The Road Ends

OMAHA, Neb. – The signs around town and at the ballpark read "The Road to Omaha Ends Here." For Ole Miss, the end came earlier than it wanted. But the 2014 Rebels went much further than most ever dreamed.

But this team didn't consist of dreamers. It was full of believers. They knew they could go this far.

Saturday afternoon, in the rain-delayed Friday night game, Virginia moved on to the championship series which is set to begin on Monday. By then, Ole Miss will have arrived back in Oxford, have had a short time for reflection on all they've accomplished, and been congratulated by many for a season well done.

The Rebels, which as a team finished with 48 wins to tie the school record set in 2005, now move on to wherever the road takes them – individually, that is. Some will be on the road to Omaha again next season as a new school year will roll around before long.

Some will depart, for professional baseball or for other careers. In other words, they will get on with life.

All of them, for sure, will be remembered by Rebel Nation for generations to come.

That they got to the College World Series, the Elite Eight, was a major step for the program and for the school, which made it for the fifth time ever. But it had been 42 years.

That they advanced to the Final Four and finished tied for third place, equaling the only other Ole Miss baseball team to advance that far - the 1956 Rebels - was another significant step. A historic step.

Like one former Rebel player texted me Friday when I asked him what he thought it would be like for these players to walk through the Grove this fall before football games said, "They'll be like rock stars."

And they will be. And should be. Few Ole Miss teams in any sport have ever gone as far as this one did.

But it ended before anyone wanted it to end. Still, what a run it has been, through the regular season to win 19 Southeastern Conference games, finish second overall in the league and win the SEC Western Division outright, then fight through the Oxford Regional and win a Super Regional against one of the hottest teams in the country in their tiny but raucous ballpark.

To have them dogpile and celebrate in Lafayette, La., on a Monday night signaling the road would continue on to Omaha was a highlight never to be forgotten.

The work began long ago, through recruiting these players and developing them. With a new emphasis on strength and conditioning since last summer, as tough as any team had been through here, and fall ball where some players emerged, you could see the team start to build.

Then in the preseason and into the early season, it was fairly clear this team had the talent. But could they carry it all the way into June and beyond?

They could and they did.

The Rebels ended a season that began back in mid-February with three road wins in Deland, Fla., over Stetson. How long ago does that seem now? But 69 games this season, and the interest and enthusiasm for this special group continued to build.

It had taken Mike Bianco 14 seasons as the Ole Miss head coach to finally break through to get here. Nobody, including himself admittedly, would have ever believed it would have taken that long.

But it did, and after coming so close on four occasions in Super Regionals, the trip to the College World Series finally came to fruition.

The fans were all in, too. Who among you didn't think about traveling here? Many of you did, even if it was just for one game, in some cases for just one of the two losses.

But you had to be here, too, if you could. And the others of you listened by radio or watched on TV or followed on the internet or smart phone.

All eyes in Rebel Nation were finally on Omaha, and it was good.

The Rebels were still playing on the eighth day here, and that means they were capable of winning it all. They had as good a shot as any team here. Losing 2-1 in game one put them behind the proverbial eight ball. But still they battled from weekend to weekend.

After a fall ball session of some six weeks came to a close for this team, there was the "Omaha Challenge." All teams go through some sort of competition among themselves like that. Some use the name Omaha in the title.

But back in November, few outside the inner circle of the baseball family itself did any venture to use the word "Omaha" when discussing anything concerning this baseball program. Unless it was to scoff at the mere mention of that distant locale in Nebraska that seemed so out of reach, given all the missed opportunities in 42 years.

But they made it, through a magical season that put the Ole Miss baseball program back into the category of elite among those in the SEC and across the country.

Until next time when the Road to Omaha begins again for the 2014-15 season, this year's team can reflect on what it accomplished, and those who return can focus on what it will take to get back.

Because now, at long last, they know the way.

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