OXFORD • The SEC Tournament run that propelled Ole Miss to regional host might never have happened if Ryan Olenek hadn’t gotten three outs in the ninth on the final day of the regular season.
As Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco searched for answers in his bullpen he turned to his center fielder. Olenek protected a 5-4 lead at Tennessee to end a six-game losing streak.
The Rebels (37-25) finished the regular season at 16-14 in conference play. Eight days later they were in the tournament championship against Vanderbilt after three top-15 RPI wins – Texas A&M, Arkansas and Georgia – in three days.
“There definitely was an edge that came off when we got off that losing streak,” first baseman/DH Cole Zabowski said.
Now the Rebels say a surge of confidence will benefit them in the Oxford Regional if they remain focused.
Ole Miss and Jacksonville State play Friday at 7 after Clemson and Illinois open the regional at 3.
The Rebels were 15-9 in SEC play before they were swept by rival Mississippi State at home. At loss at Arkansas State and two at Tennessee followed.
Ole Miss players believe they played looser and more confident in Hoover after salvaging the third game of the Tennessee series.
“We talked in pregame meeting (before the Vanderbilt game) about how at some point something kind of switched,” catcher Cooper Johnson said. “I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone’s sure exactly when it flipped. We just started to play differently. We started to play differently, and we started to believe. We started to believe, and then anything can happen.”
The resurgence in belief didn’t always show with hitting in Hoover. Through four tournament games the Rebels were hitting just .180 with nine runs scored.
That wasn’t the case with pitching.
A bullpen that appeared tired and struggled mightily in the six losses looked reinvigorated.
Parker Caracci successfully closed three games in three days.
Max Cioffi, Connor Green and Kaleb Hill – seldom-used in SEC play – got big outs against Georgia.
Set-up man Austin Miller stabilized things against Vanderbilt and gave the Rebels a chance to win before running out of gas in the ninth.
“The SEC Tournament puts us in a good place,” outfielder Thomas Dillard said. “It’s the best tournament in college baseball. We beat some really good teams, some national seeds. The week showed us what we’re capable of.”
The losing streak showed a different kind of capability.
As the NCAA Tournament begins Ole Miss will try to advance from a home regional for the first time since 2014 when it made its run to Omaha.
The Rebels were eliminated from Oxford Regionals in 2016 and 2018.
Getting past a tough field this time will require razor focus in each at-bat, winning pitches and not over-thinking things.
“When we do that we’re a really dangerous team,” Dillard said.
For now, the Rebels are a confident team with the weight of a six-straight losses in the rear view mirror.
“At some point we switched from that six-game losing streak where we didn’t really believe into this week where we started to believe,” Johnson said. “You see mid-majors making these big runs in the postseason. It’s not because they’re more talented than the other teams. Maybe they are, but I’d put my money on that it’s almost all belief.”