafferty had an emotional hug after DeLucia got the last out Thursday night to send the Rebels to the national championship series.
“It is so cool,” Bianco said. “A lot of special moments. I don’t know why they (assistant coaches) don’t get more credit than they do. This is the best staff we’ve ever had. We’ve had some great ones come through. I don’t remember feeling as comfortable with my guys as this year. Lafferty has been with me since 2006 and played for me in my first year at Ole Miss in 2001. It’s all about the players, but it’s their moment too. This is what we do for a living. We are blessed to do it, but it’s not easy. There are a lot of long hours.”
Bianco and Lafferty have a special bond. Bianco, who was also a catcher like Lafferty in college, named Lafferty captain of his first team at Ole Miss in 2001. Even then, Bianco knew of Lafferty’s leadership skills. Lafferty was the catcher for the Ole Miss pitching staff, which set a school record then with 418 strikeouts. The Rebels also reached as high as No. 9 in the Collegiate Baseball poll, the first Top 10 ranking by an Ole Miss team since the College World Series team of 1972. Lafferty helped to Ole Miss to 39 wins, then tied for the second most in school history, and a regional appearance. He was named second-team All-SEC catcher.
After several years of minor league baseball, Lafferty reunited with Bianco, and they began their long coaching career together. Now, they are both in Omaha, trying to win a national championship.