Before the start of SEC play, the Rebel baseball team had not been extremely impressive in terms of what they were expected to accomplish, falling from an early ranking of 6th in the nation to 14th.
But there was a mettle, a grittiness, to the team that one could hang one's hat on.
It seemed each time they hit a bump in the road, and there were a few, they would regroup and come back stronger than before.
Even as late as last weekend, when cellar-dweller Mississippi State rolled into Oxford and won the grudge match series, the resilient Rebels kept the faith, maintained their composure and went about their business of staying focused and playing one-pitch-at-a-time baseball, their catch phrase for the season.
That demeanor paid big dividends this weekend when the Rebels stampeded into Baum Stadium in Fayetteville and swept the reeling Hogs, who had jumped out of the gate early in the season to an 8-1 conference mark and seemed to be the team to beat in the SEC - for a while.
The sweep propelled the Rebs to an SEC Championship for the regular season. There is still plenty to accomplish this season at the SEC Tourney and in the playoffs, but leg one of the goals has been taken care of.
Yes, LSU has the same conference record. Yes, they will both claim the title. Yes, they are both champions. But who cares? Champions are champions, no matter how you slice it.
That has a nice, long-awaited ring to it, huh? Coach Mike Bianco already had an SEC Tournament title in his hip pocket, but the regular season banner had escaped him. No longer.
This one is more significant, in these eyes, because it encompasses and represents a body of work over the long haul. Longevity, not just a team getting hot at the right moment. Prevailing, through ups and downs and the in-betweens.
Why this team? Why now?
Nobody can say for sure, but you could see this team had a different gleam in their eyes during some of the low periods.
I've always thought you can tell more about a team's character after a tough loss than a win and these Rebs never seemed to get dejected when they came up on the short end of the stick.
While they may not be Bianco's most talented team in his tenure at Ole Miss, they may well be his toughest. Position by position, they very well could be his most competitive, his most reliable.
Beyond ace pitcher Scott Bittle, who has missed the last three weekends with injury, there is not a lot of eye-popping star power in the Rebel lineup. But everyone has ability, everyone has played their role unselfishly and there are no apparent, glaring weak spots on the roster.
Last year, the Achilles heel was erratic play at shortstop. This year, there hasn't been one that you can point to, especially after some changes in the lineup that produced positive results and a school record 20 conference victories.
Kevin Mort has been stellar at shortstop, a most critical "shoring up" from a year ago. Moving Zack Miller to third base turned out to be a stroke of genius - he's been superb in the field at the hot corner. Bringing on catcher Kyle Henson, who has a bigger bat than Brett Basham, has helped stoke the Reb offense. Playing lefty-righty with 2nd basemen Evan Button and Tim Ferguson has also been beneficial to the cause. Platooning competent outfielders depending on the situation was also important to the team's success.
And last, but not least, moving Bittle from relief to a starting role virtually assured the Rebs of one win a weekend when they were honing their identity and becoming a better-oiled machine.
For the most part, it all worked, which leads me to my next point.
While it's commonly thought players win championships, I'm of the opinion Bianco and his staff did their best coaching job at Ole Miss. Not every button he pushed was a hot button, but enough were to shape and transform this team into champions.
As fans, it's part of baseball to question moves made by managers because there are so many different strategies, situations and options in this sport, but Bianco's decisions were right often enough to produce an elusive SEC title in a very fickle and sometimes cruel sport.
There you have it. The 2009 Ole Miss Rebels are the SEC West Champions and SEC Overall Champions.
But I doubt if that is all this team wants to accomplish. The SEC Tournament, the regionals, super regionals and Omaha are also huge targets.
This team, during a long and successful regular season, has proven they have the chutzpah to handle it all and keep moving forward.
Sweet, with a real chance to get even sweeter.
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