By Robert Wilson
That was the word Ole Miss senior first baseman Tim Elko heard during one of the most depressing moments of this season when the Rebels lost their second straight game and lost the series to archrival Mississippi State to fall to 5-12 in the SEC and in last place in the SEC West.
“When we lost to Mississippi State at home, I called my sister (Catie) in the car and she knew we were struggling and it was taken a little bit of a toll on me,” Elko said. “I remember talking to her and she said, “You’ve just to trust God. He didn’t bring you back here for no reason.’ I remember hanging up the phone and I was praying out loud and talking to God and asking Him, “What’s going on here? Why did I come back here? This isn’t going how I thought it was going to go.’ I remember just hearing one word He was telling me in the back of my head. It was ‘believe.’ That’s all He was telling me. Believe. Believe. I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to believe.’ I’m going to do it. I tried to harp on that to the guys and keep the spirits up and, boy, was God right. We just had to keep believing, man. We kept believing and fighting and we won a national championship for Ole Miss, all the past players, all the fans across the country, for the state of Mississippi and the University of Mississippi. We did it. We are national champs.”
Elko and his teammates made a surprising turnaround and finished as the hottest team in the country, winning 18 of their last 22 games, including 10 of 11 in the NCAA Tournament, and the Rebels won all the NCAA Tournament games on the road. Ole Miss won five of six in the College World Series and swept Oklahoma in the best of three series for the national championship.
Elko, the captain, spoke with his actions on the field as well. He set a school record with 24 home runs, hit .300 with 75 runs batted in, second in school history, this season. He hit five home runs and had 14 RBIs in the NCAA Tournament. Elko had four hits, including his 46th career home run (two short of Kyle Gordon’s school record 48 set from 1983-1987), and scored three runs in the 10-3 win over Oklahoma in Game 1 of the national championship series.
“To watch Tim make the most of it (making the NCAA Tournament and then the College World Series) is really cool,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “He’s a three-time captain. To see him play well. That’s my reward.”
Elko is the picture of belief. His story is remarkable. On April 5, 2021, Elko was hitting .340 and leading the SEC with 36 RBIs when he tore his ACL against North Alabama. But instead of having surgery, Elko considered delaying it so he could continue to play in it if the pain was manageable and the swelling went down enough. Elko returned against South Carolina on May 1 as a pinch hitter, then became the designated hitter. A week later, he hit a home run in a victory over Texas A&M. Elko finished the year strong, but the Rebels finished one win from getting to the College World Series, losing to Arizona in Game 3 of the Super Regional. He finished with a .325 batting average, a .675 slugging percentage, 16 home runs and 55 RBIs in 49 games. He led the team in home runs despite missing 18 games.
Elko had surgery on June 28 – exactly one year ago today – and began his rehab on his knee. He had graduated with a degree in exercise science and a minor in business. On July 15, he announced, along with left fielder Kevin Graham and third baseman-outfielder Justin Bench, that they were coming back for another season.
“Ole Miss means the world to me,” Elko said. “I had to make a decision last year what I was going to do. I remember following the draft I was praying and trying to figure out what I was going to do, and God told me that I’m not done here at Ole Miss. I listened to that and said, ‘Alright. Well, let’s do this thing then.’ I came back and it was the best decision I could have ever made.”
His teammates rave about Elko.
Junior pitcher Dylan DeLucia, who transferred from Northwest Florida State College, said Elko helped him tremendously this year.
“Tim is my mentor. I look up to Tim,” said DeLucia, who was named the MVP of the College World Series. “He has taught me a lot. Tim is a legend, a great captain, and a leader. He deserves a statue. Tim kept me going, kept me straight.”
Graham couldn’t look at Elko without crying after winning the national championship.
“Tim is such a great guy,” Graham said. “We’ve got a special group of guys, especially Tim. I couldn’t look over at him without crying. He means so much to me and this team.”
“Tim helped bring us together,” said Bench, who is Elko’s roommate. “He helped us keep our composure. Tim made sure we did the right thing.”
Opponents noticed Elko as well.
Tanner Allen, Mississippi State’s catcher and SEC Player of the Year from last season’s national championship team, tweeted about Elko earlier this season. Now a player in the Miami Marlins organization, Allen said: “If I had a son, I’d want his role model to be Tim Elko. I respect the way you and the rest of your team has handled the critics all year long and still found your way to Omaha…best of luck.”
“It means to the world to me to get Coach B a national championship,” Elko said. “The coaches teach us so much, keep us in line, they are like friends to us. They are the best. It is an absolute joy to play for them. I couldn’t have asked for better coaches to play for for five years.”
Elko is so happy he returned this season. “We came back to play one more year with the team,” Elko said. “Go for a shot of winning the national championship. And obviously, we did that. This is the best Ole Miss baseball team in history, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”