Going into the 2022 NCAA Tournament, almost no one outside of Oxford, Miss., gave any thought to how the Ole Miss Rebels would fare other than it probably would be a quick exit for them. One of the last teams to earn an at-large berth into the tournament, the Rebels finished with a losing record in SEC play, five games back of West Division champion Texas A&M.
But with a solid RPI thanks to the strength of the SEC schedule, Ole Miss was given a chance. And that’s all they needed.
Putting it all together at the exact right time, the Rebels started by winning the Coral Gables, Fla., regional with two wins over Arizona and a victory against host Miami. In the Super Regionals, the Rebels made short work of in-state rival Southern Mississippi, eliminating the Golden Eagles with a pair of shutouts for the sweep.
“Once we got in the tournament, now everybody’s 0-0,” head coach Mike Bianco told NCAA.com after the College World Series. “Now you just have to outplay the other team; You’re not playing catchup. We went so long at the end of the season running uphill just to get into the tournament and get an opportunity. I think once we got in, rather than play with pressure to show you deserved to be in, it was like a new lease on life.”
The Rebels continued that new lease in Omaha, quickly moving into the driver’s seat with wins over SEC foes Auburn and Arkansas in the first two rounds of winner’s bracket play. Arkansas forced the decisive if-necessary game, but Ole Miss responded with a 2-0 shutout of the Hogs behind a complete-game, four-hit shutout from ace pitcher Dylan DeLucia.
Undeterred by the bump in the road, the Rebels completed their improbable run with a sweep of Oklahoma in the championship series, giving Bianco his first national title in his 22 seasons in Oxford.
“I don’t know if you can describe it,” Bianco told NCAA.com after the title-clinching win over the Sooners. “We talked about what a great story it would be. And it was.”
Good Ol’ Rocky Top
For most of the season, a different shade of orange dominated the college baseball landscape. Though Texas opened as the No. 1 team in the nation to start the year, the Longhorns were quickly replaced by another UT — the University of Tennessee.
And aside from a one-week absence late in the season, the Volunteers remained in the No. 1 spot over the final seven weeks of the regular season, going into the NCAA tournament as the unanimous No. 1 seed and the favorite to win it all.
Tennessee’s surge began last year but really took off in 2022 behind a bevy of young pitchers and plenty of offensive firepower. The Volunteers had 10 players taken in the MLB draft in July, nine of those in the first seven rounds and five of those within the first three rounds, including first-round outfielders Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck.
Together, the Volunteers won a whopping 57 games before being upset by Notre Dame in the Super Regionals. The good news for UT fans is there is plenty of talent returning in the orange and white, including the entire starting rotation of Drew Beam, Chase Burns and Chase Dollander, and some key pieces in the field. Expect the Vols to have another dominating team in 2023.
Often overlooked in a series loss against Texas Tech was the statement made by Texas slugging first baseman Ivan Melendez.
The redshirt junior from El Paso was nearly impossible to get out that weekend, and it was just a taste of what opposing pitchers would have to face all season. Melendez helped lead the Longhorns to the College World Series by putting up some ridiculous stats — .387 batting average, 32 home runs, 94 RBI, .863 slugging percentage and .508 on-base percentage.
Not only did that effort earn him the No. 43 overall draft selection in July by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but also the honor as the nation’s top player with his selection as the winner of the Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy. The 32 home runs broke Kris Bryant’s BBCOR-era record of 31 home runs in a season.
"I compete against some of the most prestigious players all over the nation, some of the best prospects and just being able to compete with them every day and show off my tools, I'm just blessed to receive this award," Melendez told MLB Network after the Howser Trophy announcement was made.
Throughout his career at Texas Tech, Kurt Wilson has had a flair for the dramatic. Until 2022, none stood out more than his eighth-inning, three-run home run in Game 3 of the 2019 Super Regional that sent the Red Raiders to the College World Series over Big 12 foe Oklahoma State.
But Wilson made sure his senior season a memorable one, with back-to-back walk-off wins over then-No. 2 Texas in the league lidlifter for both teams. It started Friday night when he took advantage of an inattentive Aaron Nixon on the mound for Texas by stealing home on an 0-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to send the Red Raiders to a 5-4 victory.
“Once we got to two outs, we got communication that if we got in a position when we needed to do it, we're gonna do it,” Texas Tech head coach Tim Tadlock told texastech.com. “Kurt made it happen. No doubt about it. Kurt's initial lead allowed him to do it, the baseball player Kurt is, allowed him to do it."
One day later, Wilson gave Texas Tech a series victory in a 16-12 slugfest victory over the Longhorns when he belted a two-out grand slam home run in the bottom of the 10th inning.
“In the ninth, he came up with a man on first base and no outs,” Tadlock said. “We didn't try to bunt, which kind of tells you how I feel about him as a player. We weren't even entertaining bunting … We want to give our guys the freedom to grow as offensive players and as baseball players.”
Sooner Surge, Aggies Rise
Two teams who have a wealth of tradition but recently had fallen on hard times simultaneously made a comeback in 2022.
Behind a new coach and an influx of talent thanks to the transfer portal, Texas A&M quickly emerged from the cellar of the Southeastern Conference in 2021 to make the program’s seventh trip to the College World Series in the first season under head coach Jim Schlossnagle. Along the way, the Aggies won the SEC Western Division behind the efforts of transfer portal selections Kole Kaler, Jack Moss, Troy Claunch and Dylan Rock in the lineup and Jacob Palisch and Micah Dallas on the mound.
The infusion of talent carried the Aggies to the overall No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a host selection. There, A&M advanced through the regional and eliminated Louisville in the Super Regional to reach the College World Series.
At the same time, Oklahoma found some magic late in the season and rode that to a tie for second place in the Big 12 Conference, finishing just one game behind TCU. The Sooners got healthy at the right time both at the plate and on the mound and made a huge run, winning the Big 12 Tournament to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Unlike the Aggies, however, OU had to make its magic on the road, starting as the No. 2 seed in the Gainesville regional and winning that before heading to Blacksburg, Va., to face Virginia Tech. The Sooners won that Super Regional, 2-1, to make the College World Series for the first time since 2010, the last year the tournament was held at Rosenblatt Stadium.
OU got it done behind a mix of veteran players — CF Tanner Treadaway, C Jimmy Crooks and SS Peyton Graham — and some exciting new freshmen in OF John Spikerman, 3B Wallace Clark and 2B Jackson Nicklaus, as well as a stellar rotation of Jake Bennett, David Sandlin and Cade Horton, the latter finding his groove in the postseason and riding that to a first-round draft pick.
As luck would have it, the Sooners and Aggies were placed in the same bracket in Omaha, but OU would not be stopped, beating A&M in the first round and Notre Dame in the second around before eliminating the Aggies to reach the finals. There, however, the Sooners ran into the story of the tournament in Ole Miss.
“I think looking back at the beginning of the year, we didn't know how to win yet, and that's something our team figured out,” Horton said after the final game, according to soonersports.com. “We went through struggles with that … We kind of learned and got through that, learned how to win, started believing in each other, and it kind of just took off from there and set a good clear path for us.”
Though both teams were hit hard by the draft, expect them to continue the momentum established in 2022.
The 2022 season saw its fair share of no-hitters, both from individuals and by teams.
One of the first came in NAIA when Jose Fernandez of Ave Maria College in Ave Maria, Fla., threw the school’s first no-hitter during the night cap of a doubleheader Jan. 28. In a 14-0 victory over Ohio Christian University, Fernandez faced the minimum 21 batters in the seven-inning affair, giving up two walks that were erased by double plays, while striking out four.
In May, Ian McCole of St. Joseph’s University threw the seventh no-hitter in program history when he dominated St. Bonaventure in an 18-0 win. He struck out six and walked just one in throwing his second complete game of the season.
“Just a tremendous performance by Ian today,” head coach Fritz Hamburg told the St. Joseph’s athletics website. “We really needed some kind of pick-me-up to get us back on track; Ian answered that bell and then some. The entire team did a great job offensively and even more so, making some outstanding plays to give Ian the opportunity to do what he did. It was just great to be part of it.”
At the beginning of May, right-hander Juaron Watts-Brown made history for one of the most tradition-rich programs in college baseball as he struck out 16 in a 4-0 win over USC, marking the first complete-game no-hitter in Long Beach State program history and just the second no-hitter in school history.
New blood emerges
Every season a team completely off the radar of the college baseball world emerges to throw rankings, RPI and selections into a frenzy. In 2022, there were several teams that fit that bill.
- Georgia Southern: The Sun Belt Conference is no strangers to having teams step up and capture the attention of the nation. Coastal Carolina did it back in 2016 by winning the College World Series. Georgia Southern became the only team from the Sun Belt to earn a host spot as the Eagles welcomes Notre Dame, Texas Tech and UNC-Greensboro to Statesboro, Ga. But the Eagles failed to make it out of the regional, falling to Notre Dame in the finals.
- Texas State: The Bobcats lost a three-game series to Georgia Southern in early April but followed that up by winning 17 of their final 18 games in Sun Belt play, including five sweeps, to win the conference by three games over the Eagles. Texas State’s reward? A trip to Palo Alto, Calif., as the No. 2 seed at the Stanford regional, where the Bobcats showed they were no joke. Texas State won its first two games of the regional, beating the hosts in the second round, before the Cardinal came back to win the final two games and advance to the Super Regionals and, eventually, the College World Series.
- Notre Dame: Speaking of Notre Dame, the Irish proved their stellar 2021 season wasn’t a fluke by following it up with an outstanding 2022. The Irish finished 1.5 games behind Louisville in the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference and earned the No. 2 seed at the Georgia Southern Regional. Notre Dame went undefeated through the regional then shocked No. 1 overall seed Tennessee on the road to earn a berth in the College World Series.
- Connecticut: One of the most underrated programs in college baseball, Connecticut has thrived under long-time head coach Jim Penders, and this season may have been his finest with the Huskies. UConn edged Creighton to win the Big East regular season then cruised through the Big East tournament as the No. 1 seed to earn the league’s automatic berth, which landed the Huskies as the No. 2 seed in the Maryland regional. UConn eliminated the hosts and took Stanford to three games in the Super Regional before ending its season a game shy of the College World Series.