After so many close-and-almosts, Ole Miss Baseball Coach Mike Bianco can, after 14 years of trying, take a deep breath.
Ever since Bianco has been in charge of the Rebel baseball program, he has never shied away from what the ultimate goal for his program was - every year. The College World Series. Period, no deviations, no backing off his own lofty expectations. No dodging the question of not having been there.
Tonight, in the most unlikely scenario he has faced in his tenure, the Rebels pulled it off, punching their ticket to the CWS in grand fashion, on the road in a Super Regional against the nation's number six seed in the form of Louisiana-Lafayette, the country's top offense, at their rowdy, jam-packed stadium.
ULL, winners of 58 games this year, tops in the land, had not lost two games in a row all season, but the Rebels made it happen with strong pitching and enough power to run away with the victory. (Now is certainly not the time for negatives, but even more amazing is the Rebs overcame four fielding errors on this glorious night. Right now, who cares? Tomorrow, something to work on. . . )
After losing the opener of the Super Regional in uncharacteristic fashion - basically beating themselves in a 9-5 setback, the Rebels knuckled down and got back to the gritty style of play that got them here. It wasn't always perfect or clean, but it was everything they had, no holds barred. Lay it on the line.
In the end, it was ULL who folded under the pressure. The Rebs applied the pressure early and kept grinding. You know what they say about pressure - it makes the pipe burst. ULL's pipe burst.
And it was Bianco and his determined Rebels who hung tough and finally got the monkey of this program's back. The running joke has been that OMAHA stood for Ole-Miss-At-Home-Again. That is gone forever. Detractors can find something else cute to say. That one won't wash anymore.
Upon reflection, we have seen this all year out of these Rebs. If there is one thing that can definitively be said about this crew, from start to Omaha, it has been how they have exhibited resiliency and toughness.
Remember when they got swept at Alabama? Some grumbled. Same old, same old. They came back and won the SEC West. Remember when they bombed in the SEC Tournament, losing twice to Arkansas and likely costing themselves a national seed? They came back and swept through their regional and took on one heckuva tough assignment in Lafayette by shaking first game jitters and playing real Rebel baseball - sans a few errors - for 18 innings to punch their ticket to Nebraska.
The heroes were aplenty. LHP Christian Trent silenced the lethal ULL bats to get the Rebs back in a rhythm in game two. Aaron Greenwood kept them silent to close out the game. In game three, Auston Bousfield and Austin Anderson, who had been on the anemic side in this three-game set, got things started with a ground rule double and two-run homer. While the rest of game three was tight until the eighth inning, when the Rebs iced the cake with four runs on a PH Holt Perdzock bases loaded triple, the Rebels never lost their focus, even when an error would pop up or a pitcher would walk a ULL batter.
SS Errol Robinson's relay to home to nail a ULL runner and keep Ole Miss with a slight margin. . . Josh Laxer's relief appearance that was shaky at first but then dominant. . . . Maligned, at times, 2B Preston Overbey having a big tourney. . . . Sikes Orvis doing his thing with a dinger in game three. . . Freshman Colby Bortles, whose two-run single in game two ended up being the difference in the game. . . . And on and on.
But this one goes to Bianco.
Let's get one thing straight. I'm not in the Omaha-Or-Bust faction. I would have been proud of this team had they not beaten ULL. I will not diminish SEC West and regional titles, but let's also be honest, Mike needed this. While those around us - you know who - were going to Omaha at times in past years, the Rebs were sitting at home with several close-and-almosts.
Mike needed, and deserved this. Ole Miss and its fans needed and deserved this. Everyone involved has put in the time, money, effort, blood and tears into getting to the showcase of college baseball. Yes, it took longer than anyone would like, but now it's reality and not a dream.
Postgame, on the field after the obligatory dogpile, Mike appeared to be a little in shock. Not that this team had finally done it, but that he could finally take a deep breath and literally get a big burden off his back and something that has been missing on his resume'.
Orvis, drenched in sweat from this muggy night, was speechless.
"I don't know what to say other than we did it," said Orvis. "It's tough here. Hats off to ULL. They are a tough, tough team, but we knew what we had to do and did it. When we broke it open in the ninth, I got a feeling I can't describe. I have no words. I am shaking right now. I have been watching teams in Omaha since I was a little kid and dreamed of going. Now we are. Hotty Toddy!"
Captain/Catcher Will Allen, a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award and a rock behind the plate all year, was also ecstatic.
"We have had our backs against the wall before and came back strong. We didn't panic after not playing too well in game one. We came out and played our style of ball. We were tough, like we have been all year and now we are going to Omaha," he said, "but I have got to tell you. One goal was going to Omaha, but we aren't stopping there. We are going there to win the title. I think we have the team that can do it. I think we are as tough as any team in the country and we intend to prove it in Nebraska."
Overbey, who has struggled at times this year, had the kind of tournament he was hoping for.
"I wanted to play well so badly for my team," Overbey noted. "We fight for each other and never get down on one another. I slumped some this year at times and these guys kept picking me up. I wanted to deliver for everyone so badly. I'm glad I could help."
So the answer to Omaha or bust is simple - Omaha.
The Rebs are now in the ranks of the elite eight of college baseball and they are confident they can do more than just go to Omaha. They believe they can win it all.
AD Ross Bjork, on the field celebrating with the triumphant Rebels, had the same thought in mind.
"I am so proud for Mike, his assistants and theses players and support staff. They earned this, but I'm sure they are looking for more. Don't blink, they just might do it," Bjork noted.
And after taking on the madhouse at ULL and beating a team as good as anyone on their home turf - literally turf, how can anyone continue to doubt them?
After kicking down the door to Omaha, it's going to be interesting to see what else this team has up its sleeve.
One thing for sure, the 400-pound gorilla that was on the shoulders of Ole Miss baseball for 42 years is gone.
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