Spots for the Taking

A lot of quality players are vying for infield spots for this year's Ole Miss baseball team. The competition is fierce and daily.

"There's a lot of competition, especially in the middle (infield) and at third (base)," said freshman Gabe Woods of Albany, La. "We're all working hard, trying to take a spot. Things seem to be wide open."

That they do, and Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco agrees battles are intense as fall practice continues.

"You can see the competition there and a little heat on all of them," he said. "There've been days when we've been really good, a lot of them. There've been other days when it hasn't gone so well, and that's going to happen. The good news is they've bounced back. I'm happy with them at this point. We've played pretty well defensively."

A lot of new faces and really only one old one are competing for spots at second, third, and short, it appears. The veteran, at least from an Ole Miss standpoint, is sophomore Alex Yarbrough. The others are all newcomers. In addition to Woods, there's freshman Preston Overbey, freshman Casey Greene, freshman Jordan Poole, and freshman Austin Anderson. And an older, but new, player to the squad.

"There's competition everywhere," said junior college transfer Blake Newalu, likely considered the frontrunner at shortstop. "I like that. It forces you to keep your focus up. You've got to play good every day."

Newalu, who actually played his first season at the University of San Diego, had an idea what to expect. He's actually one of the more experienced players on the team, coupling that with his time at Chipola College in Florida before reaching Oxford.

"You know coming into the SEC you're going to have really good players," Newalu said. "Every day's a grind, just out there competing and trying to get after it."

Woods said he has already learned things are definitely different than in high school.

Yarbrough is a veteran of the infield

"The toughest adjustment has probably been the mental approach," he said. "Other than that, the speed of the game and with things going so quickly, it's not that I can't keep up with the speed. It's actually having to slow myself down. I try to get too quick, and that's when I'll make an error or I'll think too much at the plate. So it's just mental approach and letting my ability take over and do the work."

Like Newalu, Woods says there are no days off.

"You've got to be ready every day, because the pressure's always on," he said. "Especially with several guys who can all play any position in the infield. You've got to bring your ‘A' game every day."

Woods donned the yellow shirt one intrasquad last weekend, signifying the player who had the best defensive practice from the day before.

"Fielding-wise I'm just trying to do my best and get better," he said.

That's true when he's at bat as well.

"I'm just trying to be as solid as I can at the plate," said Woods. "Back in high school where I'm from, there are not very many dominant pitchers so I could take the big swing and hit the home run. But here, I'm still swinging as hard as I can, but I've got a more downward angle in my bat, trying to drive the ball in the gaps instead of lift the ball. It's been working out so far."

Each player seems to have an opinion on the new bats legislated for this year by the NCAA. They all agree that, too, is an adjustment.

"It's new for everybody," Woods said. "The sweet spot's a lot smaller. It's about the equivalent to a wood bat. But it seems like the ball carries a little better off a wood bat than it does these bats.

"It hasn't changed things for some players. Guys like Matt Smith, he's strong enough to hit it 400 feet with either bat," the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Woods continued. "Other guys like me, (Blake) Newalu, (Austin) Anderson, it kind of plays to our advantage. We can square balls up to drive them into the gaps. We can kind of stick to our gameplan and keep driving balls. Some bigger guys who might have had just enough power to get the ball out (with the old bats), now they really can't so they have to make adjustments."

Newalu, veteran of college wars, says no team has an advantage since the bats are mandated for all teams.

"The bats don't have quite as much pop, but the thing is everybody is playing with them," said the 5-11, 185 Newalu. "So we just have to be the better team playing with them."

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