Reigning National Champion Ole Miss Impresses On Opening Day

Image credit: TJ McCants (Courtesy Of Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – As Mississippi simultaneously celebrated its 2022 national championship and began its 2023 season, it could hardly have ordered up a better day than Friday. Maybe slightly warmer weather than the 46 degrees it was at first pitch, but otherwise it was a nearly perfect Opening Day for the Rebels.

Before the first pitch against Delaware, Ole Miss welcomed back a half dozen players from last year’s team who had graduated or moved on to professional ball, including captain Tim Elko. There was a video honoring the national championship run, the unveiling of the national championship logo on the left field wall and a first pitch from Elko to Hayden Dunhurst, the catcher on the title team. Coach Mike Bianco could tell Elko was amped up for the moment and said Elko’s first pitch was the second-hardest he’s seen in his 23 years at Ole Miss—behind only Eli Manning.

Once the festivities ended, Ole Miss wasted little time in showing the 2023 team is very talented in its own right. Sophomore lefthander Hunter Elliott, newly promoted to No. 1 starter, retired the first nine batters he faced, and second baseman Peyton Chatagnier triggered the seasons’ first beer shower with a three-run home run in the second inning, part of a six-run inning. The Rebels never looked back and went on to an 11-2 victory in front of 11,242 fans at Swayze Field.

Striking a balance between celebrating the accomplishments of the 2022 team and looking forward to the 2023 season has been Ole Miss’ challenge for the last six months. Bianco has worked to help the team compartmentalize and, for the most part, that’s been relatively easy. Once this year’s team met for the first time when everyone returned to campus in August, it was easy to look forward because there are so many newcomers who weren’t with the team in Omaha last June.

Friday was different, however. The time to honor 2022 and the time to turn the page to 2023 abutted just prior to the Rebels taking the field to start the season.

“It was tough,” Chatagnier said. “I was watching the video beforehand and I’m like clapping and smiling. Then I’ve got to lock back into the game. But it was cool. It was cool to see Tim out there to throw out the first pitch and everything. There’s no way you can’t think about last year, but you’ve kind of got to put it away once the game starts.”

Once the game started, Ole Miss was ready to go. Elliott, a Freshman All-American in 2022, got off to a strong start. He struck out the side in the first inning and finished with nine strikeouts in five innings. He held Delaware to two runs on three hits and a walk, with all of the traffic coming in the fourth inning.

Elliott was able to limit the damage, however, strand two runners and then come back to strike out the side in the fifth.

“I came out pretty hot in the first,” Elliott said. “Fastball, changeup, slider all felt good. I hit a little bump in the road in the fourth and then just kept going.”

Elliott’s emergence in the second half of last season was part of the reason why Ole Miss was able to turn its year around and make the postseason run. Pitching behind righthander Dylan DeLucia, he went 5-3, 2.70 with 102 strikeouts and 34 walks in 80 innings. DeLucia, the College World Series Most Oustanding Player, is now in pro ball, making Elliott’s readiness to anchor the rotation even more significant.

Friday, Elliott showed he’s up to the task.

“He’s special,” Bianco said. “One tough inning in the fourth and we’ll go back and look at the film, but it probably was just a couple of missed pitches.

“Really just a couple mistakes. Besides that, I thought he was sharp.”

Ole Miss also showed off its all-around depth. Behind Elliott, the Rebels used three relievers—including blue-chip freshman J.T. Quinn—who combined for seven strikeouts in four scoreless innings. The lineup combined for 13 hits—including three doubles and four home runs—and nine of the 10 players who logged a plate appearance notched a hit. 

The Rebels’ veterans and newcomers alike came through. Chatagnier, an unlikely power source, kickstarted the offense with his second-inning home run. Outfielder TJ McCants went 2-for-4 with a double, a home run and two runs out of the eight-hole, showing the depth of the lineup. All-American shortstop Jacob Gonzalez went 1-for-4 with a run and a walk.

Ole Miss has a strong crop of newcomers, both its traditional recruiting class and its four-year transfers. Transfers Anthony Calarco (Northwestern), Ethan Groff (Tulane) and Ethan Lege (junior college) all started and fit right into the lineup. Ole Miss didn’t have any freshman start Friday, but Will Furniss made an impact off the bench, when he hit a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning. Furniss, the son of All-American Eddy Furniss, showed off his feel at the plate. On a cold night, after sitting for eight innings, he fell behind in the count 0-2 before taking two balls and then turning on a breaking ball and sending it out to right field.

“First AB as a college hitter you don’t look to hit a home run or go up there thinking home run,” he said. “But I got 0-2 and then took a couple good pitches. I was looking to get a single out of it. I widened my stance and ended up catching one good.”

Ole Miss has tougher tests to come than Delaware, which last season went 25-26 and finished eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association. But on a day that celebrated the program’s crowning achievement, the Rebels reminded everyone of their current promise and bright future.

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