Rabalais: Season’s end is emotional for Ragin’ Cajuns

Few gatherings are filled with more intense and diverse emotions as the post-championship news conference.

There is the one set of players and their coach, flush with victory and thrilled about whatever it is they’ve just accomplished or where they’re headed to next.

The other group has its feelings laid bare for recorders and cameras to capture. Just hours earlier they were totally bulletproof-confident they were going to win, or else they wouldn’t be worthy of playing for a championship.

Then it’s over. Suddenly, jarringly over.

For some, just a season has ended. For others, a career.

That was the scene in a steamy news conference at Louisiana-Lafayette on Monday night.

Ole Miss beat the home team Ragin’ Cajuns 10-4 to advance to Omaha and the College World Series.

For the Rebels, scarcely containable elation.

For the Cajuns, red-eyed despair.

The UL-Lafayette players had every reason to expect they would be going to the CWS. They won 58 games this season — no one still alive to win the national championship will match that (Louisville has the most victories at 50-15). They set records. They hadn’t lost back-to-back games all season — until Monday night.

They won Game 1 9-5 on Saturday to move within one win of joining UL-Lafayette’s 2000 team as the only ones in program history to reach the CWS. They let Game 2 slip away by a 5-2 count Sunday but had one more chance to complete the journey.

It didn’t happen. The Cajuns led just once, 1-0 early on, then spent the rest of the night trying to mount counterattacks to the Rebels’ relentless offensive pressure. A run here, a run there, but finally it was death by a thousand cuts for the Cajuns, who were unable to raise their arms to stop the Rebels in a decisive four-run ninth.

Asked what he would remember most about this season Seth Harrison, the Cajuns’ center fielder, tearfully shook his head.

“Just our team,” Harrison softly replied. “The unity. The passion. I’ll never forget it. I’d do anything for these guys.”

The Cajuns’ players seemed shell shocked. UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux knew why.

“They know they were good enough to get there,” Robichaux said of going to the CWS. “The problem is a lot of teams are going home today who believe they are good enough to go. That’s what makes Omaha so special. You’ve got eight who had to endure so much to get there.”

Enduring painful season endings has made this Omaha trip special for Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco.

If anyone knows the way to Nebraska, it’s Bianco. He went to Omaha as a player — including 1989 when LSU beat No. 1 Texas A&M in College Station, an upset much like this one — and as an assistant coach.

“I told the boys that when I left LSU (as an assistant in 1997) we’d gone to Omaha four times in five years and won three national championships,” Bianco said. “Boy, Skip (Bertman) made it look easy.”

Bianco found out getting to Omaha was anything but.

Four times he led the Rebels to super regionals, some of them arguably better teams than the one that made it this year. Every time they lost.

“I didn’t think it would take 17 years from the last time,” Bianco said. “We’ve had several great teams — teams that should have been in Omaha.”

Going into this season there was growing sentiment in Oxford that heat was rising on Bianco to achieve something significant in the postseason. At least host a regional and see where the Rebels could go from there.

After a 12-2 win over Jacksonville State, Ole Miss squeaked through with 2-1 and 3-2 wins over a highly respected Washington team to get to Lafayette.

Now instead of the end of the road as has been so often the case for the Rebels, they’re driving on to a Sunday first-round game with Virginia.

Arguably they’re the two teams to beat in the CWS. Virginia is the top-seeded team left (No. 3 national seed). Ole Miss is balanced offensively and possesses a formidable 1-2 starting pitching combo of Chris Ellis and ex-LSU pitcher Christian Trent backed by a deep bullpen.

“We have such respect for him,” Ole Miss reliever Josh Laxer said of Bianco. “To go to Omaha after all these years has been a long time coming.”

Not nearly as long for UL-Lafayette.

Right now it just feels that way.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.