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Mike Lopresti | | June 26, 2022

'I don't know if you can describe it': Ole Miss completes historic run to win the 2022 Men's College World Series

Watch the final out from Ole Miss baseball's first-ever Men's College World Series title

OMAHA, Neb. – There are years when it is just a team’s time.

It is Game 2 of the Men’s College World Series finals Sunday, the day for Ole Miss to make all its wildest dreams come true. The Rebels get two of the biggest hits in school history from a guy in an 0-for-13 slump. They score two of the biggest runs in school history on wild pitches, by an opponent who hadn’t thrown one all month. They escape an awful crisis that could derail all their hopes, when the other team’s runner is one step inside the baseline, meaning one step outside the law. They put out a potentially fatal fire with a reliever who put off medical school for one last shot at Omaha.

Yeah, it was time for the Ole Miss Rebels.

They said it all along, and now the world of college baseball understands how much they meant it. The last team in the NCAA tournament became the last team standing, and that is how history will recall Ole Miss of 2022. “I don’t know if you can describe it,” coach Mike Bianco said after the unranked, unseeded, unexpected Rebels finished off Oklahoma 4-2 for the national championship. “We talked about what a great story it would be. And it was.”

BRACKET: Click or tap here to view the full bracket

Imagine it’s March. A basketball team, with a losing record in league play and a one-and-done casualty in the conference tournament, barely skids into the NCAA tournament before the selection committee slams the door. A No. 12 seed on nobody’s radar. Three weeks later, having blasted off through the atmosphere like something from NASA, the players are holding up the national championship trophy.

That’s what just happened in Omaha.

How to assign a legacy to Ole Miss, the team nobody saw coming and then nobody could stop? What to think of a winding journey that began as the No. 1 ranked team in the land, zigged into dark times with a 7-14 start in SEC play, and zagged back to a mighty crescendo that included a 10-1 record in the postseason, and finally ended with a dogpile Sunday afternoon in Charles Schwab Field?

“We overcame about as much as a team could overcome,” said first baseman Tim Elko, the heart and soul veteran of this amazing enterprise.

Just what do we call it? A Cinderella story for the ages? That might seem odd. Since when is anyone from the SEC a Cinderella? And it takes effort to cast a former No. 1 team as small fry.

But how about a stunning run of historic proportions? That certainly fits. In the final NCAA RPI power rankings, Ole Miss was 39th. Not quite the No. 89 spot Fresno State came from in 2008 to win the title, but the second longest haul ever. The Rebels had never been in the finals before, let alone won it.

An extraordinary example that timing can be everything? Absolutely. A talented Ole Miss team that had gone astray found itself just when it needed to. The Rebels outscored their postseason opponents by a combined score of 82-25. In 11 NCAA tournament games, Ole Miss trailed only 10 total innings. The pitchers allowed but 25 runs. Suddenly, the world had changed and everything was coming up Ole Miss.

“One of the things I’ve always learned, people say, how’s the leadership?” Bianco said. “Well, you can’t answer those questions until the season is over, because when you’re going through fall practice there’s no adversity. There’s no 7-14 teams.

“But you find out in the end what you’re made of.”

The players said they knew all along what their A game could do. Indeed, the first warning shot of this June was really fired in early May. Moments after sweeping Missouri, Elko had completed an interview, took a couple of steps away, then turned around and delivered the line he really wanted to say.

Don’t let the Rebs get hot.

That sentence ended up on a lot of T-shirts in Omaha his weekend, including many of the faithful standing in the four-block long line at 9 o’clock Sunday morning, waiting to buy tickets.

Now we know the Rebs did get hot, and look what happened.

“This story of our season is going to be told for years and years and years to come,” Elko said.

To understand that story, best to remember some of the key stops of the journey.

An April day in Oxford, for example...

Ole Miss had just lost to rival Mississippi State to drop to 6-12 in the SEC, and the season seemed to be going south in a hurry. A disillusioned Elko, who had come back a fifth season for a shot at Omaha, was on the phone with his sister, needing a soothing voice.

“It was kind of taking a little bit of a toll on me,” he said Sunday. “I remember talking to her and she just said, `You’ve got 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, talking to God and just asking Him, what’s going on here? What did I come back here for? This isn’t going how I thought it was going to go.

“I remember hearing just one word...and it was believe.”

Then there was when the Rebels were close to bottoming out at 7-14 in early May...

Bianco, wanting a fresh voice for his troops, had former Ole Miss player and major leaguer Chris Coghlan talk to the team. His message: Nothing that had happened should get in the way of keeping the College World Series as a beacon to steer for. The shaky league record didn’t matter about that. There was still time to complete the only mission that really mattered.

HOW IT HAPPENED: How Ole Miss took down Oklahoma in two games

“It was hard. You hate to say never,” Bianco said of those days, and fading thoughts about Omaha. “We had started to see things slip. We had no chance to win the (SEC) West, we probably had no shot to host (in the NCAA tournament). Some of those goals we have year in and year out started to tumble by the wayside. But what he said kind of rejuvenated, us. I think it was really hard at that time, but I think we started to think about that.”

Indeed, that word Elko had heard – believe – seemed to still resonate.

“We knew that wasn’t us,” said reliever Brandon Johnson, destined nearly two months later to save the title clincher in Omaha.

“Nobody in our dugout wavered in that belief that we were going to be here,” outfielder Kevin Graham said. “We would just talk about man, it’s going to be crazy. The more losses, the crazier the story was going to be. But it was never that we were out of it.”

There was Memorial Day, when the Rebels gathered together to hear if their name would be called in the NCAA tournament bracket...

They didn’t care if they were the last at-large team invited. All they cared about is they had the chance. “Once we got in the tournament, now everybody’s 0-0,” Bianco said. “Nobody’s talking about 7-14 anymore. Now you just have to outplay the other team, you’re not playing catchup. We went so long at the end of the season running uphill just to get into the tournament and get an opportunity. I think once we got in, rather than play with pressure to show you deserved to be in, it was like a new lease on life.”

Said Graham, “We thought the whole time if we could just squeak in the tournament we could do this.”

There was the Sunday they beat Southern Mississippi in the super regional to confirm their trip to Omaha...

Bianco told his players congratulations and to enjoy their achievement, but not to forget what the next week was all about. “One of the things I really regret in 2014 (Ole Miss’ last trip to Omaha) is I didn’t have that talk with them,” he said. “I didn’t challenge them to go there and win. You go to Omaha to win a national championship. We talked about that minutes after the game in Hattiesburg, right on the field, right after the dogpile, and I think they took it to heart.”

And finally, it all led to Sunday in Charles Schwab Field...

By then, Ole Miss had the look of a team whose ship was docking. The Rebels did not have one shutout all regular season, but three in the NCAA tournament. The team that lost so often in the spring had been beaten once all June. Arriving at the ballpark, Bianco sensed the moment at hand.

“You feel the bigness of it. You feel a little angst,” he said.

He had a message for his team: “I shared something with them in the pregame and I meant every word of it; that in a world of media and social media where everybody wants to take their hits when you don’t have success, when you stutter, when you trip, when you fumble — you can stumble, you can fall down, you can fail. But it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

A LOOK BACK: Review how the entire DI baseball tournament played out

“You’ve heard your whole life, if you continue to work hard, anything can happen. Well, these guys lived that this year...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.”

Not anymore.

Their final game was as swaying as so many of theirs before. A duel of freshman arms — Hunter Elliott for Ole Miss, Cade Horton for Oklahoma — went 0-0 into the sixth. The Sooners appeared ready for a decisive inning when they scored a run on a bunt and had men on first and third with one out. Except they didn’t, John Spikerman was found on a play review to be running inside the baseline to first after his bunt. Interference was the call, taking down the run and making it two outs. Oklahoma never did score that inning, a foul-fated passage that seemed to suggest the gods of the baseball had made up their minds about this series.

The crowd was as Mississippi as The Grove is back on campus in Oxford, and the roars at such a reversal must have had the Sooners feeling very, very alone.

Jacob Gonzalez, he of the 0-for-13 slump, homered in the bottom of the inning to give Ole Miss the lead. The Sooners rallied to go up 2-1 in the seventh, though their uprising was doused by John Gaddis, who could have been in medical school but deferred that for a chance to be here this very week, on this very mound. Leaving the bases loaded was one more step in Oklahoma’s demise.

Another Gonzalez RBI — on a single — forced a 2-2 tie in the eighth, proving Ole Miss had not run out of hero candidates. “I finally got to help the team out this week,” he would say later. Two more runs — title-clinching, barrier-breaking, history-making runs — came in on wild pitches by Trevin Michael, who had been so splendid out of the bullpen for Oklahoma.

That not only made it 4-2, but also seemed to be the final confirmation of which way the wind was blowing in Omaha. “I think that’s the embodiment of our season. We were going to take it down to the wire,” Graham said.

It was, indeed, Ole Miss’ time.

Standing on the field later, Bianco surveyed a career waiting for this moment. This is his 22nd season at Ole Miss. “What I realized more than anything is if you keep knocking on the door, if you keep doing the things right, reevaluating, continue to try to improve you’re going to finally reach it,” he said of his vigil. “How crazy, it’s this year? We’ve had years that it was a little smoother. This team did it the hard way.”

The title clincher came 361 days after Mississippi State accomplished the same feat, also for the first time. Suddenly the Magnolia State — which has never had a team in the men’s basketball championship game — is the epicenter of the baseball universe. Meanwhile, the Rebels savored the chance to match what their rivals had just done. “It’d be nice to take away their bragging rights already,” Elliott had said on ESPN.

BEST OF THE BEST: Check out the full history of the MCWS Most Outstanding Player award

The SEC is the hot center of the sport, too, but everyone already knew that already. This is the fourth national championship for the league in the past five tournaments, by the fourth different school. The SEC being the baseball utopia it is, a program is never truly sitting at the big table without a national championship.

Now Ole Miss has one. And not just a trophy, but a fairy tale to go with it.

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Division I
Baseball Championship
June 16 - 26, 2023
Charles Schwab Field Omaha | Omaha, NE

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