Arkansas players Bobby Portis, Michael Qualls and ...
Rebels relishing first College World Series since '72
Mississippi infielder Austin Anderson throws out Louisiana Lafayette's Jace Conrad in the first inning of an NCAA college baseball tournament super regional game in Lafayette, La., Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's Mike Bianco spent his college playing days and early coaching career at LSU, a place where going to the College World Series seems like a birthright.
Getting the Rebels to Omaha, Nebraska, has been considerably more difficult.
But Ole Miss is finally part of college baseball's postseason showcase, preparing for its first CWS appearance since 1972 after beating host Louisiana-Lafayette on Monday in a super regional.
The 47-year-old Bianco has transformed the Rebels from a Southeastern Conference afterthought to a powerhouse during 14 seasons in Oxford, but super regional heartbreak — including losses in 2005, '06, 07 and '09 — had become a part of the program's tough-luck lore.
That's all changed now. Ole Miss (46-19) will face Virginia (49-14) Sunday in the CWS opening round.
"We've accomplished everything we've set our sights on," Ole Miss sophomore pitcher Christian Trent said. "Obviously, next is the national championship."
The breakthrough has come during an unlikely season. The Rebels weren't highly-regarded in preseason polls, with the SEC's coaches picking them to finish near the bottom of the Western Division.
But a lineup full of veterans — including catcher Will Allen, outfielder Auston Bousfield and third baseman Austin Anderson — has matured into one of the best in the nation.
The Rebels are hitting .303 as a team with seven regulars above .290. Junior Sikes Orvis has hit 14 homers, giving them some punch in the middle of the order.
The older players have mixed well with a good group of freshmen, including Colby Bortles, Errol Robinson and J.B. Woodman. Bortles is the younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.
"This team's just really tough," Orvis said. "We do a lot of things well. We pitch well, we hit well, we play defense and we do a lot of little things that really count."
Ole Miss has also been consistent on the mound. Starters Chris Ellis (10-2, 2.45 ERA) and Trent (9-0, 2.21) have combined with relievers like Aaron Greenwood, Scott Weathersby and Josh Laxer to give the Rebels quality arms from innings one through nine.
The team's depth and talent was evident during the Major League Baseball draft last week, when nine players were selected.
"We're a talented team, but also a team that's played very well from start to finish," Bianco said. "We've handled adversity and what this game can deal you. I'm very proud of them."
Now Ole Miss is trying to combat the euphoria that came with finally breaking through to the College World Series. About 1,000 people were waiting for the Rebels when they came back to campus on Tuesday, giving the team a hero's welcome.
But Bianco said the mission isn't totally accomplished. Even though it's been awhile, the coach hopes his experience in Omaha can give the players an idea of what to expect.
Back when Bianco was at LSU, the Tigers went so often they had their travel plans perfected, staying at the same hotel and even in the same rooms.
"Embassy Suites," Bianco said with a grin. "Second floor."
That hotel isn't available this time around, but the coach said some new experiences might not be so bad.
"When you get a taste of the reality of how difficult it is just to get (to Omaha), you have a new appreciation for it," Bianco said.