By Billy Watkins
This is not what I expected to be typing in late June: The Ole Miss Rebels are the 2022 NCAA national baseball champions.
Yes, I gave them up for dead in April. And so did you unless you’re an Ole Miss player or coach — or closely related to Nostradamus.
Now I wonder how many newborns over the next few months will be named Dylan, Tim, Hunter, Kevin, Jacob, Peyton, Justin, Kemp, TJ or Calvin. You know it’s going to happen. And it’s fun to imagine the parents explaining to their children a few years from now how they got their names: “See, Ole Miss was having a terrible baseball season, but all of a sudden the world turned upside down. And then … ”
It’s funny what goes through your mind when something occurs like the Rebels’ Sunday championship clincher, a come-from-behind 4-2 victory over Oklahoma in Omaha.
I thought of the players who came before. Folks like Jake Gibbs, Chris Coghlan, Seth Smith, Drew Pomeranz, Kyle Gordon, Stephen Head, Zack Cozart, David Delucci, Lance Lynn, Bubba Hubbard and Paul Husband. I even thought of the legendary Casey Stengel, the Rebels’ coach in 1914. He won seven World Series titles as manager of the New York Yankees, and Ol’ Casey would’ve surely enjoyed seeing Ole Miss win it all.
I thought of my daddy, who died in 1961 after just 35 years on this earth. He attended Ole Miss in 1941-42, then entered the Navy and spent the latter part of World War II on a ship in the Pacific. He was at Tokyo Bay when Japan signed its surrender documents.
He never went back to Ole Miss, but he loved the Rebels, as did his father. Rebel football games were must-hear radio during my early childhood.
And I thought of my friend, John McMillan, 54, of Richland. A 1991 graduate of Ole Miss, McMillan used to go to baseball games as a student “when you could sit wherever you wanted. There weren’t but 400, maybe 500 people at the games,” he said.
McMillan was part of Sno’s Cold Corner, named in honor of third baseman Chris Snopek. “It was just a bunch of us who were pretty cold-blooded in giving the visiting third basemen a hard time,” he said.
That was more than three decades ago.
Fast forward to Sunday. McMillan was watching the game on TV at the home of his friends Rob and Tina Craft.
“When we got that last out … man, there were hugs and yells and tears,” McMillan said. “You know these guys have worked so stinking hard and Coach (Mike) Bianco has had a lot of pressure on him, a lot of criticism. But he handled it so professionally. He always said the right thing. I’m happy for the team, but I’m really happy for him.”
McMillan is also happy for Ole Miss fans.
“The people who are really into sports and their schools will understand this. Others won’t. But I put a lot of emotional support into Ole Miss’ teams,” he said. “It’s hard to get to a lot of baseball games but I’m listening to every pitch on the radio. I’m pumping my fists and into the games.
“And for this team to come back and do what no Ole Miss baseball team has ever done … it’s unreal.
“I can’t wait for the national championship t-shirts and stuff to come out. If it can fit into my car and it’s something I want, I’m gonna buy it. I may have to dip into my savings and retirement, but I’m going to get a whole lot of stuff.”
They had come so close since Bianco was named head coach in 2001. Seven times, the Rebels had reached a Super Regional only to fall short in all but one. That eats at a program, eats at a fan base. I wrote a few days ago that Ole Miss always seemed to play tight in the biggest moments.
This team did not, and the truth is nobody really knows why. Once they got their footing in early May, the Rebels played better than any team in the country.
It happens in baseball, the weirdest sport of all.
Exhibit A: All-American shortstop Jacob Gonzalez had struggled through the CWS at the plate and in the field. But on Sunday, he showed why he has a chance to be the No. 1 player chosen in the 2023 Major League draft.
He was in the middle of an eye-popping 4-6-3 double play, grabbing the flip with his bare hand from Peyton Chatagnier, then gliding across the bag and firing a strike to first. (Chatagnier deserves props for the flip, too, which he executed with his glove.) That double play ended an Oklahoma scoring threat in the first inning.
Gonzalez put his team ahead 1-0 with a home run in the sixth, tied the game with a single in the eighth and later scored the Rebels’ fourth run.
Gonzalez’s showing Sunday was a microcosm of Ole Miss’ season, from not-so-good to brilliant. Good for him.
A few thoughts, observations and facts:
* Ole Miss, 42-23, went 18-4 after May 1 and lost just one game in the NCAA Tournament. Its No. 1 national ranking early in the season doesn’t look so silly now.
* Rebel pitchers held Oklahoma’s top six hitters in the lineup to 3-for-43, gave up just eight hits in the two wins over the Sooners, and allowed an average of 2.3 runs per game in the NCAA Tournament — the fewest in the aluminum bat era.
* You have to see the numbers in black and white to truly understand how dominant Ole Miss starting pitchers Dylan Delucia and Hunter Elliott were in a combined four starts.
Delucia, a junior: 16.2 innings, 8 hits, 1 run, no walks, 17 strikeouts. He was voted Most Outstanding Player.
Elliott, a freshman: 13 innings, 3 earned runs, 9 hits, 4 walks, 10 strikeouts.
And kudos to Jack Dougherty, Mason Nichols, Brandon Johnson, Josh Mallitz, John Gaddis and Jack Washburn. They were clutch on the mound when called upon.
* We should have listened to veteran Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn after Ole Miss whipped the Razorbacks to reach the finals.
“Oklahoma is going to be rested and have all their arms loaded and ready to go,” Van Horn said. “But the way Ole Miss has been playing down the stretch, it might not matter.”
* Senior Tim Elko, whose legend is statue worthy, had four hits Saturday night in the championship finals opener. He was 0-for-4 on Sunday, but he always seems to make things happen. Elko was at the plate when Justin Bench scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth on a wild pitch.
* Ole Miss hit as many home runs (3) in one inning Saturday as it allowed in six CWS games.
* Catcher Hayden Dunhurst struggled at the plate (2-for-19). But is there another college catcher you would rather have behind the plate? The way he frames pitches is art.
*McMillan texted me after our interview. He wrote: “I’m also happy for (radio announcer) David Kellum. That dude has traveled a lot of miles to see Ole Miss baseball get to this point.”
* It was a nice moment when Bianco and Ole Miss women’s golf coach Kory Henkes exchanged a postgame hug. Henkes’ team brought home the 2021 national title.
*Since Ole Miss’ championship comes one year after Mississippi State won it, hopefully fans from both schools can can play nice for at least a little while. Let’s celebrate the fact that it’s only the seventh time that different schools from the same state won consecutive CWS titles.
* When the championship trophy was presented to Bianco, he quickly handed it to the players to pass around. That’s the way he’s handled this amazing eight-week run — he’s deflected all the credit to his coaching staff and players.
He had to hear the rumbling from upset fans, though he tries to avoid social media. Truth be known, he might have wondered about his future at Ole Miss if the team didn’t start playing better.
That is all behind him now.
On the Ole Miss baseball ledger, Bianco is in a class of one.