The Ole Miss Rebels baseball team was the real deal in 2020.
And former Indianola Academy slugger Ben Van Cleve was as much the real deal as anyone on the roster.
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound junior lit up the box score in his 26 at-bats this season to the tune of a .385 batting average.
Van Cleve and the Rebels simply dominated opponents in the early going. Aside from a game-one loss to then No. 1 Louisville, the team rattled off 16 wins in a row, and they were about to open SEC play against LSU when the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic last week.
Fresh off a two-game sweep of Louisiana Monroe, the Rebels boarded the bus to Oxford, looking forward to making a statement in conference play last weekend.
“We got on the bus, and the first thing we see is (SEC Commissioner) Greg Sankey is canceling all fans from coming to games,” Van Cleve said. “That’s the first thing we heard.”
Van Cleve, who had served mostly as a designated hitter and pinch hitter this season, said the prospect of playing to empty seats, at home, was not ideal.
“That was pretty devastating, because the atmosphere at Swayze Field is incredible,” Van Cleve said. “That was a big part of our success, the crowds we have.”
The news would only get worse from there.
“The next day, we had practice, and after practice, we found out they are calling the season off until I think March 30,” he said.
After that, the team resolved itself to playing intersquad games until the season resumed.
But even that would never come to pass.
“After practice was over, we had weights, and after weights, Coach Bianco came and had a meeting with us and gave us the news they had canceled the national championship, the (College) World Series for the year,” Van Cleve said.
For many on the team, the news was devastating.
“There was a lot of emotions, a bunch of guys tearing up and sad,” Van Cleve said. “You start working back in June of last year, and you’re working toward this one goal, and you find out you aren’t going to have a chance to get to that goal. It’s pretty heartbreaking, honestly.”
The college baseball season was officially called off this week, which is a tough pill to swallow for Van Cleve and his teammates.
“We were definitely in our stride,” Van Cleve said. “We felt really good about this team. We had a lot of fun. We came together and we had this mentality that we were going to win every game that we played. It was weird. Usually you don’t feel like that in a baseball game.”
Van Cleve said that first game loss against Louisville was the first time the team had played as a single unit on the field, and they spent those nine innings figuring themselves out.
After that, there was no stopping the Rebels.
“From then on, it was camaraderie that couldn’t be broken,” he said. “Every time we put on the uniform, we knew we were going to win the game. It was definitely going to be an exciting thing to watch the rest of the year and to be a part of to see how it turned out.”
Van Cleve said there is a chance he may get some at-bats against live pitching this summer in the Northwoods league in Michigan, but that all depends on whether the league will play in light of the coronavirus.
He said he is hoping the NCAA will grant juniors a repeat junior year in 2021.
“I don’t want to feel like this whole season was wasted, and I only got to play 16 or 17 games,” he said. “Hopefully I can have a junior season repeat this year and it won’t have to be my senior season quite yet.”