OMAHA, Neb. – The 2022 Men’s College World Series game is set, as Ole Miss avenged a heartbreaking Wednesday night loss to SEC rivals West Arkansas with a 2-0 win.
The Rebels take on Oklahoma in a best-of-three title fight that begins Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Anyone who approached you mid-season, or even a month ago, and told you the Rebels would be in this championship series, they were lying. No one then could have seen this coming. At least no one other than the team itself.
During the preseason last January, Tim Elko, first baseman/team captain/Oxford, Mississippi, said, “If we get to Omaha, we’ll be national champions.” He doubled that prediction during the NCAA Tournament. His team made Omaha unexpectedly. Now they are two wins away from making Elko a Joe Namath.
“Emotions are great. We’re excited to play in the National Championship Series,” said the fifth-year senior who went 1-4 on Thursday. “That’s why we came back. We knew this team had potential and obviously we had a bad run in the middle. [of the season]. But we really knew we could be here.”
After the first eleven games for the eight MCWS teams provided nothing but drama-free routs, the latest fight between the Rebels and Razorbacks was tense from first pitch to last. For Mississippi, every one of those pitches came from ace Dylan DeLucia (8-2), who threw a complete shutout with seven strikeouts and just four dropped hits.
Ole Miss had just seven hits in eight innings against Arkansas starter and playoff star Connor Noland (8-6), but two of those hits, both hard on the ground that found their way through the infield, drove one run each and that was enough.
“I was in the tunnel watching when I wasn’t throwing, and you could tell Dylan was in a groove,” Noland recalled. “That means you have to step it up and we did that. It just didn’t work our way.”
“This is one of the best pitching duels I’ve ever seen in Omaha, and I’ve been coming here for a while,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said on his ninth trip. in Omaha as head coach and seventh with the Razorbacks. “The game lasted what, two hours and fifteen minutes? I like good baseball. Smart hitting, great throwing, good defense. And it was good baseball.”
“I just stuck with it,” DeLucia said, smiling, of the rare complete game. “I kept seeing all these zeros coming up on the board and I was like, well, maybe I’ll finally get to finish one!”
Ole Miss plays as good a brand of baseball as anyone in the country, but after a promising preseason, it’s taken this team all year to finally realize its potential. They climbed to No. 1 in the standings at the start of the 2022 college baseball season, but injuries and a close losing streak saw them drop out of the top 25, at one point sitting on a brutal 7-14 SEC conference record. . Then they were kicked out of the SEC Tournament after just one game, a 3-1 loss to Vanderbilt.
The following week, when the NCAA’s 64-team bracket was announced, many members of the athletic department didn’t even listen to the aired selection show because they thought their team wouldn’t be on the field. . Instead, they were listed among the last four teams to squeak.
From there, they posted an 8-1 playoff record, none at home in Oxford, and are now playing for baseball’s first national title in program history.
DeLucia wasn’t even in the starting rotation during the first half of the season. Now he’s the ace who propelled his team into the title fight with a rested bullpen. Prior to this week, they had never won more than two games in a single College World Series in five previous appearances. Now they are 3-1 and on the big stage.
“I’m just proud. One of the challenges we talked about was not just coming here, but winning,” a beaming Mike Bianco said after the victory. He is in his 22nd season in charge of Ole Miss and more than once in recent years he has looked close to being fired, including during this year’s mid-season struggles.
Van Horn even alluded to it during his post-game press conference, with the sharks surrounding his longtime SEC West rival and friend. Bianco ignored those comments on Thursday, as he always has. “It’s not supposed to be easy, is it? And you have to be strong enough to deal with it,” he said.
So far they certainly have been.
“All you want is a chance to play for a national championship,” Elko continued. “Now we have one.”