HATTIESBURG, Mississippi – Southern Mississippi coach Scott Berry never mentioned Tennessee or its coach, Tony Vitello, by name, and maybe he was not even thinking about the most hated team in college baseball on Sunday.
But as fans across the Southeastern Conference and beyond celebrated No. 1 Tennessee’s collapse at home and 7-3 loss to Notre Dame in the Super Regional, Berry praised Ole Miss and coach Mike Bianco after he lost his home Super Regional, 5-0, to the Rebels on Sunday.
“Really a classy program,” Berry began.
Few, if any, have said that this season about the Tennessee program, which has featured players shooting the bird while running around the bases, wrapping home run hitters in a fur coat and routinely arguing balls and strikes.
“I told Mike after the game there, ‘If it couldn’t have been us, I wanted it to be you,'” Berry said. “I think the world of him, have the utmost respect for how he runs his program and how his players act.”
That from an in-state rival and the directional school to boot.
“Certainly, we’re pulling for them to win the whole thing there,” Berry said.
Ole Miss was one of three SEC schools over the weekend to reach the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, by taking a best-of-three Super Regional. The Rebels won 10-0 on Saturday. Arkansas won at host North Carolina, 4-3, on Sunday after a 4-1 win Saturday to advance. Texas A&M won at home Friday and Saturday over Louisville, 5-4 and 4-3, to advance.
Auburn would become the fourth SEC school to advance if it wins at Oregon State on Monday in a 7:30 p.m. eastern game on ESPN2. The most teams the SEC has put into Omaha is four in 1997 and in 2019.
Ole Miss will play in the CWS on Saturday against the Auburn-Oregon State winner. Other teams that have qualified for Omaha are Texas, Oklahoma. Stanford hosts Connecticut at 4 p.m. Monday on ESPN2 with Omaha on the line.
The Rebels (37-22) have the worst overall record of an SEC team to reach Omaha since Mississippi State went in 2018 at 37-27 and went 2-2. Ole Miss’ 14-16 league record is also the worst by an SEC team to reach Omaha since Auburn went 14-16 in 2019 and went 0-2 in the CWS.
Often, it helps an SEC team in NCAA postseason play to leave the SEC. The Rebels are 5-0 since losing their SEC Tournament play-in game to Vanderbilt, 3-1, on May 24 in Hoover, Alabama. That was their third loss in four games as they lost a home series to Texas A&M, two games to one, to end the regular season.
“The thing about this league is it can sometimes make you think unfavorable things about your team because there is a lot of resistance,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said after his team looked horrible getting eliminated from Hoover with two straight losses after his win over Ole Miss – 10-1 to Tennessee and 10-2 to Kentucky.
“And what leaving Hoover does is it just allows you to reset in a lot of different ways, understanding that the battles that you’ve been in the last 10 weeks will give you enough experiences to compete in the postseason,” Corbin said.
Vanderbilt bounced back from Hoover and an opening 3-2 loss to San Diego in the NCAA Regional at Oregon State with a 21-1 win over New Mexico State, a 14-4 victory over San Diego and an 8-1 win over Oregon State. It was a win away from reaching the Super Regional, but lost 7-6 to Oregon State.
“When you get inside this conference, you see the elevation of the mountains, so to speak,” said Corbin, who won national championships at Vanderbilt in 2014 and ’19 before a runner-up finish last season. “The Tennessees and the Texas A&Ms.”
For Tennessee, though, leaving the SEC hurt as it lost twice to Notre Dame by a combined five runs. If Auburn advances, the Vols would be 5-1 against two of the three SEC teams that have reached Omaha with a sweep at Ole Miss and two wins out of three against Auburn. Losing in the SEC battle tested Ole Miss. Winning in the SEC may have made Tennessee overconfident.
“I’m speechless,” Ole Miss center fielder Justin Bench said. “I’m just so proud of this team. We were 7-14 in the SEC, and it looked like we were out of it. But we just stuck together. Our senior leadership kept everybody under their wing and got us here. I’m just happy for this team.”
If there are some national Coach of the Year awards still out there, Bianco should be strongly considered.
Funny, Bianco is the third coach to show interest in or get interviewed for the LSU job last year and not get it, then reach Omaha. Another was Texas A&M’s Jim Schlossnagle, who was at TCU last year and did not accept the job with the Aggies until it was clear LSU was not going to call him. Another was Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett, who interviewed for the LSU job as did Bianco. East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin, who also interviewed for the LSU job, came within a win of Omaha before losing the Super Regional to Texas.
Former Arizona coach Jay Johnson, who got the LSU job, lost in the NCAA Regional round at USM.
In the end, tremendous pitching in the NCAA postseason at Coral Gables and at Southern Miss got Bianco to Omaha for the first time since 2014. Bianco calls the pitches. His bullpen allowed no earned runs through 12 and a third innings in Coral Gables on just seven hits and three walks with 23 strikeouts. In two shutouts at USM, Bianco’s pitching allowed seven hits and three walks with 21 strikeouts.
“I guess what it takes is – don’t let the other team score in a Super Regional, and you should have a shot to win,” Bianco said. “I say that sarcastically, but it’s true. You’ve got to play well, and we certainly played well.”
That’s about as boastful and braggadocious as Mike Bianco gets.