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Omaha, NE- If you were watching this Ole Miss baseball team during the middle of SEC play, the thought of them playing in the College World Series was beginning to look like an afterthought. The team was ranked No.1 in the country, but would soon go through a stretch that made folks question the job of head coach Mike Bianco.
This scenario was playing out behind the scenes in Oxford, with people wondering if Bianco was the guy to lead the Rebels into the future. We had seen a team that was finding an identity, not living up to the preseason hype at the moment. But, we saw this Ole Miss team do enough down the stretch to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament and it didn’t matter what spot they were picked at. The Rebels were in and that’s all that mattered, a new season began on Memorial Day.
Even Oklahoma’s Skip Johnson came to the defense of Mike Bianco and the job he did this season with the Rebels.
“You look at the journey, they’ve been told they might not get in or might get in or whatever, they’re going to fire Bianco, whatever, that was a joke. I mean, it’s incredible because that guy has been — last year they’re wanting — LSU was wanting to hire him. It’s really what we live in our world, in coaching in baseball every day.”
After discussing what his team had done so far in Omaha and the tournament, head coach Mike Bianco reflected on that day of nervousness, wondering if they had done enough to earn a bid and continue playing baseball.
“Well, I’ve said it before. I don’t remember a time in my 22 years, with COVID 21 years of tournament play or postseason, sitting there waiting for your name to be called on Memorial Day. Some years we knew because we were already a host. Some years maybe we weren’t host but we felt very comfortably in. And there’s been years like this year where we didn’t know.
“There’s 31 automatic bids and 33 at-large bids,” Bianco added. “Now, were we the 33rd at-large bid? Maybe. But one that we felt sitting in that room we deserved to get in. You just don’t ever know. We’re really glad they let us in.”
The SEC being so competitive this season was something Mike Bianco leaned on when it came to his team being prepared for the NCAA Tournament. We all witnessed how tough the conference was in 2022, especially when you have so many teams worthy of an invitation to the dance. But knowing his team, playing through a tough conference slate was a gauntlet, but also put his team in a situation to thrive once they landed in Coral Gables for the Regional bracket.
When asked about how tough the SEC was this season, Bianco made it a point to say there isn’t an off-weekend during conference play, it’s a war.
“You know, the SEC, for those that aren’t — it’s just a gauntlet to navigate through. There’s no off weekends. There’s no bye weekends. It’s every weekend. You’d better be ready to go to war. You play in the nicest stadiums in front of the largest crowds against the best players in the country week in and week out.
“I think going through that 10-week gauntlet, going from week to week, it does prepare you, I think, for postseason,” Bianco continued. “It prepares you for big crowds. It prepares you for great competition, prepares you for pressure-type games and being able to make pitches and make plays and get the big hits.”
While playing and beating certain teams in the SEC can bring confidence, he also knows that it can humble you very quickly, along with beat you down.
“Unfortunately it will beat you up, and it’s very unforgiving. There’s such a thin line in our league from winning and losing and not on the weekend but every single game. You can be pretty good, but this, playing in our league, can make you not feel that way. I’m sure there was probably times this year where it was tough to feel like you had a great team because that’s what the SEC can do to you.”
We talk about adversity a lot in athletics, overcoming the tough stretches, hoping perseverance pays off at the end. Well, Ole Miss has an opportunity in front of them that most teams can only dream of, fighting back and working to change your story in the middle of the book. It’s not easy, but this team stuck together, believing they could pull this off. The leadership of players like Tim Elko and Justin Bench has been something this team could rely on for motivation, certainly after the Covid season that shut down baseball, which Justin Bench pointed out.
“A lot of players came back the next two years, and our job is not finished. We have two more games to win, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
So, here we go. Just 24 hours from now the Rebels will look to start the National Championship series with a win, inching ever so closer to hoisting the trophy. Coming off Thursday’s game and the fantastic performance from Dylan DeLucia, this team knew they had given themselves an opportunity to finish this season off the right way, so celebrations were held in check. As Hunter Elliot pointed out on Friday afternoon, they’re not just satisfied to be here.
“We came here to win a national championship, and that was our only goal.”