OXFORD – Today brings a lot of familiarity for Mike Bianco as the Omaha quest for Ole Miss begins again.
It has yet to end happily.
After a couple of decades of mediocrity Bianco has built a baseball program that is a source of pride for the school and its fans, one that nudged its way into the springtime spotlight previously reserved for the in-state rivals.
Today is Day 1 at the Oxford Regional, the fifth time in school history – all under Bianco — that the Rebels have been a host team. They’ve played for the SEC tournament title three times, won it once. They shared the SEC regular season championship with a school-record 20 conference wins this season. Only once in nine years under the former LSU catcher have the Rebels failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
All eight times, however, they’ve failed to reach the College World Series. It’s an obvious missing bullet point on a resume with a lot to offer otherwise.
It’s also a topic that Bianco is used to discussing, and if it makes his shorts tighten it’s not apparent.
“I don’t know if there’s more pressure. You feel that pressure every year. It’s more expectations than pressure … from myself, from our staff, our players and certainly our fans. And that’s a good thing,” he said.
Another Division 1 coach once told me that Bianco will get to Omaha, and when he does flood gates of success will open.
The theory exists that by continually putting yourself in position you eventually break through. Ole Miss has played in three super regionals in the last four years, two of them at home, but the wall remains.
In April this team had the look of one that might break through, but that was a team that exuded confidence with Scott Bittle in the regular rotation. The All-America closer turned dominant starter hasn’t pitched in a month. Suffering from arm soreness, Bittle won’t pitch in the regional and very likely may already have concluded his Ole Miss career.
A healthy Bittle could continually hang zeroes on a scoreboard and cover for an offense that is generally consistent but rarely explosive.
Bianco believes his team even without Bittle is equipped to reach Omaha.
“I believe so. I think we have the pitching depth. This team plays outstanding defense. Offensively, much has been said about the home run numbers, but they’re probably in the middle of the road from the teams that we’ve had. This is a team that won 20 games in the Southeastern Conference, and it might have been the strongest year for the SEC since I’ve been here.”
In respect for the regular season title the Rebels shared, the NCAA sent to Oxford a competitive field – all teams that reach this level are – but one lacking a foe that tingles the spine.
Without Bittle the Rebels lack the same kind of pitcher. Bianco embraces the idea that the team has accomplished what it has without a real star. There are a lot of good players on this team, good contact hitters. The Rebels are capable of winning this regional if they hit at the right times and occasionally hit long to back pitching that will still do some very good things.
Whether it does the things to break through this year remains to be seen, but as the quest begins, Bianco sums up his situation by recalling his mentor, former LSU coach Skip Bertman.
“You want to be part of something that wins, where people expect you to win and succeed,” he says. “High expectations beat low reality every day of the week.”
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs about the Rebels at NEMS360.com.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal