Ole Miss baseball on a tear, back in College World Series helped by faith-driven players & coach

Prior to the Ole Miss baseball team’s second game of its best-of-three super regional series against Southern Miss on Sunday, Rebels star Justin Bench walked up to third base/hitting coach Mike Clement and asked if he’d ever coached in the College World Series. Clement said he had, when he was an assistant with Texas A&M in 2011.

“Can you believe you’re about to do it again?” Bench responded.

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That’s how loose and confident Ole Miss was heading into a game where they’d be facing Southern Miss ace Tanner Hall (a first-team All-American and Conference USA Pitcher of the Year) at Pete Taylor Park, Southern Miss’ home stadium. The confidence was warranted after the Rebels shut out the Golden Eagles, 10-0, the day before, and after they stormed through the regionals round of the NCAA Tournament with three straight wins, including a victory over No. 6 Miami.

Later Sunday, after his Rebels put up three runs on Hall, Clement stood in the box on the third-base line and nearly got emotional. He told Sports Spectrum this week that it was because he felt a peace come over him — a peace from the Lord that came with this message: “This is done. I got this. You guys did it.”

Ole Miss would go on to put up two more runs and leave Hattiesburg without allowing a single run. With the 5-0 victory, the Rebels punched their ticket to the College World Series for the sixth time in program history and the first since 2014. They’re among the final eight college baseball teams headed to Omaha, Nebraska, this week to continue their quest for a national championship — and a team few expected to be at the College World Series two months ago.

Led by local folk hero Tim Elko (“like Tim Tebow playing baseball,” according to Clement), the Rebels have won five straight games after dropping their first game in the SEC Tournament. The World Series is actually where many expected them to be, but the road to get here was not the route they anticipated.

Ole Miss roared out of the gates to open the season with a 13-1 record, seemingly cementing itself as a national title contender. Yet a mid-season lull sparked by a series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Tennessee left the Rebels on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A seven-game winning streak toward the end of the season, including series sweeps of Missouri and LSU, helped them land a spot in the field.

Ole Miss (37-22) is now playing its best baseball of the season, and everyone in Oxford hopes it will continue for a few more games. A common rallying cry for the team is, “Last one in (the NCAA Tournament), last team to leave.”

Coach Clement said the guys have played loose all season, despite the wins or losses they were accumulating. That made it fun for players and coaches to come to the park, as they all collectively kept believing in themselves, that their best would come out eventually. Head coach Mike Bianco kept telling the players, “I know there’s a good team in there, we just have to find a way to get it out of them at the right time.”

That time appears to be now.

But what has also helped the team stay steady in an up-and-down season is a large group of players (about 15 or 16) regularly attending Bible studies, which Clement leads. Many players will often pray before games and after games in right field.

“A lot of guys know they’re playing for more than baseball, which helped keep them together in the tough times,” Clement said.

Clement knows about tough times. He and his wife, Amanda, married in 2012 and for six years struggled to have a child of their own. Yet the Lord in His timing had great plans for them. Amanda became pregnant and at long last gave birth to a son, Cooper.

During the couple’s years-long struggle with infertility, they were intrigued by the adoption process. At one point, they had even successfully adopted two baby boys and were parents for a week. Then, the mother changed her mind.

It was a painful process for Mike and Amanda, but one that strengthened their faith in Jesus.

“The beauty of suffering and tough things, they kind of offer us a foot to deepen our spiritual journey, and this definitely happened with Amanda and I as we tried to become parents,” Mike said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast in the spring of 2020.

He continued later: “My wife and I, through our waiting moments, our relationship was better. We grew deeper in Christ through that, and we’re fortunate for it as we look back. It still and probably always will burn a little bit inside, and I don’t mean anger at this point, but just some wonder. Where are those boys at? How are they doing? Those kinds of things. But I think that’s OK. It gives us two more people to pray for, and I mean earnestly pray for.

“And so we’re fortunate in that, and I think we’re probably actually better parents for that. We appreciate what we have and what God has loaned us in this little boy.”

Clement said it was when he was at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, that he recognized his need for Christ. He grew up in the church and knew who Jesus was, yet it was often set in the context of works righteousness.

“I just got on my knees and said, ‘Lord, if You’re there and You’re real, man I need You,'” Clement said on the podcast. “But, I think for the next probably 10 years, I was that guy that kind of crashed. I crashed and burned.

“I was in the very shallow waters of faith, and then someone came into my life when I was 28 or 29 years old that was a mentor to me, that basically challenged me and asked me where I was at. And he really challenged my faith and encouraged me to meet the Holy Spirit and understand Who the Holy Spirit is and listen to God.”

Admittedly imperfectly, Clement sought to grow deeper in his rhythms of faith as a coach on the field and as a husband off of it. His quiet times became more consistent and his relationships became more intentionally missional.

He now knows God is always at work in this world and in the lives of His people, even when it doesn’t always seem like it. Pursuing a relationship with Him is far more valuable than any baseball accomplishment.

“At the end of the day,” Clement said, “when I’m on the other side of this life, I don’t think I’m going to be asked, ‘Hey, you did a really good job and won X-amount of baseball games.’ I think when I come face to face with the Maker, He’s gonna talk about or bring up what kind of a father and husband I was and not how many baseball games I won.”

Clement will now seek to rest fully in God’s timing and His perfect plan once again as he enjoys the gift of being a coach in the College World Series. Ole Miss’ first game in Omaha is scheduled for Saturday at 7 p.m. ET against conference foe Auburn.

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