OXFORD • The Force favors the Rebels, Luke Skywalker proved.
And maybe not just in the movies.
Something happened with Ole Miss baseball in the SEC Tournament, something other-worldly perhaps, that neither Rebels coach Mike Bianco nor his players can adequately describe.
Bianco just knows where the Rebels were and where they are now.
“A couple of weeks ago we were, as some of my sons would say, in a dark place. It was tough.”
Now the Rebels (40-25) have won an NCAA Tournament regional for the first time since their College World Series run in 2014.
They had to win a road super regional to reach Omaha then, and they’ll have to do that again as they travel to face No. 5 national seed Arkansas this week, dates and times to be announced.
Ole Miss hit .412 in sandwiching a win over No. 3 seed Clemson between two wins over No. 4 seed Jacksonville State in the Oxford Regional.
The Rebels pitched with a 2.00 team earned run average and played errorless defense.
Ole Miss was swept at home by rival Mississippi State and lost six-straight games from May 10-May 17, a week that threatened to torpedo regional host chances and any type of postseason run.
“You try as a coach to press the proverbial right buttons,” Bianco said. “It seemed like I pressed the wrong buttons for a long time.”
That changed in the regional from starting pitchers Will Ethridge who went seven innings and Doug Nikhazy going eight, to left fielder Thomas Dillard setting an Ole Miss regional record with nine RBIs to seldom-used reserve Tim Elko – unable to hit his weight last week – going 5 for 7 in three games.
“Somewhere along the line, somewhere in Hoover, you could tell there was a different feeling in the dugout,” Bianco said.
The Rebels survived a single-elimination game against Missouri in the SEC Tournament to embark on a six-day run to the championship game.
Suddenly, the Rebels, once 15-9 in SEC play only to close the regular season with losses in six of their last seven, has won eight of their last 10 games.
The losses have come against national seeds Arkansas and Vanderbilt by a combined three runs.
The last out of the regional at midnight Sunday slayed the ghosts of last season’s disappointing home regional losses to Tennessee Tech and set off an outpouring of emotion for the team and its fans.
“As soon as the guys in right field saw us bolting out to right they all just started jumping the fence, throwing their water up in the air. It’s a moment I will never forget and will cherish for the rest of my life,” junior catcher Cooper Johnson said.
The Rebels, after resting Monday, will prepare for a potent Arkansas team that they’ve already beaten in three of five games, two of them at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville where they will play this week.
Ole Miss has won the last four SEC regular season series against the Razorbacks including a Fayetteville trip in 2017.
Maybe it’s the recent history with Arkansas. Maybe it’s the good favor of The Force.
Something has the Rebels – who outscored their regional competition 41-7 – playing with extreme confidence.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to win every time we step on the field. Heading in the super regional I feel like we have a lot of baseball to play,” Johnson said.