OMAHA, Neb. — Of all the Ole Miss baseball teams, in all of coach Mike Bianco’s 22 years, after all the ups and downs and heartbreaks and close losses and tribulations and downright bummers, this is the team that finally brings a trophy back to Oxford.
This Ole Miss baseball team won a national championship. The 2022 Rebels defeated Oklahoma 4-2 in comeback fashion Sunday, seizing three runs in the eighth inning to bring home the first NCAA-recognized men’s sports championship in school history.
This team, that fell from No. 1 in the polls in March to 7-14 in SEC play and in jeopardy of missing the conference tournament on May 1.
This teamthat benched all of its starting pitchers in April and had to rely on a junior college transfer and a freshman to save its season.
This teamthat lost four straight series in April, lost clean-up hitter Kevin Graham for a month to a wrist injury, lost sophomore Calvin Harris to an oblique injury when he was batting .524 and lost transfer portal pitchers Jack Washburn and John Gaddis to an ankle injury and an appendectomy in April.
This teamthat was the last at-large bid selected into the NCAA Tournament.
This team is the last team standing. Champions of the world. The team that brings Oxford back the trophy it so dearly wants.
“There’s so much to be said about how much we overcame this year, how much we had to fight through, how much we had to pick each other up and never let ourselves get too down,” senior captain Tim Elko said. “This story of our season is going to be told for years and years and years to come. This is the best Ole Miss baseball team in history, and it feels so good, and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”
It’s impossible to overstate the improbability of all this. Ole Miss wasn’t just bad two months ago. The Rebels were so bad they were making bad teams look good. Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi State took series from the Rebels in three consecutive weeks and then all missed the NCAA Tournament.
Then, after May 1, something clicked. The Rebels won 18 of their last 22 games, outscoring their opponents 160-74. Ole Miss went 10-1 in 11 NCAA Tournament games, pitching three shutouts and averaging 7.5 runs per game.
Everything culminated in five wins at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, matching the number of College World Series the Rebels had in their history before this trip.
“Life is tough, and there’s bad things that happen to everybody,” Bianco said. “Good people, bad things happen. These guys have worked really hard, and I think they’ve showed a lot of people that you can fall down, you can stumble and you can fail, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. If you continue to work hard, you continue to push and you continue to believe, as Tim said, you can accomplish anything.”
Closer Brandon Johnson recorded the last out of Sunday’s decisive win. He struck out the side on 14 pitches, then blacked out. The senior said he usually has a choreographed celebration for every save. This time, he had nothing. After all the team had been through, he felt nothing. No performance. No celebration. Just pure, uninterrupted shock.
Then his teammates spilled out of the dugout and came chugging his direction. Senior Ben Van Cleve cautioned his teammates to get ready for pain. He warned them they might have to endure three or four minutes of discomfort on the bottom of the pile because it wasn’t moving.
Graham’s emotions oscillated between shock and exhilaration. One moment he looked dumbfounded. The other he was crying.
Dylan DeLucia, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player was all smiles. He greeted his family down the first base line with spinning hugs and promises to party.
Senior Max Cioffi is one of the few players who’s been on the team since 2018. He endured a home regional loss as a national seed his freshman year, a super regional loss one win short of Omaha his sophomore year, the elimination of his junior season by COVID-19, a Tommy John surgery that took away his senior season and all the ups and downs of 2022.
Through all that, Cioffi knows this team is the one that won it all.
“There was just so much failure,” Cioffi said. “We were so close for so long. Gosh. But I tell you what, it’s worth it. It sure is worth it.”
Contact Nick Suss at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @nicksuss,