Mississippi's Tim Elko (25) celebrates as he runs toward home, as he was driven in by Kevin Graham against Oklahoma during the first inning during the first game of the NCAA College World Series finals, Saturday, June 25, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

The Ole Miss Rebels had just won the Super Regional at Hattiesburg and were on the bus back to Oxford when Mike Bianco received text messages of congratulations from both Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis and hitting coach Jake Gautreau.

The texts, Bianco said, also wished him good luck in Omaha.

Rick Cleveland

Said Bianco, “And my response to both of them was: ‘Thanks so much, I really appreciate it, and we’ll try to keep the trophy in Mississippi.’”

Mission accomplished. The Rebels defeated Oklahoma in two straight games to clinch Mississippi’s second straight college baseball national championship. Mississippi State won it in 2021. What’s more, the fan bases of State and Ole Miss essentially took over Omaha both years.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey talked about it on the field during the Ole Miss celebration Sunday. “It’s amazing,” Sankey said while surveying the postgame scene of thousands of Ole Miss fans still standing and cheering. “This was the same scene as last year. Only the colors have changed.”

Mississippians, by the thousands, have contributed much to the Omaha economy these past few years.

Bianco continued, in his postgame press conference about the texts from State coaches, “That was as we were leaving Hattiesburg and Southern Miss, a team that was a national seed and hosted a Super Regional. The rivalry is great, but it is a rivalry of all three of us because all three of us have great baseball programs.”

READ MORE: NATIONAL CHAMPS: Ole Miss completes rags to riches story

That Mississippi State and Ole Miss have won national championships in back-to-back seasons should be a source of great pride for Mississippi college baseball fans, who are the most loyal of any in the nation. 

The texts exchange with Bianco and the Mississippi State coaches came after Scott Berry, the Southern Miss head coach, congratulated Bianco and his Rebels in in post-Super Regional press conference and said, “I hope they go to Omaha and win the whole thing.”

The coaches get it. Mississippi’s college sports rivalries are intense and often bitter, but seems to me sometimes fans should step back and take a look at the big picture. Mississippi ranks at the bottom of so much: education, health care, household income, and so much more. In college baseball the state ranks at the top, period. We play baseball well. We support it well. We win big.

Pearl River, in Poplarville, won the national junior college championship recently. Delta State has been a national Division II power going back to the Boo Ferriss days. William Carey, in NAIA, is another national power. Mississippi junior college baseball is the strongest in the country. The jucos feed talent to the college programs. High school baseball in Mississippi has improved exponentially over the last half century, feeding all the above.

Last year, Hunter Elliott was pitching for Tupelo High. This year, he was the starting pitcher in the deciding game of the College World Series. Last year, Mason Nichols was pitching for Jackson Prep. This season, he played a vital role out of the bullpen for the National Champion Rebels.

Berry watched Ole Miss win the natty at home in south Mississippi Sunday night. He was genuinely happy for Bianco and his team.

“If you are a baseball fan, you have to be proud of Mississippi,” Berry said. “It’s not just the back-to-back national championships but it’s the consistency of Mississippi’s college baseball teams at every level. We feed off each other. The competition makes us all better.

“I couldn’t be happier for Mike and his staff. I’m so happy for Mike because I know how tough a year it was for him. Man, they showed some unbelievable resiliency and that’s a credit to all of them – Mike, his assistants and the players. They are a credit to Mississippi baseball. They made us all proud.”

They did. No matter your allegiances.

Chris Lemonis was watching a summer league baseball game when reached Monday afternoon. “Our rivalry with Ole Miss is about as intense as you’ll find,” Lemonis said. “But we understand what each program goes through. Baseball is different. There’s so many ups and downs and we all understand that. I have a lot of respect for Mike, his staff and how they do it. They deserve this. What they did this year was truly amazing. It was all earned.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.