We gather here today to bid farewell to the 2014 Ole Miss Rebel baseball season. It lived a long and full life -- longer, in fact, than any Rebel season before it -- filled with 48 thrilling wins, 21 heartbreaking losses, an outright SEC West title and the deepest postseason run seen in Oxford in over four decades.
As in any life, there were stumbles and setbacks. There was the 13th-inning error against LSU; the bickering over the decision to pitch to Mike Papi; one strike away from a series win in Columbia; Chris Ellis's meltdown in Lafayette.
But in years to come, when we look back on this season, those won't be the moments we remember. We'll remember Auston Bousfield's grand slam on Friday night against South Carolina. We'll think of the four consecutive walkoff wins in late April. Of not only hosting, but winning, a regional for the first time in five years, and of the booze-drenched celebration in Right Field afterwards. Of Josh Laxers's three-inning masterpiece to close out the supers. We'll recall the beer showers and the fireworks and the heckling and Evan Anderson's sideburns.
Above all, we'll remember Omaha. For the first time in 42 years -- and perhaps even more significantly, for the first time in Mike Bianco's tenure as head coach -- Ole Miss broke through to the College World Series. So many times we'd been so close. So many times we foolishly counted the outs. And so many times we were Evan Button'd, in one way or another.
But this season was different. This season we did it. And not only did we get to Omaha, we went ahead and won two games while we were at it.
Unfortunately, all lives must end, and the 2014 baseball season was no exception. It is that humbling end -- a 4-1 loss to Virginia just two wins shy of the national championship series -- that brings us together today. Join us as we remember and celebrate the best damn baseball season this town's ever seen.
MVP - Will Allen
With his indomitable spirit, genial personality and dreamy hair, Allen was inarguably the heart and soul of this Rebel team, lending both poise and leadership. But MVP isn't a spirit award. It was the senior catcher's tangible contribution to this team that separates him. He paced the team with a .339 average and 64 RBIs and finished second in the lineup with seven homers. A year after being displaced behind the plate by Stuart Turner, Allen was named one of three semifinalists for the Johnny Bench Award, which goes to the nation's best catcher.
Runners up: Auston Bousfield, Sikes Orvis's mustache
Comeback Player of the Year - Sikes Orvis
Remember the days when we were all pissed off because Mike Bianco kept pinch hitting that pudgy freshman despite the fact he couldn't hit a ball to save his life? The low point for Orvis came last season, when he had the second lowest batting average among the starters and tallied just three homers and 21 RBIs.
We said before the season that the 2014 campaign hinged in part on Orvis's ability to finally produce the power numbers we'd been waiting for. Boy, did he. He hammered 53 RBIs and slapped 14 dingers, good for second in the SEC. His slugging percentage increased .220 from a year ago, finishing at a team-leading .540.
Runners up: Chris Ellis, Aaron Greenwood
Newcomer of the Year - Christian Trent
Among all the freshmen contributions, it was a JUCO transfer that had the biggest impact among the new arrivals this season. Trent, who began his college career at LSU before spending a year at a community college, emerged as a stud SEC pitcher in his first season as a Rebel. During Chris Ellis's late-season struggles, Trent was the most consistent pitcher on the team. The lefty finished with a pristine 9-0 record, a 2.05 ERA and allowed just one earned run over 21⅓ NCAA Tournament innings.
Runners up: Errol Robinson, J.B. Woodman
Best Beer Shower - May 31 against Jacksonville State
Orvis jacked this one in the seventh inning of the opening game of the regional, and it got heavy play from ESPN throughout the tournament.
Best Rally Starter - Teenage Mutant Baseball Turtles
Not only is this the most creative rally starter you'll ever see, but it worked. Ole Miss went on to plate the go-ahead run against TCU in Omaha after the seventh inning appearance of the Turtles.
The only way this could have been better is if they'd used Michelangelo's orange mask. Michelangelo is the best Ninja Turtle and if you disagree, hit me up on Twitter and we'll set a time and place to fight.
Best Dancer: Dancing Baseball Kid
And it's not even close.
Racin' Solo Cup Champ - Red Cup(!)
Red Cup took the crown for a second consecutive season, extending his all-time record to 34-28-1. Blue finished second, while Yellow remained winless at 0-63 all-time. It goes without saying, but we're giddy over the results.
Leave 'er in: Mike Bianco delivers
- The Ghost of Jay Cutler
Ole Miss finally broke through to Omaha, and just like that, the program has been vindicated. All of the years spent beyond the outfield walls at Swayze, all of the money spent on season tickets, all of the cheap beer consumed or thrust skyward in celebration -- none of that feels wasted or in vain now.
But no part of this baseball program is more redeemed by this team's unexpected success than the legacy and image of head coach Mike Bianco. For years, the criticism of Bianco's coaching, from both fans' and rivals' perspectives, was that his teams too easily wilted under pressure, and that because of this he would surely never lead a team to the College World Series.
With Ole Miss not hosting a super regional since 2009, and with the program on a seeming decline (really, how else could one have reasonably perceived the five years before this year's College World Series appearance as anything other than a decline?), many wanted a change. Swayze Field and the Ole Miss baseball fan base had both grown to create the best gameday experience in college baseball, money was pouring into the program, recruiting was going characteristically well -- so why was it that we hadn't yet made it past the supers? Clearly, Bianco was the problem.
Well, there's no way one can reasonably reach that conclusion now. Not only did Bianco recruit, assemble, and develop a team that was just a few parts shy of a national championship winner, but he did so unexpectedly and with his back pressed firmly against the wall -- exactly the kind of pressure we've come to expect failure out of with this program.
For the past month, his team showed incredible toughness and competed extremely well against some of the most talented teams in college baseball. They put themselves in a spot to compete for a national championship, and ended the season as one of only four teams remaining in Omaha's penultimate series of games.
At this point last year, after the Rebels fell to William and Mary in the Raleigh regional, Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork opted to retain Bianco, but only via a one-year contract extension. Fans weren't particularly happy with this, given the poor postseason performances Bianco's teams had prior to this year, but it was enough to legitimize the "Omaha or bust" arguments many were making.
Now that the hurdle of an appearance in the College World Series has been cleared, we can expect a much lengthier contract for Bianco, plus a noticeable pay raise. Given his team's newly found successes, his program's continued recruiting prowess and his fan base's rediscovered enthusiasm, he will have more than earned it, as will he his newfound legacy as arguably the best baseball coach Ole Miss has ever had.
The top 5 moments of 2014
#5 - Austin Anderson's intentional walkoff
This is one of the wildest endings to a baseball game you can imagine. Back in early April, Ole Miss was locked in an extra-innings battle with Auburn on Friday night at Swayze. With the game knotted at five in the bottom of the 13th, Auburn elected to intentionally walk the dangerous Anderson. But instead of throwing the ball outside to his waiting catcher, pitcher Jay Wade made the gleefully entertaining mistake of leaving it over the middle, where Anderson was waiting.
Keith Kessinger's hysteria is the MVP of the video.
#4 - Will Allen's walkout song saves a life (kind of)
This didn't happen on the diamond, but it's definitely one of the coolest moment of the season. During Friday night of the LSU series, an elderly man collapsed in the stands. By the time EMTs arrived, the man had stopped breathing and, as social media tells it, Allen was coming to the plate. Just as Allen's walkout song, of which the prominent lyric is "Heaven let your light shine down," began playing, emergency responders successfully resuscitated the man.
Will Allen is clearly Jesus. NCAA, are you really going to tell Jesus his eligibility has run out? #BringBackStrongTower
#3 - John Gatlin delivers in Omaha
Tied in the bottom of the ninth against Texas Tech, Ole Miss was facing the prospect of leaving Omaha without a win. With one out and men on the corners, Mike Bianco pinch hit Gatlin, a reserve infielder with a .103 batting average over just 29 at-bats. The fifth-year senior missed all of 2013 with a foot injury and had seen little playing time in his final season. Less than 48 hours removed from the death of his grandmother, Gatlin stepped into the box and delivered a historic walkoff win.
#2 - Holt Perdzock knocks the Rebs into the CWS
What beats a walkoff in Omaha? A bases-clearing double to get you there. No, Perdzock's big hit in Game 3 of the Lafayette Super Regional wasn't a walkoff -- in fact, Ole Miss held a two-run lead at the time -- but it was after that three-run hit that you felt for the first time the Rebels might really be on their way to the College World Series.
How fitting is it that a pinch hitter -- as direct a manifestation of Bianco's decision-making as you can have -- was the one to punch the Omaha ticket?
#1 - The team storms Right Field
In a season in which Ole Miss made it back to the College World Series for the first time in over four decades, you would presume the top moment would be in Omaha, not the regionals. But anyone who was in the student section after the clinching win over Washington knows better.
What looked like just another celebratory lap around the outfield turned into a mad dash by the entire team into Right Field, where they collided with an ecstatic student body in one of the coolest sports moments I've ever witnessed. Students and athletes met as one in a pulsing mosh pit of triumph, with a steady downpour of beer providing the sticky backdrop.
We pride ourselves for our unique connection between the students and the baseball team. That moment, with player and fan chanting "Tits out for the Rebs" in unison, was as exemplarily an illustration of that bond as you'll get.
For a more thorough reliving of the celebration, head back to our recap.
Josh McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics/@OleMissPix
A season spent at Swayze
A year ago, my wife had just moved to Oxford and I was finishing up the school year in Jackson. On the weekends, specifically those on which Ole Miss baseball games were played, I made a point to try make the trip north. I distinctly remember a conversation between my wife and me during one of those Friday night games:
Me: Alright, chairs and cooler are packed, let's get to left field ASAP.
Wife: So … when you move up here full time next spring, are we going to be spending EVERY Friday night watching baseball instead of going out for dinner dates?
And so we committed to season tickets and attended almost every single game this past season. Nothing against Right Field -- it has a special place in all of our hearts -- but "graduating" to left field was a wonderful transition. It's a bit more refined (you can bring in glass bottles because security isn't scared of a spare bottle knocking out an opposing outfielder) but still with people like yours truly spouting out a good serving of hecklin'.
It was also nice to be able to attend all the Ernie LaBarge Bullpen Club meetings and hear Coach Bianco field questions. It's a bit funny looking back at how he got some heated questions regarding his choices during the South Carolina series now that it's months behind us and we made it to Omaha while the Gamecocks couldn't even make it out of their own regional.
As for Omaha, many people have asked me how it was. To that I can only reply: "The best sporting experience I've ever had in my life." This coming from a guy who has attended a Stanley Cup final, an MLB World Series, an NBA All-Star Game and the Saints-Colts Super Bowl. There's just something different when the team that you breathe and bleed for makes it to the mecca of its respective postseason and changes EVERYTHING. Now I just have to wait for Ole Miss to make it to a BCS bowl and the Final Four. It'll happen in my lifetime right? #WAOM
My final piece
- Catfish Powe-boy
Blogging about Ole Miss baseball isn't always fun. Through the course of a 69 game season, it can get mundane and, when the team is losing, flat-out depressing. I'll be honest, there were times this season when I woke up to do a game recap after a loss and said, "to hell with it."
Still, I've never had more fun following a team -- regardless of sport, league or season -- than I did with the 2014 Diamond Rebs. I know that's easy to say after we finally got through to Omaha, but consistently, throughout the season, this year was a blast.
There are a lot of people to thank for that. For starters, the players and coaches for one hell of a 2014 campaign. But there are others. My fellow Red Cup bros, who helped put together the previews, recaps, game threads and Twitter updates that you read all season. The Ole Miss Athletics department -- specifically Bill Bunting and Josh McCoy -- for helping us out whenever we called on them. And of course, you, the readers, who kept coming back despite our bad jokes and countless spelling errors.
As a quasi-professional sports writer, I take every opportunity I can to boast about my correct predictions. In the spirit of fairness, I'll also admit when I'm wrong. Four days before the season opener against Stetson, I predicted on this very site that Ole Miss would get knocked out of a regional and that Mike Bianco would be fired.
Damn it feels good to be wrong.
Josh McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics/@OleMissPix