Making The Grade

HOOVER, Ala. - Ole Miss won the first SEC Tournament ever held for baseball back in 1977. It was played in Oxford. The Rebels didn't make much noise in the event again until Mike Bianco arrived.

When Bianco got to Ole Miss in the summer of 2000, the SEC Tournament was a given for him. He was used to going every year with his alma mater.

He really didn't understand why people at Ole Miss talked so much about getting here. Now I understand why he felt that way.

He's led the Rebels here nine of his ten seasons. Now it's a given the Rebels will be one of the eight teams in the field. They are expected to be here by Ole Miss people and by people here.

The Rebels had been to the SEC tourney in 1999, and that was it under the current format that began in 1996.

Of course it's all about what lies beyond this tourney. Hoover has only been a stop on the way to even bigger heights. Regionals and Super Regionals have become common as well. For the ninth time in ten seasons the Rebels will play beyond Hoover and participate in the NCAA Tournament.

No news flash, but they haven't made it to Omaha in this era. It's been well documented for years Ole Miss hasn't made it to the College World Series since 1972.

Maybe this is the year, we've collectively said every year he's been here, and admittedly less the last three weeks than back in April.

Ray Tanner, the South Carolina coach, when asked Tuesday if this tournament is wide open, said it is. He referred to the strength of the field every year. He mentioned last year's seventh seed here, Arkansas, getting all the way to Omaha. We've discussed that, too, haven't we?

Right now for Ole Miss it isn't about being the sixth seed and looking toward the College World Series. It's about being the sixth seed and trying to beat South Carolina, the third seed.

It's about pitchers cutting down on walks, and Drew Pomeranz and Aaron Barrett getting back to top form like they had earlier in the year.

It's about playing defense the way Rebel fans have become used to Bianco teams playing it. This season at times they haven't looked the part of the winningest SEC program of the decade in any area, especially defensively.

Rebs celebrate 06' win

It's about getting on base and getting the timely hit (and quit hitting into so many double plays that are killers.) It's about finding that confidence this team had when it beat LSU three times and left Starkville with a sweep of MSU on the road for the first time since, well, since 1972 – that last Omaha season for the Rebels.

It's about putting behind them that sweep at the hands of Auburn, the first time Ole Miss had been swept at home since 2003. That was also the last season Auburn made the SEC tourney field until this season.

The Tigers had been to Omaha twice in the 1990s under successful veteran head coach Hal Baird. Then came a coaching change and another and still another. And Auburn has finally clawed its way back to Hoover and has a team that will play beyond this tourney and has a chance for Omaha.

So do the Rebels. Sure, it hasn't looked like it lately. And the College World Series isn't on the tip of any Ole Miss fans' tongue or on their tentative plans for June.

But Hoover is about being good enough to get here. Get here and take care of whatever business you need to take care of and then move on.

Tanner again. He said every team here, even one like his own, wants to win games and stay as long as they can, even if throwing a pitcher like he is today that isn't a regular starter.

"I think sometimes coaches in the league get questioned and maybe even criticized about not taking this tournament seriously," Tanner said. "I don't think you'll find a coach here that doesn't want to win. We want to stay, because if you go home you practice. We want to stay and play. I told our guys if we go home, we go two a days. We really buckle down. We stay we play, so everybody wants to go deep. There's no question about it."

Once upon a time, a decade ago, Ole Miss was just trying to get here. Now the Rebels, who have played on Sunday three times and won it once, back in 2006, are a regular here.

This afternoon they'll be trying to stay again as long as they can.

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