The Day Things Changed

Mike Bianco's first season was barely in the record books when on a fall day that same calendar year a high school senior named Stephen Head helped change the way Ole Miss baseball was viewed in Mississippi.

It was a Sunday afternoon in September, 2001. Three months earlier, Ole Miss had come off its first season under the young Rebel head coach from McNeese State, and before that LSU.

That spring Ole Miss had won 39 games, tying the school record for wins, and played in the New Orleans Regional, hosted and won by Tulane. Two losses to Oklahoma State had sent the Rebs packing.

Bianco's staff, headed by recruiter Dan McDonnell, had begun to make inroads into Mississippi high schools where any honest person – red and blue or otherwise – would admit the Ole Miss Rebels lagged behind in baseball. Bianco, McDonnell and company were hired, in part, to change that.

By committing to Ole Miss, Stephen Head, who attended Hillcrest Christian School south of Jackson, allowed Rebel baseball to take one giant leap forward.

"Are you hearing about Ole Miss baseball out there as much as Mississippi State these days?" I asked Head the day he committed.

"More," he said swiftly and confidently.

Stephen Head, formerly of Hillcrest Christian School, signed with Ole Miss in 2001
AP File Photo
I knew then it was a different day for college baseball in Mississippi.

To be fair, another familiar name to Ole Miss baseball followers also committed that same day.

Brian Pettway of Vicksburg's Warren Central High would also help lead a Rebel resurgence with his quiet demeanor but all-out effort to help put Ole Miss baseball back on a national map.

Ole Miss baseball was once the pride of the state in the sport. Four College World Series appearances in the 1950s through the early 1970s made Ole Miss baseball a household name among those who followed the sport.

No other Mississippi team had been to Omaha more than once when the Rebels made their fourth visit.

And while Omaha has been elusive since, the Rebels have built a program worthy of competing for the opportunity to get there almost every season, thanks to Head and Pettway and a host of players who came along this decade in the new regime.

Head remembers the ones who came in with him or played for the first time his freshman spring in 2003. So do Ole Miss fans – guys like Pettway, Mark Holliman, Mark Wright, Eric Fowler, Charlie Babineaux, Anthony Cupps, to name only a few.

Some of them will be back this weekend for the first Alumni Reunion for Ole Miss baseball in this era, and as far back as any can remember.

"All those guys were just a really good core group of guys who really wanted to win and make things happen," said Head, back in Oxford these days getting ready to try it again in professional baseball.

And they did make things happen. He says he has a picture of all of them together.

"We look like eighth graders," he said, laughing.

"The guys that came through those years, our collective group, I think we just had the best collective personalities. We had a lot of guys that interacted so much with the fans and the community. I think that's really what started it. Not that we were the best players to ever come through. That's debatable.

Head (pictured left) with Cleveland Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore
AP File Photo
"But just the impact we had on the fans and the people and the community was the reason things really got started," Head said, accurately.

And, of course, all the winning. That was important, too.

Head left Ole Miss after the 2005 Super Regional against Texas, still one of the most dramatic weekends ever for Ole Miss sports.

Drafted by the Indians, he journeyed for a while and finally made it to Triple A for the 2009 season. In 2010 he found himself with an independent team in southern Illinois, the homestate of his wife, Ashley, an Ole Miss girl and a former Miss Illinois.

He turned 27 on January 13, and he has a new lease on his baseball life. Head, the all-time Ole Miss saves leader for a single season with 13, is going to try to be a pitcher for a Major League team.

He admits he'd rather bat and play first base or in the outfield. But he also admits he just wants to play.

"I would much rather hit, and to this day if I get to the big leagues, and my first strikeout they try to give me the ball, I'm not going to want it. I'm going to want to get my first hit. That's still the mentality I have."

But he moves on, understanding his best options to get there, and knowing time is short.

"I just got tired of watching guys go to the big leagues that I knew I could pitch better than," he said.

Simple as that. Confident as ever.

And he has one other thing going for him.

"Being left-handed definitely helps," he said. "If I was right-handed and at my age, my career would be over. Right-handers that throw 88-90 on a good day are a dime a dozen. Left-handers are a little more rare. So I have that going for me.

"But there is a timeframe. It's basically now or never," the three-time All-American for the Rebels said.

Ever the competitor, Head may not have completely forgiven Bianco for not letting him close earlier in that 2003 season, or he might have even more saves.

"He didn't let me close like five out of our first seven games that we had save situations," Head said.

Head is back in Oxford these days, readying for another shot at pro ball
AP File Photo
"It kinda took him a while to believe in me."

But, boy, when he did, the roof was off for Ole Miss baseball.

Stephen Head didn't win every time he got the ball late in a game. It just seemed like he did. There was a forgettable setback to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament in 2004, his junior year, when he didn't hold the Gamecocks at bay. But those type results were few and far between.

More frequent was a situation like the one earlier that season when Ole Miss went to MSU, and on Friday night his home run to right field was as far into the Mississippi night as anybody had seen at that ball park.

The outfield terrace folks at Dudy Noble Field watched it sail well over their heads as the Rebels rolled to victory.

And then on Sunday, after the Rebels had lost on Saturday to even the series, Head took the ball and headed to the mound in the first inning. It was over for the Bulldogs before it ever started.

No player in the Bianco era has exuded the confidence Head had, and no player has lifted his team quite so high, either at the plate or on the mound.

Head, arguably still the face of the era, is a proud alum now as he looks at what's been built.

"It's good to see them continue it," he said of the winning ways of the program. "It really makes me excited to come back to Oxford and see all that's been done."

He knows Bianco is the main reason for it all. And he appreciates it now more than ever.

"He rides you hard when you're here, but when you leave, you have a really good friend," Head said.

And the Rebels have never had a more important signee. Not in this century anyway. Not in this state, for sure.

It all changed the day Stephen Head said "yes" to Ole Miss baseball.

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