Story by Robert Wilson
Elvis Presley is the most famous entertainer who was born in Tupelo.
There’s a new entertainer from the Northeast Mississippi city who college baseball fans will remember a long time after Sunday’s performance.
Ole Miss rode freshman Hunter Elliott’s left pitching arm to a 5-0 victory over No. 11 national seed Southern Miss to sweep the best of three series in the NCAA Tournament Hattiesburg Super Regional Sunday afternoon before 5,469 at Pete Taylor Park/Hill Denson Field in Hattiesburg.
With the victory, Ole Miss advances to its first College World Series since 2014 and the second in Coach Mike Bianco’s 22-year coaching career in Oxford.
Ole Miss improved to 37-22, won its fifth consecutive game and 13th of its last 16 games. The Rebels went undefeated in the Coral Gables Regional and the Hattiesburg Super Regional, only the fourth team to go undefeated in regional and super regional play since the format began in 1999. The Rebels will play the Auburn-Oregon State winner in the first round of the CWS later this week in Omaha. Ole Miss will be making its sixth CWS appearance in school history.
Southern Miss finished 47-19 and fell two games short of making its first CWS appearance since 2009 and second in school history. The Golden Eagles finished their season capturing 40 or more wins for the sixth straight season, the only team in the country to accomplish that feat.
Elliott, who was named one of 19 starting pitchers named to the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American Team, was brilliant in his biggest game of the season. He allowed only three hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 7 1/3 innings. After giving up an infield single by Will McGillis in the third inning, Elliott retired the next 16 Southern Miss batters.
Southern Miss ended the streak with a leadoff single by Slade Wilks – the first leadoff hitter in an inning to reach base for Southern Miss in the Super Regional – to start the eighth inning. With runners on first and second and one out, Josh Mallitz replaced Elliott. Mallitz struck out Blake Johnson, then walked Reece Ewing to bring up the tying run. Mallitz got leadoff hitter Carson Paetow – who was tied for second on the team with 16 home runs – to pop out to shortstop Jacob Gonzalez to end Southern Miss’ best scoring threat of the game.
Mallitz pitched the final 1 2/3 innings to earn his second save of the season.
“Hunter was outstanding, another great pitching performance,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “He was a high profile recruit out of Tupelo and we always knew he would be good. Like a lot of guys, we weren’t sure what his role was going to be. Once we moved him into the rotation, Hunter has been terrific. He’s not going to light up radar gun. He’s not going to hit 95 (miles per hour with his fastball) or have an 85 (mph) slider. But he has confidence and toughness. He makes pitches to get him off the field. Today was the best he’s pitched all season. He was lights out.”
“My big thing going into today was to try to avoid as many three-ball counts as I could,” Elliott said. “I went back and looked, and I think I had three three-ball counts. My biggest mindset today was fill up the zone and attack with my best stuff and stay out of three-ball counts.”
“Hunter was in total control. I was really impressed with him,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “He mixed his pitches, he had plus and minus velocity, great changeup, made his fastball really sneaky and hit both sides of the plate. He never really gave us a chance to get any kind of timing off him. Hunter came over to back up a play (by Berry at the third base coaching box) and I don’t think he had even broken out a razor. He’s ahead of his time. Hunter had the mound presence of a senior.”
Southern Miss sophomore right-hander, first team All-American and Conference USA Pitcher of the Year Tanner Hall matched Elliott with scoreless pitching through the first four innings.
Ole Miss got all the runs it needed in the fifth when the Rebels scored three runs when Calvin Harris singled, Justin Bench doubled, and Harris scored on a passed ball. Gonzalez and Kevin Graham followed with run-scoring singles.
Bianco is going to be the head coach of the USA National Team and he chose Hall to be one of his pitchers. He knows how good he is. Hall, who came into the game ranked third in the nation in strikeout to walk ratio, allowed eight hits (second most he had allowed all season) and four runs and had one walk and six strikeouts. He finished with a 9-3 record and a 2.80 earned run average.
“We made Hall really work,” Bianco said. “We were able to get his pitch out a little bit and we had some balls that found some holes. We were able to push a couple of runs across and the way we pitched that’s all we needed.”
Much has been said about Bianco and his inability to get his team to the CWS in Omaha despite having one of the most successful programs in the country.
“It’s not about me. I didn’t throw one ball today, didn’t swing a bat at all,” Bianco said. “I’ve been here a long time and we’ve won a lot of games. We haven’t gotten to Omaha as much as we want, probably not as much as the fans want. I’ve had a lot of great kids in that other dugout (like Southern Miss was Sunday and not getting to Omaha). It’s a tough day. I’m excited for our group.
“I don’t get on social media much. I might hear someone yelled out ‘It’s took late Bianco’ or things like that when I go to the mound. But I don’t hear the noise. I can’t live in that world. I know it’s out there. My loved ones see it. I can see it on their faces. I stay away from it and I think I do a pretty good job of it.”
Bianco remembers when his team was having a difficult time and was in last place in the SEC West and wasn’t sure they would even make the SEC Tournament.
“I’ve been here 22 years and we had never been 7-14 in the league before,” Bianco said. “But the older guys on our team didn’t let this team go. And I challenged our coaching staff. I told them not to read and hear the noise. Do your job. I challenged our players too. As I look back, I don’t remember a time when they didn’t think they could win. Even in the tough times, they continued to work hard and play hard. (Former Ole Miss star and Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year) Chris Coglan spoke to our team when we were going through that bad stretch. He told the team don’t you dare change your goals because someone said you weren’t good enough. Don’t be satisfied with getting to the SEC Tournament, a regional, super regional or even the College World Series. Your goal is to win the national championship. Why would you let someone on the internet talk you out of your goal? He said don’t settle for being mediocre. About that time, we swept Missouri and swept LSU. We started playing like we are capable of, like we were earlier in the year. We finished that way.”
“Mississippi will be represented by Ole Miss and I’m pulling for them to win the whole thing,” Berry said. “They played well this weekend. Mike runs a classy program. I think the world of him. He runs his program the right way. He has taken a regular program and built it into a great program with great facilities. When Mike decides to leave Ole Miss, they need to build as statue of him. He has done an amazing job of generating interest and enthusiasm for the program.”
Bianco feels for Berry and his team.
“Coach Berry has had an unbelievable year,” Bianco said. “I’ve been on the other side of this. It’s tough.”
“We had young men with tears coming down their faces,” Berry said. “They were hurting because we worked so hard. It hurt. We had a special year. We won the Conference USA regular season title, hosted and won a regional and hosted a super regional for the first time in school history. Today doesn’t define who we are. We took another step this year from last year (losing to Ole Miss in the regional final last season). Our next step in Omaha.”