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OXFORD – If you were Ole Miss what you might have feared most Saturday night were the ghosts of NCAA regionals past.
Like the horrifying 2004 specter of a slightly built Western Kentucky left-hander named Grady Hinchman. Remember him? Throwing fastballs that might not have broken a window pane, Hinchman shut the Rebels out on two hits. That WKU team, like Saint Louis this night, was the No. 4 seed. That Ole Miss team, like this one Saturday night was a 1-seed. The listless Rebels were eliminated the next day by Washington.
There have been other ghosts – most recently Utah, another 4-seed that sent the top-seeded Rebels reeling towards another two and out two years ago.
So here came the Saint Louis Billikens, a 4-seed that might have been more scary than all those others before. After all, they had won 38 games and they had a sure-enough scary right-hander, Miller Hogan, whose 92-93 mph fastballs can most assuredly break window panes, if not shatter-proof glass. Hogan brought a 10-3 record and a nifty 2.19 earned run average into the contest.
When Saint Louis plated runs in each of the first two innings to take a 2-0 lead, fears surely mounted among the overflow crowd of 11,304. What’s more, Hogan was as sharp as Ty Cobb’s spikes in the first inning.
But before anyone could say here-we-go-again, the Rebels did what they have been doing most of this splendid season. They timed Hogan’s fastballs in the second inning for three doubles, a home run and six runs total. To be fair, Hogan didn’t get much help from his friends. Two errors and a botched, tailor-made double play contributed to the the Rebels’ scoring. Cole Zabowski’s two-rum homer, over the centerfield wall, spurred the Rebels’ offense to a six-run inning.
“There no margin for error with that team,” Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson said. “They are quality club and if you give a team like that three extra outs, you’re gonna pay.”
The Rebels went on to a comfortable, 9-2 opening round victory on a hot, humid night. The Rebels will play No. 2 seed Tennessee Tech at 4 p.m. Sunday in the winner’s bracket game. A victory in that one would put Ole Miss within one more win of hosting a Super Regional next weekend.
So much for ghosts, and so much for Billikens, which, by the way, are short, squat charm dolls, created shortly before John R. Bender became the Saint Louis football coach in 1910. The Billiken doll was said to have resembled Bender and that’s how Saint Louis became the Billikens.
After a slow start, Ole Miss lefty Ryan Rolison made short work of the Saint Louis hitters, who may have felt as if they needed some sort of charm doll against his often dazzling stuff. Rolison is expected to go high in Monday’s Major League draft, and he surely didn’t hurt his status with Saturday night’s effort.
“I was rushing early,” Rolison said.
A second inning visit from Bianco seemed to settle him. Rolison allowed four hits over seven innings, while striking out 13 and walking three. Max Cioffi finished it up for him with two hitless innings.
“Ryan was really sharp after he got through the first couple innings,” Bianco said. “After that, he locked in, stayed ahead in the count and was in command.”
Ole Miss will need another peformance like that Sunday from Brady Feigl, who will get the start against a Tennessee Tech lineup that has put up startling offensive numbers and defeated Missouri State 6-4 Saturday afternoon to advance to 49-9 on the season.
Tennessee Tech only homered once on Saturday but the Golden Eagles have hit a whopping 122 dingers on the season. All nine starters hit over .300. Two hit over .400. Six have double-digit home runs.
“Their numbers are crazy,” Bianco said.
Ole Miss’s are pretty special, too. The Rebels are now 47-15. Win the next two and they will be 49-15 and headed to a Super Regional for the first time since 2014. By the way, two wins in that 2014 College Worlds Series were the last time the Rebels had won an NCAA Tournament game before Saturday night.
Consider that another ghost busted.