COLUMN: Turn Of Events

We all keep looking for that corner to turn. It's always a proverbial work in progress.

Some teams turn it early. Some maybe don't turn one at all. They're just good or bad from the start.

Most Mike Bianco teams have been good. Most of those good teams, if you look back, had a turning point.

In 2006, what proved to be a Super Regional team that hosted Miami, started 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play and 13-11 overall. Then came a sweep of Georgia in Athens and the Rebels moved on from there. That example you've heard before and it's the most obvious one for 15 years of the current program.

A year like 2002, the Rebels set the world on fire and rose to as high as No. 6 in the country after winning two of three games at Alabama. I remember how I thought, in only his second year as head coach, this was Bianco's quick turnaround of a program that hadn't been to Omaha at that point in 30 years. But a late-season collapse left them out of Hoover and the NCAA tourney and showed they weren't quite ready for primetime just yet.

In 2011 they never did get off the ground and found themselves, for only the second time in the era, without postseason.

Last year, in the glorious run through what finished up as a third place national finish at the College World Series, they really never had a bump or a disastrous few games. What might qualify was a Tuesday night loss to USM in Pearl (that's a broken record), followed by getting swept at Alabama.

With four losses in a row, maybe the turning point was what followed. Ole Miss won a Kids' Day game before pre-school, elementary, and junior high kids in a recent tradition started by the program to invite those youngsters in for a fun day. The Rebels showed out by winning 11-1 against UAPB.

Then came a Friday night win against Auburn. You recall that one. Austin Anderson popped an intentional walk ball over the right field fence for a beer shower moment and a walkoff victory. And the 2014 team all of a sudden was back on track. They won the next two games to sweep Auburn and really never looked back all the way to late June.

I love watching and covering winners from start to finish. We all love that. But what sometimes is also fun can be watching the development of a team, the growth of young players, the challenge that coaches and players overcome as they work to better their situations.

This has been one difficult season for the most part for all concerned. There have been more looks on their faces of how do we figure this out. That's from everyone top to bottom in the program.

Bianco has used the old adage more times than once. "It is what it is." Sometimes, and I remember this one clearly down at LSU after the dramatic 14-inning win but series loss. "We are where we are - right now."

Take that as you wish. But it told me he believed in the process, in the coaches and players, the system, and all the things they were doing. Tweaking and seeking, sure. That's part of the puzzle for all teams each year. They're doing that in football right now. They did it in men's basketball this year and got to the NCAA tourney and won a game.

They did it in women's basketball this season as they struggled early, figured some things out, made a strong run to the finish, and were impressive down the stretch and in the NIT. It's what coaches do and players respond to. And what we're perhaps seeing from baseball.

Were two of three wins against Florida the turn? Not really, but it showed this team is capable of doing some good things.

Was it a nice win at Memphis coupled with a win against Tennessee in the opener three days later in Oxford? Didn't turn out to be at that point. Then came a loss, way too routine for this program now, against USM in Pearl.

And an opening night loss at Vandy with Christian Trent as the starter. I feel like you do. If Ole Miss doesn't win Trent's start, winning a series is difficult. The record shows that this season.

But the toughness we saw all last season and the same toughness we saw at LSU last month in the 14-inning second game that was the SEC Network's first ever SEC vs. SEC matchup in baseball, we saw that again in a 16-inning win at Vandy in game two.

Then we watched as the Rebels battled and finally got the hits they needed when they needed them to win game three and the series.

If Austin Anderson's laughable walkoff that made sports TV's highlight shows across the country - and still does sometimes - against Auburn proved to be a "moment" that lifted the 2014 team to greater heights, perhaps what Errol Robinson did late Saturday could be one of those moments.

The sophomore shortstop took a swing and reached down, going after a pitch that appeared low, sent it toward first base. It took an odd hop off the turf, to say the least, as the first baseman appeared to either misplay it or run the wrong way or whatever. That was what it looked like in some form anyway.

Two runs scored, Ole Miss took the lead, Jacob Waguespack closed it out, and here we sit.

Back in the 20s in RPI with the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country, with a record at .500 of 18-18 and a SEC mark of 7-8.

Several really good teams in the past 15 years have been 7-8. That 2006 team was. So was 2005 the team that hosted Texas in a Super Regional.

Do I think this team is now on a roll and on its way? I don't have a way of looking into the future.

What I do honestly feel is that now the Rebels have a chance to get to a point that they can make the 12-team field in Hoover, and can then see how things shake out as far as anything additional in the postseason.

I do believe there will be plenty of ups and downs. It won't all be easy. Never is. They play UT-Martin at home Wednesday night and non-conference games have been tough on them for the most part this year. Then it's on to Auburn for three games.

There are non-conference games with Memphis in Oxford, Mississippi State in Pearl, and at Arkansas State, to name a few. Alabama is here for a series on Double Decker Festival weekend. Then a road trip to surprising Missouri awaits, followed by home series with MSU and Texas A&M to wrap up the season.

The last two games have been fun and have put them back into a position that they can make a move. But better play, bounces their way, and decisions paying off are all going to be key, as usual.

The journey's fun. Sure it was great to sit in Omaha and watch a couple of wins there and, even if they didn't make the championship series or win the whole thing, there was still a maximum feeling of success and accomplishment.

This year's team has been on a different kind of journey. In Nashville they showed us they're worth keeping an eye on as they move on from here.

Part of that journey for me has been watching the way Scott Weathersby has gone from one many felt might not make it a couple of years ago to being one of the most dependable relievers in recent times.

It's watching a guy like Austin Knight, who like Weathersby is a Hattiesburg area kid, pay his dues behind the two best catchers in the country the past two years - Stuart Turner and Will Allen - then get his chance as a senior.

It's pulling hard for another personable and likable veteran, Sam Smith, who has given so much to the program for four years to be able to find that magic, just a bit of it, the rest of the way. Maybe we saw some of that Saturday at Vandy.

And young players, like Will Golsan who has had success and had an impact, and Kyle Watson, who in time should regain that offensive form that made him the team leader earlier this season, and Will Stokes, who now apparently is the third game starter and growing up in SEC play. Mississippians all, they want to be good and have success for themselves, but moreso for you and the team.

It's been a tough road for Tate Blackman, a top 100 national player who some said would be SEC Freshman of the Year. He'll be better. He's too talented not to be. But it's been a difficult couple of months.

The list goes on. The names go on. Wyatt Short so dependable, Sikes Orvis the sage veteran, Cameron Dishon who waited his time, Cobly Bortles who has manned third base better than most predicted, Brady Bramlett who came back from what might have been career ending surgery to pitch as well as anyone.

There are more. I'll stop there.

It's all about the journey. It is for EVERY team EVERY year.

This year's has had a different path to trod. A tough one early, an equally tough one later.

Now we see where the road takes them through April and beyond. But they've got a chance. Beating top-ranked-at-the-time teams LSU once, Florida twice, and Vandy twice have certainly helped get them there.


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