By Robert Wilson
Seniors Tim Elko, Kevin Graham, and Justin Bench came back this season to lead Ole Miss to the College World Series and possibly win a national championship.
Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma 4-2 in Game 2 Sunday afternoon to sweep the best of three series and win its first national baseball championship in school history before 25,972 fans – a large majority of them cheering for Ole Miss – at Charles Schwab Stadium in Omaha.
Ole Miss, the team which was the last at-large team to get into the 64-team NCAA Tournament, was the last one standing after Sunday afternoon.
What a run it was. The Rebels went on the road to win the Coral Gables Regional and the Hattiesburg Super Regional. Ole Miss was the No. 3 regional seed and defeated No. 6 national seed Miami in the regional and then defeated No. 11 national seed Southern Miss to reach the CWS. Then the Rebels defeated SEC West rivals Auburn and Arkansas to reach the national championship series. Ole Miss won 10 games and lost only one in the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels finished 42-23.
This was also a team that many counted out when Ole Miss was in last place in the SEC West with a 7-14 conference record and appeared it might be left out of the SEC Tournament. But the Rebels caught fire and won 18 of their last 22 games to finish as the national champions.
“This story will be told 100 years to come,” said Elko, the senior first baseman and team captain who had ACL surgery after last season and came back to hit a school record 24 home runs. “We kept believing, kept fighting and kept winning. And now we are national champions.”
And their coach, Mike Bianco, after 22 seasons is a national championship coach too.
“I thought we would win before this,” said Bianco, who also guided Ole Miss to the 2014 CWS and has been close many more times to making the CWS. “When I played for Skip Bertmanat LSU, we won the national title three times in five years and Skip won it five titles in 10 years. But it’s tough to get to the College World Series, then it’s tough to win it. For 22 years, a lot of guys who wore the uniform, they own a part of this, but the biggest part goes to these guys. I’m so happy for our players, especially our seniors and especially for Tim, Kevin, and Justin. They gave us great leadership and it’s a credit to them and their determination and belief. Even when we were 7-14, there wasn’t a time when we had a practice, when I went into the dugout, or we had a game when they didn’t believe they were going to win. They were always positive, always upbeat. They believed and worked hard to get here. After we won the Super Regional in Hattiesburg,I told the guys that we didn’t just want to just show up in Omaha, we wanted to win it.”
Indeed, they did. And even when Ole Miss trailed Sunday late in Game 2, the Rebels believed. Ole Miss was the first team to come back and win a national championship after trailing after seven innings since LSU in 2000.
Second baseman Jackson Nicklaus hit a run-scoring double to score catcher Jimmy Crooks and left fielder and No. 9 hitter Kendall Pettis walked to force in third baseman Wallace Clark to give Oklahoma a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh inning.
Ole Miss rallied in the bottom of the eighth. Sophomore centerfielder TJ McCants, Bench and sophomore shortstop Jacob Gonzalez each singled to tie the game at 2-2, then two wild pitches scored Bench and Gonzalez for a 4-2 lead heading into the ninth.
Ole Miss closer Brandon Johnson, a senior right-hander, came in and struck out the side for his 12th save of the season and clinch the national championship.
“We wanted to play one more year, to help this team, to go for the shot to win a national championship,” Elko said. “So much can be said of how we overcame, fought through, never let us get down and picked each other up. It’s an honor to be a part of this team.”
Both starting pitchers – Ole Miss freshman left-hander Hunter Elliott and Oklahoma redshirt freshman right-hander Cade Norton – were outstanding. Neither allowed a run in the first five innings.
Elliott allowed only three hits and two runs and had six strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. It was the third straight solid performance by Elliott in the NCAA Tournament. He allowed six hits and one earned run and had eight strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings in a 13-5 victory over Arkansas in the second round of the CWS Monday night. Elliott also allowed three hits and one runs and had 10 strikeouts in a 5-0 victory over Southern Miss in the second Super Regional game in Hattiesburg.
“Hunter is amazing,” Bianco said. “It’s more than talent. Some pitchers have better breaking balls and change ups. But his toughness, his belief, makes him such a great pitcher. Hunter has the ability to make pitches. The bigger the stage, the better he’s gets. The great ones do that. And he’s one of those guys.”
Horton, who had Tommy John surgery last year and didn’t pitch until March of this season, allowed only four hits and two runs, and had a career-high 13 strikeouts and no walks in 7 1/3 innings. It was the most strikeouts by a pitcher in a national championship series game. He allowed six hits, two runs and had 11 strikeouts and only one walk in 6 innings in a 6-2 win over Notre Dame Sunday in the second round of the CWS.
Gonzalez had three hits, including a solo home run to give Ole Miss a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning, and two RBIs and two runs. He was 0 for 13 in the CWS before Sunday.
“I grabbed Jacob yesterday and told him to take a deep breath,” Bianco said. “I told him he was a superstar, and he will be fine. He was terrific and I’m glad he is on our team.”
With the Ole Miss win Sunday, the state of Mississippi can claim the national title for the second straight year after Mississippi State won it last season. The last state to have two different teams to win a CWS title in back-to-back years was in 2002 and 2003 when Texas and Rice, located in Houston, won titles.
Ole Miss banged out 16 hits – the most in a College World Series game since 2008 – and pitchers Jack Doughtery, Mason Nichols and Josh Mallitz scattered four hits and had a combined 15 strikeouts in a 10-3 victory in Game 1 Saturday night.
With the Game 2 win and sweep, Ole Miss was the first team to sweep the national championship series since Florida swept LSU in 2017. Ole Miss was the third consecutive SEC team to win the national championship, joining MSU last season and Vanderbilt in 2019 (no championship in 2020 due to covid).
Ole Miss junior right-hander Dylan DeLucia was named the CWS Most Valuable Player. He allowed only four hits, had seven strikeouts without a walk and pitched a complete game shutout for a 2-0 victory over Arkansas Thursday to send the Rebels to the national championship series. DeLucia, who was pitching for Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Fla., last year, had one of the top pitching performances in Ole Miss history on college baseball’s biggest stage.
DeLucia, who was in the bullpen to start the season, made his best start of the season and one of the best in Ole Miss history. On shortened rest – DeLucia threw 7 2/3 innings and had 114 pitches with 10 strikeouts and no walks in a 5-1 victory over Auburn in the opening round of the CWS – he was dominating and showed determination, endurance, and willpower. He threw 113 pitches against Arkansas. And was still throwing in the 90s in the ninth inning. DeLucia had 19 first pitch strikes out of the 32 batters he faced. This shows how accurate DeLucia was Thursday. He threw 76 strikes and 37 balls, more than a 2 to 1 strike to ball ratio. And in the last two innings, DeLucia threw 16 strikes and five balls.
DeLucia’s shutout is the first by an SEC pitcher at the CWSsince LSU’s Brett Laxton in 1993.
“I feel blessed to be a part of this team,” DeLucia said. “I grew up so much this season. Tim is so much a mentor to me, and he kept me up and kept me going.”
Gaddis was the winning pitcher. The senior right-hander and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi transfer replaced Nichols with the bases loaded and two out and Oklahoma threatening to increase its 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh inning. Gaddis struck out leadoff hitter and right fielder John Spikerman to end the inning. He didn’t allow a hit in the eighth inning. Gaddis got the pitching victory, his fourth of the season.
“Gaddis has been terrific,” Bianco said. “Like a lot of guys, we struggle to find their roles. And for him, he had a tremendous fall and was one of three guys on the weekend. That was tough. Then he had an appendectomy. He is a tough kid, a great kid. He was going to go to medical school, and he had a pretty good year last season, but wanted to go to Omaha and decided on Ole Miss and he’s the winning pitcher that wins the national championship. That’s a really cool story.”
Big 12 Tournament champion Oklahoma finished 45-25 and was denied its third national baseball championship. After averaging more than 8 runs in the CWS, the Sooners scored only five runs and had only eight hits in two games against Ole Miss.Peyton Graham and Tanner Tredaway – Oklahoma’s two top hitters averaging .335 and .370 – had their 17-game hitting streaks broken in Game 1. They both went hitless in the two games in the championship series.
“We wouldn’t have been here without our great pitching,” Bianco said. “Not only other starters, but our bullpen did a terrific job. And it’s so happy for our seniors. They were our leaders, and they deserved this national championship.”