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Column: Bianco’s Team Two Wins, McDonnell’s Team One on Opening Weekend

By Jeff Roberson
HottyToddy.com Contributor
robersonjeff0630@gmail.com

Two men who played major roles in building the foundation of modern Ole Miss baseball met this weekend – or at least their teams did – and the longest-tenured head coach in a major sport in the SEC won out.

Wes Burton picks up the win over No.1 Louisville on Sunday. As the Rebels pick up a 7-6 victory. Photo by Josh McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

Mike Bianco’s Ole Miss Rebels, a Top 25 team poised to make a jump in the polls, took two of three games from Dan McDonnell’s top-ranked Louisville Cardinals of the ACC in arguably the best college series in the country on opening weekend.

After the visitors won the first game 7-2, behind sensational starting pitcher Reid Detmers, Ole Miss took thrillers on Saturday and Sunday by 8-6 and 7-6 margins. The back two games proved some toughness and maybe even some maturity from a youthful Rebel squad.

On the mound for Sunday’s finale for Ole Miss were two freshmen from California – starter Derek Diamond and reliever Wes Burton – followed by junior Max Cioffi of Chicago to close it out. All were impressive in shutting down the high-flying Cardinal offense.

Saturday was the Cael Baker show as the transfer from Wabash Valley College, and before that the University of Cincinnati, went 4-for-4 with 2 home runs and a double.

If weekend one is any indication, both teams will go far. How far remains to be seen. It’s mid-February.

This all started in the summer of 2000

One of the first moves Bianco made after he was hired at Ole Miss in June, 2000, was to bring in McDonnell, who was an assistant coach at The Citadel. Few knew the impact the young assistant would make on the program. But those first recruiting classes were among the nation’s best and set the tone for some great Rebel teams in the mid-2000s.

Then McDonnell left after the 2006 season for Louisville where he’s built one of the country’s best college baseball programs. Some head coaches who once coached on the same staff might not play against each other as time moves on. But not these two. Bianco and McDonnell have made it a habit of having the Rebels and Cardinals continue to meet on the diamond.

This series, especially on opening weekend, is not only good for both programs but good for college baseball period. The national baseball media had their eyes on the happenings at Swayze Field for three days.   

A lot has changed since the summer of 2000 when Bianco was named head baseball coach at Ole Miss. One thing has remained constant for his program. 

Winning.

This weekend was important for this Rebel team – to win a huge series and to gain some early confidence as the season gets underway.

The Cardinals have been to Omaha two of the last three seasons. Ole Miss has had as much talent on its team the past three seasons as arguably ever. It’s just the final hump to move from the Sweet Sixteen of college baseball onto the CWS that has been elusive since 2014.

There’s no reason to believe Ole Miss won’t have another chance to get there this season. Last season the Rebels lost too many key regular-season games which kept them from being a National Seed when Selection Monday rolled around. Winning a few more of those this season is important, and this weekend was a great start to accomplish that. 

Familiar Faces at the Ballpark

Those who turned on their radios to listen heard the familiar voice of David Kellum, more than 40 years the play by play Rebel. This year joining him in the booth is the all-time hits leader in the Ole Miss baseball program, Brad Henderson.

Jake Gibbs, a two-sport All-American as famous for football as baseball, third place in the 1960 Heisman Trophy race, a catcher with the Yankees for a decade, and the Ole Miss head baseball coach for 19 years, threw out Friday’s first pitch. His name and number “41” now grace the outfield wall in a sincere move of appreciation from Ole Miss for one of the greatest Rebels of all time.  

This weekend Don Kessinger was at the ballpark, and perhaps nobody was happier to be there than the former Rebel two-sport All-American and also the UM head baseball coach for six seasons. The six-time MLB All-Star with the Cubs, who later played for the Cardinals and was a player-manager for the White Sox, is recovering from a stroke over the winter. Progress has been steady and good in his recovery, I was told by family members, and that is great to hear. Don Kessinger, too, is one of the greatest Rebels of all time.

From Sikes Orvis, one of the heroes and fan favorites of the 2014 College World Series team, to Will Kline, the sensational ace from 2006-07 whose best outing is still arguably a 1-0 masterpiece over Mississippi State in the old Mayor’s Trophy Game at Smith-Wills Stadium – those two and more were there as Bianco’s crew sent McDonnell’s top-ranked team back to the bluegrass state with two losses.

Winning the series set a huge early tone for the season. We’ll see how the Rebels build on it from here.


Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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