RALEIGH, N.C.—Brett Koehler might’ve just saved his best for last. Now it’s up to his teammates to make sure it wasn’t.
The William & Mary senior righthander delivered his team into the finals of the Raleigh Regional with a complete game against Mississippi on Sunday afternoon, winning 4-1 to earn a rematch with host North Carolina State in the nightcap. The win was the Tribe’s second over the Rebels on the weekend and the first two NCAA tournament wins in program history.
Koehler got hit hard in a pair of late-season starts against Georgia State and James Madison, but an important difference Sunday was his comfort level with his slider. The Rebels came out swinging, knowing Koehler was apt to fill the strike zone. Commanding the slider had been a challenge at times, but he had it going Sunday and went to the slider early and often to combat Ole Miss’ aggressiveness.
“I thought Brett was outstanding as far as pounding the strike zone like he always does,” William & Mary coach Jamie Pinzino said. “They were very aggressive from an offensive standpoint, which I think is the strategy against Brett a lot with how many strikes he throws. I thought he did a good job adjusting to that.”
Koehler needs his command and movement to be sharp since his fastball resides in the mid- to upper-80s. True to form, he walked only one on Sunday, one of just two three-ball counts he went to all afternoon. He racked up quick outs and finished the game on an efficient 98 pitches, striking out five and allowing seven hits, all of them singles.
The Rebels mounted a serious challenge only once, when they loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth trailing 1-0, thanks in part to Koehler’s own throwing error on what would’ve been a sacrifice bunt. But the senior induced a 5-4-3 double play, which brought in one run but largely diffused the threat. He got a fly out to end the inning, and the Rebels scarcely challenged him again. Koehler faced the minimum from the sixth inning onward and retired 12 of the final 13 Rebel hitters, the lone baserunner getting erased on a double play.
“I feel like that’s pretty typical for me,” Koehler said. “I feel like I usually get stronger late in the game. I’m glad coach kept me out there. I got more and more confident in my pitches as the game progressed.”
The Rebels started sophomore righty Sam Smith, their regular Sunday starter, but the Tribe was on him quickly. After getting shut out by N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon Saturday, the Tribe was able to catch its breath against Smith, who self-admittedly struggled with his slider and was never able to put hitters away, failing to record a single strikeout in five innings of work. William & Mary scored a run in the first inning on consecutive two-out, two-strike doubles by Michael Katz and Ryan Lindemuth and never trailed.
“I thought it was important that we got out to an early lead after a tough loss last night,” Pinzino said. “When you get shut out and in a little bit of a funk, you press a little bit so I think that first run in the first inning on the back-to-back doubles was huge for us and took a little pressure off.”
William & Mary took the lead for good on Jackson Shaver’s two-run single in the fourth, and catcher Ryan Hissey complemented his strong defensive work by adding some insurance with an RBI single in the sixth off Rebels reliever Jeremy Massie.
For Ole Miss, this was hardly the end of the season envisioned a couple months ago. The Rebels (38-24) started the year 21-2 and rose to as high as No. 6 in the country, but they lost three of their last four weekend series to finish 15-15 in the SEC, then went 1-2 in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments, getting ousted with two losses to a team from the Colonial Athletic Association. They lost 22 of their last 39 games.
Now, the Rebels have been left searching for answers for how a promising season got away.
“Every weekend, we had a really good game where we pitched really well but it was hard for us to put a streak together,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “I don’t know how many wins that we had in a row in the second half of the season. The longest win streak was maybe two or three games. We just weren’t able to get going.
“It’s amazing—it seems like such a long time ago—but we were 21-2. We were really good at one time. I think we just couldn’t get that feeling back.”