Champs of the West

Using extreme words is never a good thing – words like nobody or everybody. Or words like always or never. But some of those are appropriate when talking about the Ole Miss baseball team of 2014.

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Nobody gave this Ole Miss baseball team a chance to be solo champions of the Southeastern Conference Western Division before the season began. Nobody.

Well, maybe within the walls of the Ole Miss baseball offices in the Trehern building. And those who spend hours weekly in the underneaths of Oxford-University Stadium and get-better time on Swayze Field.

I sat in Ben Fleming's office last July. The Rebels' new strength and conditioning coach told me, smiling but seriously, that this team was going to be tougher than recent Ole Miss teams. And he had just spent a season at Kansas State and before that at Central Florida.

How did he know? He knew because he knew what he was going to put them through and what he was capable of getting out of them.

That wasn't all there was to this SEC West title season, but that was a lot of it. Go look at the "Omaha Challenge" video back in late 2013 and you'll see this team was ready for this season.

Some scoffed that it wouldn't be different this season. But it was. The Rebels hadn't had a baseball title of any kind since 2009. Now they will likely host a NCAA Regional again – or at least that is the prevailing thought - along with having their SEC West solo title in tow.

It really didn't all start with Ben. This is a team laden with older talent. Although they'd never hosted before, quite a few of the Rebels, as has been mentioned all season, had been through the college baseball fires. Allen and A. Anderson, the captains. Ellis, Orvis, Overbey, Jamison, Bousfield, Greenwood, Smith, Weathersby, Massie, Denny, Laxer in major roles. Other returnees, like Knight, Gatlin, Perdzock, and Dishon play significant roles at times.

But the freshmen and newcomers are also heavy contributors. Trent, Lee, Robinson, Short, Woodman, Dulin, Bell, E. Anderson, Bortles, Tarkington.

Mike Bianco stood before the media in early February, a few days before the Rebels left for Florida and three games at Stetson to open the season, and said he wasn't sure how to describe this team. And that he had been asked to do so a lot.

He said he knew there weren't a lot of so-called "stars" on the team. But he felt there would be a lot of contributors.

And there are.

Everybody wondered if Chris Ellis could truly get the job done. They knew he was capable, but could he start strong and stay strong. A 9-0 record answered that loudly and clearly.

And what of Trent? We'd heard he was good; had seen it in the fall. But 8-0?

When your first two weekend starters are 17-0 prior to your conference tournament and a lot of other good things are happening, not just excellent starting pitching, then you have a shot.

Sam Smith was dependable on that third game of the weekend. But we'd seen that last year. This season he finished the regular season only 5-4 but always gave the Rebels a chance in the finale.

Bianco pointed out his team won its last four series. He said that might not have happened in his tenure here to this point. It means the Rebels have played well the past month.

Except for one bad eighth inning Saturday at Texas A&M, the Rebels would likely have swept. It hadn't been their best game lately, but they had a lead at 6-5. Then things unraveled, they lost 9-6, and their SEC record ended up 19-11.

Will Allen
Bruce Newman

A couple of months ago, one of the players – can't recall now which one – said something about that among the team's goals were 40 regular season wins and 20 SEC wins.

As soon as the interview ended, we huddled media all looked at each other. A couple even found some words to say after the player walked away, like "20 SEC wins? Did I hear that right?" Or "They'd better just focus on one at a time and not worry about 20 at this point."

It was early in the SEC season. But the players knew how good they could be. And they only fell one win short.

But it ends how it ends. And now it begins again as the Rebels play a lunchtime game on Wednesday against either Texas A&M or Arkansas, which the Rebels won two of three games from just two weekends ago in Oxford.

There are the usual questions now. Who will start on the mound Wednesday? If Ole Miss and LSU win Wednesday, they play each other Thursday. How does that figure into who pitches in game one or game two?

The Rebels likely need more wins to become a national seed. But who knows? The best thing is to always win the next game and help your own situation. That's why in the large scheme the loss Saturday is magnified. That would have been another boost to the resume'.

Kevin O'Sullivan at Florida led the Gators to a two-game edge in the overall conference race to claim the title. A job well done after a slow start.

Bianco, however, helped lift his team to where nobody outside the walls of their own fortress thought they could wind up. He and his staff. Credit them all. Every aspect of the team was good enough to win a championship. And it did – first in its division and second in its league.

Somewhere around fifth, sixth or even seventh in the West was where most appeared to believe in the preseason the Rebels would wind up the regular season.

To have a shot at winning the entire league the last weekend was basically an improbability, even as recently as just a few weeks ago.

This team can play defense. It's not great but certainly adequate. Middle of the road but still OK. Statistically exactly in the middle of the pack at seventh.

It's pitching and hitting that carry this team. In SEC games, the 30-game war, the Rebels ended up as the second-best hitting team in the SEC behind Kentucky. And tied for first in pitching with South Carolina and Arkansas.

This season proved to be the continual climb of a resurging program. From bottoming out in 2011 with no postseason, not even the SEC tourney, to road regionals and increased SEC regular season wins in 2012 and 2013, to this season and a new banner to hang up at the ballpark.

Now at 40-16 overall and 19-11 in the SEC, will there be more in the next few weeks? Stay tuned.

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