- Parrish Alford says Ole Miss and Mississippi State baseball need a big splash in 2024. The fan bases expect it even if America does not.
Dealing with the Devil doesn’t end well.
It’s unlikely that any Mississippi State fan engaged in backroom talks with the Prince of Darkness before the 2021 college baseball season.
The Bulldogs had long since learned the way to Omaha. They’d been there three times – with three different coaches — in seven years before 2021.
John Cohen’s Bulldogs were College World Series runners-up to UCLA in 2013. Gary Henderson took the Bulldogs to Omaha as an interim coach in 2018, and Chris Lemonis was back in 2019, his rookie season in Starkville, with a team that won 52 games.
But when Lemonis and the Bulldogs won the whole thing in 2021, it was the crowning achievement long missing on the sparkling resume of Mississippi State baseball.
Chances are Lucifer was not involved then, nor the next season when Ole Miss and coach Mike Bianco won the national championship.
But if he was, maybe that’s why it looks like both teams have been paying bills since those glorious summers near the Nebraska-Iowa state line.
Oh, there are other teams that play it, play it well and sustain it, but few, if any, match the spectacle of college baseball in our state.
And it’s not just Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
The running joke in 2023 was that Southern Miss would win the national championship and make it three-straight for the Magnolia State. It really wasn’t that far-fetched. The Golden Eagles won a road regional at Auburn before losing Game 3 of the super regional in Hattiesburg in coach Scott Berry’s last game.
Delta State and William Carey have won national championships at their respective levels.
But for all the thrills that 2021 and 2022 provided for Mississippians it’s been brutal for the two SEC entries ever since.
The last two seasons the Bulldogs have failed to qualify for the SEC Tournament much less the NCAA Tournament.
The Rebels didn’t reach the SEC Tournament last year, either. Only two conference teams fail to qualify, so in 2023, those were the two Mississippi schools.
Since winning back-to-back national championships, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are a combined 24-66 in 90 SEC regular season games.
And remember this. Ole Miss had a magical postseason run to the crown in 2022, but the regular season was a battle. The Rebels were just 7-15 through their first 22 conference games. They finished 14-16 in the league, made a quick exit from the SEC Tournament with a loss to Vanderbilt, and were the last team penciled in for the NCAA Field of 64.
Through the struggles perhaps the two nicest college baseball stadiums in the country, less than two hours apart, continued to draw big crowds. We did what we do. Smoke lifted from outfield grills and drifted across the fields on warm sunny Saturdays. Ole Miss students threw sweet tea – or is that something else? – into the air after home runs. Opposing players were jeered then fed.
The losses mounted, but the spectacle continued.
You can peel back the layers and find reasons for the drop-off, injuries here and there, close games that almost turned the right way but didn’t. Failure’s story lines are often similar.
We’re just weeks away from college baseball, a sport not invented in Mississippi but arguably perfected here. Opening Day on Feb. 16 finds Ole Miss at Hawaii and Mississippi State home against Air Force.
The Bulldogs and Rebels need a big splash in 2024.
The fan bases expect it even if America does not. You won’t find these two in their customary prominent spots in preseason rankings.
But the histories for both teams have their fans conditioned to expect big things.
Each team has its mix of returning contributors – State sophomore outfielder Dakota Jordan is a preseason third-team All-American by one media outlet – promising young players and what Lemonis and Bianco believe are the necessary puzzle pieces from the transfer portal.
Is there pressure? Absolutely.
Even for new Southern Miss coach Chris Ostrander, who has enormous shoes to fill behind Berry. From Hill Denson to Corky Palmer to Scott Berry and now Ostrander, Berry’s lead assistant, the Golden Eagles have a history of promoting from within, and it’s worked quite well.
Are these win-or-be-fired times in Starkville and Oxford?
Probably not. Both coaches stored enormous capital from their championship runs, and college baseball is different from football in that quick-hook regard … but as we’ve noted, things are different here.
Lemonis took two straight Mississippi State teams to Omaha, but now he’s followed a bad season with another. That’s a trend.
The Ole Miss coach since 2001, Bianco’s future was uncertain in 2023 had the Rebels not won a regional at No. 6 national seed Miami then won twice in the all-Mississippi super at Hattiesburg.
Bianco and Lemonis appeared together for a good cause at a Boy Scouts event in Tupelo recently.
That’s another way that college baseball is different here. The hate and posturing is for the fans.
When the Rebels clinched their CWS bid in 2022, one of the first to ping Bianco’s phone was Lemonis with some variation of a “bring the title back to Mississippi” message.
But at the end of the day it’s a business. Score is kept, and wins and losses matter.
The spectacle must be protected.
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