OMAHA, Neb. -- The 2022 Men's College World Series matchup is set, as Ole Miss avenged a heartbreaking Wednesday night loss to SEC West rival Arkansas with a grinder of a 2-0 win.
The Rebels move on to face Oklahoma in a best-of-three title bout that begins Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Anyone who may have approached you midseason, or even a month ago, and told you that Rebels would be in that championship series, they were lying. No one then could have seen this coming. At least no one but the team themselves.
During the preseason, way back in January, first basemen/team captain/Oxford, Mississippi folk hero Tim Elko said, "If we get to Omaha, we will be national champions." He doubled down on that prediction during the NCAA tournament. His team unexpectedly made it Omaha. Now they are two wins away from making Elko into Joe Namath.
"The emotions are great. We're excited to get to play in the national championship series," said the fifth-year senior who went 1-4 on Thursday. "This is why we came back. We knew this team had potential and, obviously, we had a rough patch in the middle [of the season]. But we definitely knew we could be right here."
After the first eleven games of the eight-team MCWS provided nothing but drama-less routs, the last contest between the Rebels and Razorbacks were both tense from the first pitch to the last. For Mississippi, every one of those pitches was thrown by ace Dylan DeLucia (8-2), who threw a complete game shutout with seven strikeouts and only four hits surrendered.
Ole Miss managed only seven hits over eight innings against Arkansas starter and postseason all-star Connor Noland (8-6), but two of those hits, both hard grounders that found their way through the infield, drove in one run each and that was enough.
"I was in the tunnel watching when I wasn't pitching, and you could feel Dylan was in a groove," Noland recalled. "That means you have to step it up and we did that. It just didn't go our way."
"It's one of the best pitcher's duels I've ever seen in Omaha, and I've been coming here for a while," said Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, making his ninth trip to Omaha as a head coach and seventh with the Razorbacks. "The game lasted what, two hour and fifteen minutes? I like good baseball. Smart hitting, great pitching, good defense. And that was good baseball."
"I just stayed with it," DeLucia said, smiling, about the rare complete game. "I kept seeing all those zeros going up on the board and I thought, well, maybe I'll finally get to finish one!"
Ole Miss is playing as good a brand of baseball as anyone in the nation, but after a preseason packed with promise, it took this team all year to finally fulfill their potential. They climbed to a No. 1 ranking early in the 2022 college baseball season, but injuries and a series of close losses sent them tumbling out of the top 25, at one point sitting on a brutal 7-14 SEC conference record. Then they were bounced from the SEC tournament after only one game, a 3-1 opening loss to Vanderbilt.
The next week, when the 64-team NCAA bracket was announced, many within the athletic department didn't even tune in to the selection show broadcast because they assumed their team wouldn't be in the field. Instead, they were listed among the last four teams to squeak in.
From there they have posted an 8-1 postseason record, none at home in Oxford, and are now playing for the first national baseball title in program history.
DeLucia wasn't even in the starting rotation over the first half of the season. Now he's the ace who got his team into the title bout with a rested bullpen. Before this week they had never won more than two games in a single College World Series over 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 to not just come here, but to win," said a beaming Mike Bianco after the victory. He's in his 22nd season at the helm of Ole Miss and more than a few times in recent years he seemed to be on the cusp of being fired, including during this year's midseason struggles.
Van Horn even alluded to that during his postgame press conference, the sharks circling his longtime SEC West rival and friend. Bianco shrugged off such talk Thursday, as he always has. "It's not supposed to be easy, right? And you've got to be tough enough to handle 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."