Ole Miss Completes Storybook Run With National Championship

Image credit: Ole Miss NCAA Title (Photo By C. Morgan Engel NCAA Photos Via Getty Images)

OMAHA – One day, several years from now, Mississippi coach Mike Bianco will look around his pregame huddle and tell the story of the 2022 Rebels. Bianco is one of college baseball’s best motivators and his pregame speeches take from history, from businessmen, from sports, from all walks of life. Anywhere he can find a motivational moment.

One day, Bianco will realize that the story his team needs to hear is the story of how Ole Miss won the 2022 national championship. It is a story of perseverance. It is a story of running with opportunity. It is the story of pushing through injury. It is the story of believing when no one else does. It is the story of turning a weakness into a strength. It is the story of turning into legends in real time.

Bianco might start the story at the end, which came Sunday when Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma, 4-2, to complete a sweep of the College World Series finals to win the first national championship in program history.

After a back-and-forth game, Ole Miss scored three times in the eighth inning to push into the lead and closer Brandon Johnson closed the win by striking out the side in the ninth inning. After the final whiff, when pinch hitter Diego Muniz swung through a breaking ball in the dirt, catcher Hayden Dunhurst leveled him with a bearhug. The rest of the Rebels soon joined in a dogpile on top of them.

The path to any national championship is full of twists and turns, turning points, elation, moments when Omaha feels unimaginable. But there’s the typical ups and downs of a national championship team and then there’s what Ole Miss did this year. Its journey had at least as many bends as the Missouri River, which flows through Omaha just past the parking lots for Charles Schwab Field.

Ole Miss lost four straight SEC series in April and was 7-14 in conference play on May 1, its margin for error all but exhausted. It lost its first-round game in the SEC Tournament, starting an anxious week ahead of Selection Monday. It was one of the last four teams selected to the NCAA Tournament. Given half a chance, the Rebels ran with it and never looked back.

Along the way, they picked up admirers around the country. They aren’t a Cinderella—this is a program that plays in the mighty SEC, that was ranked No. 1 early this year, that has one of the largest fan bases in college baseball—but they captured hearts like a scrappy underdog. Their story was so compelling, and their players played so free and easy that the bandwagon quickly filled up.

“They had a lot of people rooting for them, and not just Ole Miss fans,” Bianco said. “I can’t—I’ve gotten so many texts over the last couple weeks from a lot of our rivals, a lot of the people that we compete against every single day that says they’re pulling for us, that they’ve fallen in love with this story and these guys.”

Among those that texted Bianco were Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis and Jake Gautreau, his top assistant. There are few, if any, rivalries in college baseball that burn hotter than Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State. But such was the power of these Rebels.

First baseman and captain Tim Elko could have signed a professional contract after last season. But he opted to return to school for another shot at the national title. He was the face, the heartbeat and the leader of the Rebels and his legacy will live forever in Oxford.

“There’s so much to be said about how much we overcame this year, how much we had to fight through, how much we had to pick each other up and never let ourselves get too down,” Elko said. “This story of our season is going to be told for years and years and years to come.

“This is the best Ole Miss baseball team in history, and it feels so good, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”

The story of the 2022 Rebels really starts in 2021. Those Rebels were led by the 1-2 punch of righthander Gunnar Hoglund and lefthander Doug Nikhazy, or they were until Hoglund went down with an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Elko, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL on April 5 but rather than undergoing season-ending surgery, he rehabbed the injury and played through it, limited to DH duties. Hobbled, but not broken, Ole Miss reached super regionals, falling one win shy of a CWS appearance at Arizona. Then, from home, the Rebels had to watch as Mississippi State won the national championship, its first in program history.

It was another disappointing end for Ole Miss, but it added more fuel to the fire for 2022. Elko, outfielder Kevin Graham and third baseman/center fielder Justin Bench opted to return for another season in Oxford, helping the Rebels build one of the best lineups in the country. They had to offset the loss of Hoglund, Nikhazy and closer Taylor Broadway to pro ball, but they still ranked No. 9 in the Preseason Top 25.

Ole Miss lived up to those lofty expectations early and ascended to No. 1 in the Top 25 in mid March. It was 16-4 going into a big early season series at Swayze Field against Tennessee. The Rebels were walloped by the Volunteers that weekend, swept at home by a combined score of 26-7. While Tennessee went on to prove it was a runaway freight train, easily winning the SEC and earning the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, it was a crushing blow at the time.

Ole Miss seemed to right the ship the next week with a series win at Kentucky, but it soon fell into a funk. Alabama swept a series at Swayze. The Rebels went to South Carolina and lost a series. They lost the rivalry series to Mississippi State in excruciating fashion, losing the rubber game in extra innings. The next week, they lost a series at Arkansas, falling in the rubber game when they left the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

As the skid deepened, the noise around the program grew to deafening levels. Expectations in Oxford are sky high and archrival Mississippi State had just won a national championship. The pressure had perhaps never been higher on Bianco and the Rebels.

Leaving Fayetteville, Ole Miss was 24-19 and 7-14 in SEC play. With nine games left in conference play, a trip to the SEC Tournament hung in the balance, let alone an NCAA Tournament bid. And, then, the Rebs got hot.

Ole Miss swept Missouri. It won a midweek game at Southern Mississippi. It rolled into Baton Rouge and swept Louisiana State in Alex Box Stadium for the first time ever. Suddenly, the postseason no longer seemed farfetched. A series loss to Texas A&M on the final week of the regular season was a missed opportunity to remove all doubt, as was a 3-1 loss to Vanderbilt in the play-in round of the SEC Tournament.

The Rebels returned to Oxford after that loss hoping for just a chance to play together again. At the time, it seemed possible. But as conference tournament upsets shrunk the bubble, it started to seem likely that they would get left at home. But, in the end, the selection committee put them in the NCAA Tournament field, sending them to Coral Gables as the No. 3 seed.

Ole Miss arrived in Coral Gables along with a hurricane. The start of the regional was delayed a day by rain, but it didn’t cool off the Rebels. They swept through the field, beating Arizona twice and host Miami once to advance to super regionals. Ole Miss faced a trip to Southern Miss, which had one of the best pitching staffs in the country. The Rebels outpitched them at Pete Taylor Park, shutting them out completely in a two-game sweep. Ole Miss, once left for dead, was going to Omaha for the first time since 2014.

In Omaha, Ole Miss just kept rolling. It beat Auburn, 5-1, and then Arkansas, 13-5. Its losing streak was finally snapped in the bracket final against the Razorbacks with a 3-2 loss that saw it again leave the bases loaded in the ninth inning against Arkansas. That loss might have been deflating, but Ole Miss bounced back the next day with a 2-0 win behind an all-time great Omaha performance from righthander Dylan Delucia, who threw a four-hit shutout. The Rebels were playing for the national title for the first time ever.

Oklahoma awaited in the CWS finals. But unlike Ole Miss, the Sooners had swept through the CWS, meaning their pitching staff was set up perfectly for the best-of-three finals. Ole Miss had needed to throw DeLucia to reach the finals and he wouldn’t be able to pitch again until game 3—and even then, he would be on short rest. Freshman lefthander Hunter Elliott, the team’s No. 2 starter, would be on short rest for the first time in his career if he threw game 1, so Ole Miss held him for Game 2 and instead turned to righthander Jack Dougherty, who hadn’t started a game in months.

Like Ole Miss, Dougherty took his postseason opportunity and ran with it. He started the game by retiring the first 15 batters he faced, and the Rebels went on to a 10-3 victory.

That win set the stage for a wild, back-and-forth game Sunday. Elliott and Oklahoma righthander Cade Horton locked in a pitcher’s duel that was scoreless for five innings. Ole Miss avoided disaster in the top of the sixth inning when an interference call on a squeeze bunt took a run off the board for Oklahoma. Jacob Gonzalez gave the Rebels the lead in the bottom of the inning with a solo home run. The Sooners came back with two runs of their own in the top of the seventh and with closer Trevin Michael fully rested, they were in a strong position at the stretch.

But Ole Miss had been down and out plenty of times this season. It wasn’t fazed, and T.J. McCants chased Horton with a one-out single in the eighth inning. Bench and Gonzalez greeted Michael with back-to-back singles to tie the game. Then, two wild pitches allowed them to come home and all of a sudden, Ole Miss held a 4-2 lead going into the ninth inning.

Johnson, who got plenty of rest during the postseason because Ole Miss almost never played a game close enough to insert its closer into, came in and blew three Sooners away. The Rebels’ journey was complete. They had gone from the last team in the tournament to the last team standing.

“They’ve fallen down, where not a lot of people believed that they were any good anymore, and a lot of people may have been disappointed in them,” Bianco said. “And I get that. It’s sports, and that’s part of it. But they didn’t let that affect them. They continued to believe in one another. They continued to push.

“I think that’s why you had 20,000-plus fans show up here, because this is a special group. They knew it was a special group. It wasn’t just a national championship. I honestly believe that.”

This Ole Miss team wasn’t some plucky underdog. It has legitimate college baseball stars like Elko, who may one day have a statue outside Swayze Field—though he said he’d prefer to see one of the whole team holding the trophy aloft. It has premium draft prospects like Gonzalez, who is a potential top-five pick in the 2023 draft. DeLucia was named CWS Most Outstanding Player, completing his own improbable journey from junior college transfer who wasn’t in the Opening Weekend rotation to ace and, now, Ole Miss legend. Elliott was a prominent recruit who has made good on his potential. Catcher Hayden Dunhurst was one of the best defenders in the country. Second baseman Peyton Chatagnier was one of the best sparkplugs.

The Ole Miss fan base and many college baseball fans around the country fell in love with them because of the way they played and the way, when given half a chance by the selection committee, they capitalized on the opportunity.

It’s a story Bianco can tell forever. And he won’t be the only one. Omaha has a way of turning the fantastical into reality. The 2022 Rebels are the latest storybook to find a fitting conclusion in Middle America.

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