Beer showers rained down on Swayze Field like they had so many times before, but the Ole Miss student section, situated just beyond the right-field fence, wasn’t celebrating a home run.
Rather, on Sunday, students and players alike were memorializing something more on a night fit for a party. A makeshift mosh pit broke out as night turned to morning, the Rebels having punched their ticket to a Super Regional for the first time in five years with a 19-4 rout of Jacksonville State. They’ll next travel to Fayetteville for a three-game set with SEC West foe Arkansas this weekend. And a trip to Omaha, site of the College World Series, is on the line.
But time stopped for this moment, as all who call themselves Rebels bathed in an historic victory. There was Cooper Johnson, the Ole Miss catcher who is expected to be an early-round selection when the MLB Draft opens tonight at 6 p.m. CT, his hair drenched in the sweat of a four-hour, nine-inning marathon, but also the alcohol flying over him from every direction. His uniform, too. Ole Miss is 17-5 in the powder blues this season. The Rebels have no plans to wear anything else the rest of the way.
Thomas Dillard — the Popeye-armed leadoff hitter who’d accounted for two home runs, one of which was a grand slam, and seven RBI — was beside him. Max Cioffi, who was the last pitcher of the evening, made leap after leap into the crowd, as did Houston Roth and Austin Miller and Zack Phillips and others.
Most of the some 10,000 fans had already filed out by the time the last out was recorded, a full-count, 4-6-3 double play coaxed by Cioffi off Jacksonville State two-hole hitter Cole Frederick. But not the students. They waited on an Ole Miss team that, over the last two weeks, has completely turned around its season in winning eight of its last nine games, including a perfect 3-0 weekend in the Oxford Regional.
“This is absolutely crazy,” Johnson said, wiping away his drenched hair from his face. “Best fans in the damn country right here. Meeting us out here, there’s nothing better. It just makes it all so sweet, it makes it all worth it. We love our fans so much.”
Ole Miss didn’t dog-pile the pitcher’s mound, but the Rebels overwhelmed it all the same. They jumped up and down and, one to another, embraced and called out to the warm and still Oxford air.
Assistants Carl Lafferty and Mike Clement doused Bianco with the water of a Gatorade cooler. Johnson and Co. eventually left right field to circle the stadium and greet those other fans who waited to congratulate them and send them on their way to Fayetteville — a college baseball venue that has been so tough on opposing teams. The Razorbacks are 64-10 in the last two seasons at Baum-Walker Stadium. They’ve lost two home series in three years.
Ole Miss, however, is responsible for both.
“We’re all proud,” Bianco said. “We’re proud of one another. I’m happy. Everybody deserves this, even the new guys, but the guys that were here last year deserve today and deserve to finish their last game at Swayze Field like this. They couldn’t wait after the game got out. They wanted to go and touch the fans and go out to the student section. That’s always a cool tribute to the fans, but I don’t know if we’ve ever had a team that wanted to do that like these guys did.”
“It was kind of a blur,” Johnson said. “We got out to right-center field after we shook Jacksonville State’s hands. We were all pretty antsy. Coach gave us a pretty quick message and (we) started right by our dugout and started running. It was a pretty cool moment, a moment I definitely will never forget and cherish for the rest of my life.”
Much will change in the next month. Johnson is likely playing his last games as a Rebel, as is Grae Kessinger and, most likely, Thomas Dillard, Will Ethridge, Cole Zabowski and possibly a few others. Dillard carries the highest draft ranking of all current players, while Kessinger is a projected late-second/early-third selection by Baseball America. Johnson is ranked as the No. 108 overall prospect by Baseball America. He’s No. 137 on MLB Pipeline.
Zabowski, a junior, can’t help his draft stock much more, if at all, returning to school, meaning regardless of where he’s taken, and to preserve what little negotiation leverage he has, he’ll soon head off to the minor leagues to begin his professional career. Signees Hayden Dunhurst and Connor Walsh could go high, too. Dunhurst is projected in the third-to-fifth round, which, according to MLB Pipeline, “should be enough to divert his commitment to Ole Miss.” Walsh is likely to hear his name called on day two.
Jerrion Ealy, the two-sport former five-star running who recently arrived on campus, hasn’t had a scout at any of his high school games in a month. He was once considered a long shot to end up at Ole Miss, but he’s now trending towards school, where he’ll play both football and baseball. His number — his signing bonus request — is said to be high
But for one night, at least, Ole Miss baseball was frozen in time. The Rebels claimed their 40th win — the ninth 40-win season in school history and the second in as many years, which hasn’t happened since 2006-07 — and it was a big one. They’ve won 10 regionals. They’re in their sixth super.
The story isn’t finished, a chapter only closed. And Swayze Field had its final say, the outfield grass likely still damp from the ‘water’ — as Johnson described it, as to avoid identifying the true contents of those red solo cups — brought about by joy and relief and excitement and hope of what’s to come.
Ole Miss is two wins away from Omaha. The Rebels last got there in 2014, which was, at the time, their first appearance in the College World Series since the 70s.
“We feel like we’re going to win every game when we come to the ball park,” Johnson said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to win every time we step on the field. I feel like we have a lot of baseball to play.”