OMAHA, Neb. — Two teams, very much alike in purpose.
Two coaches, both who have given their lives to college baseball, but never before having this chance.
Two fan bases, each with unusual motivations to see a happy ending.
We have come to the end at the Men’s College World Series, to find the last teams standings with much in common. Neither Oklahoma nor Ole Miss was one of the 16 top seeds for the NCAA tournament. Neither was awarded the chance to play at home all month. Neither was mentioned prominently on the list of championship candidates.
Then June came, and they started playing the games.
Was Ole Miss even supposed to be here? The Rebels were seeded ninth in the SEC tournament. They were once 7-14 in the league and on NCAA Tournament selection day, had to nervously wait for their name to be called. They were the last at-large team invited.
And now here they are, with a chance to win the program’s first baseball national championship. Since that tense Memorial Day, they have lost once.
“I think it’s about belief,” third baseman Justin Bench said. “We were playing for our lives every game.”
Was Oklahoma even supposed to be here? The Sooners had their scuffles, too – the series loss to New Orleans, the 18-0 shellacking at Wichita State, the 28-7 regular tournament sweep at the hands of Tennessee, LSU and UCLA. And it had been a long time – 12 years – since they were last seen in Omaha. Coach Skip Johnson anointed them as “a team of Davids,” slaying one giant and misconception after another.
And now here they are, the only team without a CWS defeat so far, and the chance to give the school its first title in more than a generation – 28 years – against an opponent they sense as a kindred spirit.
“They have a chip on their shoulder, and so do we,” Oklahoma catcher Jimmy Crooks said.
His outfield teammate concurred. “They’re here to make a statement,” Tanner Tredaway said. “Just like we are.”
Both teams are here under the guidance of baseball lifers living a dream.
Johnson’s career has taken him from junior college to a renowned career as a pitching mentor, and then to his big chance as head coach at Oklahoma five years ago. He has tried to create a Sooner team with a simple intent.
“Just trying to win pitches, that’s the biggest thing,” he said of his team. “They’re going to play the game one pitch at a time and try to play against the baseball. That’s what we talk about, that’s what we do.”
The opportunity to do that one day for a championship in Omaha has never been far from his mind. "It'll raise the hair on your neck," he said Friday of the atmosphere in the world of college baseball.
The same for Mike Bianco of Ole Miss. He has been the Rebels’ coach since for 22 seasons, surviving on the harsh and frenzied landscape of SEC baseball. Five different league programs have won during his tenure. When would it be his turn? Maybe now, with a team that has completely transformed its own narrative in one month.
“You know our story,” he said to the media Friday. “We haven’t had the easiest road to get here. I think it teaches us all, even as a coach that’s been in it 30-plus years. It teaches you these lessons that I’m sure we’ll use down the road when you hit some adversity. You think you have it tough now, but this team did this. This is where they were and this is where they ended up.”
The finalists are here not just through persistence, but pitching. Oklahoma’s staff has allowed only 11 earned runs in three games in Omaha, with a strikeout-walk ratio of 34-6. Outstanding. But Ole Miss is even better. The Rebels’ ratio is 38-6 and their ERA at the CWS is 1.75.
That Ole Miss staff must now contend with an Oklahoma lineup that has tormented the opposition one base at a time. The Sooners have 24 singles in three games, more than Notre Dame or Auburn had in total hits in their three games. Can the Rebels stop the Oklahoma line from moving?
And there are other factors to wonder about. Oklahoma’s vaunted running game has produced only three stolen bases so far, and the Sooners have been caught four times. Will that become a weapon? Will Oklahoma’s more rested pitching mean trouble for Ole Miss? Johnson has his arms aligned the way he wants. Bianco will have to piece together his plans. After Thursday’s classic against Arkansas, the Rebels’ Dylan DeLucia is the biggest pitching name in town, but it will be a while before he can go again.
Watching all this will be two fan bases with different flavors of history to cheer.
All the Oklahoma masses want is for the Sooner baseballers to match what the women softballers just did. If so, it would be the first such double for a school in NCAA history. But it’s all up to the guys now. “We’re here, if it happens, that’s great,” Johnson said. “If it doesn’t what are we going to do about it, go fishing?”
The Rebels fandom had grown a bit restless when Ole Miss skidded from No. 1 in some polls to the 7-14 start in the conference. That’s the price of doing business in the SEC, Bianco said Friday. “Unfortunately, it will beat you up and It’s very unforgiving. You can be pretty good but playing in our league can make you not feel that way.”
Now the Ole Miss faithful could see the school’s first baseball title, and then they could sit at the same table again with Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won here last year, which had to make Ole Miss fans even more anxious to see this chance come. A rival with a championship trophy you don't have can be so insufferable. But the Rebels could be a champion after barely getting into the tournament. Imagine a 12th-seeded basketball team cutting down the nets in early April. That’s what it would be like. Match that, Mississippi State.
“It’s just another thing we can add to our cool story and our journey,” Bench said. “Win two games and we can finish it up.”
There are a couple of reasons to expect the best-of-three series to go the distance. For one, recent precedence. Six of the past seven Finals have required three games. For another, it’s become pretty clear the past week in Omaha how much these two teams don't want to leave town.