Up, down, up again: Ole Miss roller coaster arrives in Omaha in thrilling fashion
The Ole Miss Rebels can be forgiven if this feels like they’re played several different versions of the 2022 season. More than any of the other teams heading to Omaha, the Rebels have had a roller coaster ride — in fact, it could feel like several rides.
They opened the year in the top 10 of 5 of the 6 major baseball polls. They were picked at or near the top of the SEC West (unlike preseason 6th- and 7th-place picks, Texas A&M and Auburn). The Rebels went 13-3 in pre-conference play, and even rose to the No. 1 spot in a couple of the major baseball polls (and No. 2 in the rest). A team of exciting young players gave reason for optimism over the season ahead.
And then it all fell apart.
Swept by Tennessee and Alabama, on the first day of May, the Rebels were 8-14 in SEC play and well outside the Top 25. In fact, the Rebels sat on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble and some speculated that coach Mike Bianco could be soon fired. The team was — to be blunt — a disappointment.
Jacob Gonzalez, a freshman star who hit .355 with a dozen homers in 2021 en route to every freshman honor imaginable, had a sophomore stumble. Gonzalez hit .278 and did increase his power numbers to 17 homers but also endured about a month-long homer drought from April 23 to May 20. Slugging first baseman Tim Elko, who powered through the 2021 post-season on a torn ACL, was similarly up and down. Elko showed massive power, but also had streaks like a 1-for-15 run over the last 5 games of SEC play. Presumed preseason pitching ace Derek Diamond struggled to a near-7 ERA for the season.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. The Rebels quietly tuned up their game, winning 6 of their final 8 conference games, flashing a few signs of being the team they were expected to be before the season. That said, with a 14-16 conference record and a 3-1 first-game loss in Hoover to Vanderbilt, the Rebels were very much stuck on the NCAA bubble.
When their NCAA Tournament invitation was punched, rumor had it that the Rebels were the 64th of the 64 teams in the field. The bracket bore out that suspicion — the Rebels were the only SEC squad in the field without a No. 1 or No. 2 regional seed. Not just that, but they were sent to Coral Gables, placed in a region with Miami and Arizona. Plenty (present company included) paid scant attention to the Rebels.
But Ole Miss took what had to be the advice of Bianco. Forget what came before, the NCAA Tournament was a new opportunity. And it’s an opportunity the Rebels seized. Not only is Ole Miss headed to Omaha, but they dominated their way there. They swept through the Miami regional by a combined 31-11 margin. The critical win was a 2-1 second game victory over Miami, keyed by freshman pitcher Hunter Elliott, who struck out 8 in 5 innings to set the tone. Gonzalez had 2 hits, Elko had a 2-run double, and the Rebels’ postseason parade continued.
None of that compared to the Super Regional round, where the Rebels faced Southern Miss. They played twice in the regular-season, splitting a pair of 3-run decisions. The Golden Eagles had outslugged LSU to win their regional, and then against the Rebels, they were absolutely stopped cold.
Yes, Elko continued doing what he does — he’s 9-for-18 with 3 homers and 10 RBIs in 5 NCAA Tournament games. But on the mound, the Rebels shocked the world. Ole Miss allowed 0 runs and 7 hits total in 2 games. JUCO product Dylan DeLucia was sharp in Game 1, but Elliott stole the show in Game 2, working a season high 7 1/3 innings, allowing 3 hits and 0 walks with a season-high 10 strikeouts.
So yes, here is the last team in the NCAA field, a team with a losing record in conference play. Here’s also a top-10 preseason team that just swept through the regional and Super Regionals by a combined 46-11 margin. What are the Rebels? Underachievers? Overachievers? Underdogs? Favorites?
Right now, they’re a red-hot team. And if it took a few tries to get the 2022 season right, the good news is that the Rebels are peaking at exactly the right time.