What CWS finals means to Ole Miss baseball's Mike Bianco — and the coaches who stuck around

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OMAHA, Neb. — As their players shook hands and celebrated one of the biggest wins in school history on the infield grass, Ole Miss baseball coaches Mike Bianco and Carl Lafferty shared an embrace.

This veteran Ole Miss team led by seniors Tim Elko, Kevin Graham and Justin Bench played its way into the College World Series championship series for the first time with a 2-0 win versus Arkansas Thursday.

But the veterans aren't exclusively on the field. Bianco is the longest tenured baseball coach in the SEC at 22 years. Lafferty, Ole Miss' recruiting coordinator, is the longest tenured SEC assistant at 15 years. Hitting coach Mike Clement has been with the Rebels eight years, longer than eight sitting SEC head coaches.

That kind of coaching stability in any collegiate sport is tough to come by. But through the ups and downs of the last decade, this trio is two wins away from a national championship, starting with Saturday's three-game series opener against Oklahoma (6 p.m. CT, ESPN).

"I don't know why they don't get more credit than they do," Bianco said of his assistants. "This is the best staff that we've ever had, and we've had some great ones. We've had some great coaches come through. I don't remember ever feeling as comfortable as I do with my guys."

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A month ago, it felt as if the trio was on its way out. The Rebels were 7-14 in SEC play on May 1. Rumors swirled. Pressure built. After eight years of missing out on the College World Series and back-to-back postseasons that came up one win short of Omaha, it was hard to avoid the topic of Bianco's hot seat.

Now there's no doubt Bianco and his staff have bought themselves plenty of time to build their futures in Oxford. Ask Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn — himself one of the longest tenured coaches in college athletics — why this Ole Miss team was the one that's been able to break through, and he has a very simple answer: experience.

Van Horn said he has nightmares about seeing Graham in the batter's box and gets nervous any time Elko comes to the plate. Those players have been at Ole Miss so long, they were in attendance when Arkansas beat Ole Miss in the 2019 Fayetteville Super Regional.

"I was ecstatic for us, but I felt bad for them," Van Horn remembers. "That's just the way it is. They've got a family. I know exactly where (Bianco) is coming from, and it hurts."

The pain of missing Omaha is lifted. The pain of coming up short against Arkansas is lifted too. As Lafferty threw his hand around Bianco's shoulder two decades after he played for Bianco's first team and 15 seasons after he joined Bianco's on-field coaching staff, the Rebels' attention turned toward playing for the first national championship in school history.

"This is what we do for a living, and it's great," Bianco said. "We're so blessed to do it. But it's not easy, and it's a lot of hard hours. And we've talked so much about (the struggles) this year, that's our year too. To get to this moment is pretty cool in our occupation."

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: For Mike Bianco's Ole Miss baseball team, CWS finals is everything