Rebels wanted Omaha so much

Ole Miss knocked loudly on the CWS door and looked liked maybe they got it open. But Texas shut it again - this time.

It's always like this when a season's over. Unless you win your last game, that is.

That's why the way the college football season ends isn't so bad. There are 20 or so teams, coaches, and fanbases that feel good.

Baseball's more like the rest of the sports. One team feels great. The rest wonder what might have been and what could have been and what it would have been like if.

Monday night late there were tears from players and parents, but not as many as you might think – at least from the players and their parents I talked to. They knew what they'd accomplished.

There weren't the big tears and sad faces of New Orleans at the end of Mike Bianco's first season when almost every player walked off Turchin Field at Tulane following elimination by Oklahoma State appearing to release what was left of the emotion they had from the initial year of a new program.

There wasn't all the disbelief of the next season when the Rebels basically fell flat on their collective faces and missed out on both the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

Or the disgust and agony and even anger because last season ended with a thud in the first Oxford Regional as the Rebs were a two and out entrant on their own home turf.

No, Monday night was a new twist of an all-too-familiar story. Yes, the season was over. Yes, the players were hurt. Yes, they had fallen short of their goal of reaching the College World Series.

But they knew they had given it everything they had. They know they are one of best college baseball teams in the country. They know they can stand toe to toe with the monster program that is 51-16 Texas and have two last-inning chances to extend a game into the bottom of the ninth, since Ole Miss was the visiting team for the final two games.

But both times, even after rattling top closer J. Brent Cox, who they had gotten to in the game one Ole Miss win, the experienced and battle-tested Longhorns finished.

There's that word we've heard for so long about this program – finish. Did the Rebels "finish" this year? Or did they fall a win short of finishing?

They certainly finished the regular season at Arkansas with a bang, sweeping the Razorbacks in three games to tie LSU for the SEC West.

They had actually begun the "finish" the weekend before that by beating South Carolina two of three games in Oxford.

They finished the SEC Tournament as strong as they could by winning four of six games and leaving quite a mark in Hoover with their two wins over Alabama and two wins over Florida to eliminate both those teams. But it was a second-game loss to Florida that hindered the cause of claiming the title of SEC tourney champs.

It threw them in the loser's bracket and when the tournament ended, they had little left in the tank.

Then they basically waltzed through the Oxford Regional, winning what some still feel is the biggest game of the Bianco era, the 5-0 win over Maine in game one on Friday night June 3. They say that because there is the constant talk of "finishing" and because the Rebels couldn't get a win last year in the Regional at home.

So make a list of a lot of accomplishments this season, but at the very top put beating Maine to kick off the Oxford Regional with a win. It was that important.

But there were many moments all year. Assistant coach Dan McDonnell said to me Monday night after it was all over that he recalls opening day of the 2005 season when an announced crowd of 3,118, including a right field hill full of students on a sunny February day, helped start things off in a big way with a 10-0 win over Arkansas State.

It built from that point, with fan interest and media attention unsurpassed, to a Super Regional four months later that should be the model for any across the country from now on.

Both the Regional and Super Regional were well-attended, well-organized, well-run, and well-played. The script was perfect, except for one important fact – the Rebels didn't advance to Omaha.

I searched out the players I could find after the postgame press conference Monday night. I wanted to congratulate them on the season and to thank them for always being patient and always putting up with us and answering our questions every day, every game, anytime we needed them.

I caught up with Barry Gunther in the left field parking lot about an hour and a half after the game.

"Yeah, I'm a dinosaur," he quipped when I told him he'd been around here almost as long as I have.

In actuality Barry was one of the old guys of this seasoned, experienced, mature team. He was a co-captain (along with Stephen Head), and nobody wanted to go to Omaha more than No. 11, the Rebel catcher.

For four years the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native called Oxford home. He's always said it's as much home to him now as south Florida. Late Monday night, he felt no different.

"It was the greatest four years of my life," said Gunther, who played behind Charlie Waite his first two years here as he got himself in shape mentally and physically to be a catcher on a Bianco team, not an easy task since his head coach was a college catcher himself. "My heart's just broken that we aren't playing more games."

You know he meant it too. So focused and so intense, especially this season, Gunther said he didn't know how he would face today knowing it was all over.

"Just not being able to go back out there on that field…...," his voice tailing off a bit as he looked out over ole Swayze where he'd spent countless hours during his school years at Ole Miss. "You just spend so much time here, with your teammates, in the locker room, in the training room, getting here early before practice, staying late. It's just been our lives, and for me it's been that way for four years."

Gunther wants to continue to call Oxford home plate. He wants a place here.

He was drafted in the 25th round by the Giants. He'll try pro baseball. His mom, Kathy, said Barry might even coach some day.

"How about Coach Gunther helping out at Ole Miss?" she said.

"I think he'd make a great one," I replied.

"You know how I feel. You know what to say," Barry said as I made mostly mental notes.

He's right. Although not in his shoes, I do know how he feels. You could see it in how he lived each day as the catcher for Ole Miss' two most productive teams of the modern era, both which got to play at home in the NCAA postseason, a first for Rebel baseball.

Barry and his teammates played with one heart and one mind and one focus all season. It was the greatest collection of total team mission I've ever seen for an Ole Miss baseball team. And that includes their great fans.

But they fell one game short of their ultimate goal, a trip to Omaha.

The sad truth is that had they gone, they might have made some noise up there, too. Texas head coach Augie Garrido said either one of the teams in the Oxford Super Regional could have won the whole thing.

But only one will get that chance now.

That the poster boy for the modern era of Ole Miss baseball was at the plate at the end of their run was only appropriate. That mighty Stephen Head was up to bat was just the way it should have been.

"That's who we wanted up there," said Brian Pettway, who had gotten on base with a single right before Head came up. Chris Coghlan had already reached with a two-out walk.

"Everybody knows what I was thinking," Head said. "Launch one over the blue wall. Unfortunately that didn't happen. In my last at-bat, I just couldn't do it."

The best atmosphere for college baseball that I've ever been around was at its peak at that moment.

It seemed like most Ole Miss people had wanted Texas to come to Oxford for the Super Regional since the Austin Regional and the Oxford Regional were bracketed together. It might have been an even tougher assignment than originally thought.

"This was like the national championship matchup tonight," Head said. "Only one gets to go – and that's Texas. We intended to be on the other end of it."

Next season this will be a program without Gunther and Cooper Osteen and Miles Franklin, seniors all. It will most likely be without Head and Pettway and Mark Holliman and Matt Maloney and Eric Fowler and Anthony Cupps, all juniors.

That's quite a lineup of guys who have been a huge part of this team and program for several years now, guys who had learned over time what it took to get to Omaha - and almost did.

But I don't look for the juniors to return. Their dreams and goals of playing more baseball are in a different time and place than the spring of 2006 in Oxford, Mississippi. I think they all want to ride off into the sunset of their college baseball years together. At least that's the feeling I get.

Being one win short of Omaha means this program was right there - right there on the brink, right there where they'd dreamed of being for so long.

This team showed Ole Miss, with four previous trips but no visits to Omaha for 33 years, the way. Now it's up to future teams to get there.

If this 48-20 Super Regional season was any indication, then that day will come.

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