McConnell, Levy new to program

A couple of new faces are involved in the Ole Miss baseball program and will be experiencing their first opening day at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.

Kirk McConnell joined the staff as an assistant coach last fall when Rob Francis left to become head coach at St. Petersburg College in Florida. Rich Levy came on board last summer as the strength and conditioning coach for Rebel baseball when that position opened up.

Both have Southeastern Conference experience, McConnell as a former player at Arkansas, and Levy as strength and conditioning coach at Auburn.

McConnell and his wife, Hannah, have adjusted to the Oxford community quickly and welcomed their first child into the world Jan. 5 – a son named Lee Andrew.

Kirk McConnell
Courtesy: Ole Miss
"She loves Oxford, and that's very important," said McConnell, who actually finished his playing career and began his collegiate coaching career at Missouri State. "We're just getting settled in and getting ready for the season."

McConnell, a Magnolia, Ark., native, coaches infielders and assists with hitters. He'll also coach first base during the games.

"I'm also director of camps and handle the scouting reports," he said. "I can only recruit on campus. I do tours and take them around and get to know them; just another person to build a relationship with those kids. I enjoy that part of it."

McConnell said he likes this team.

"I think we have a talented team," he said. "A team that isn't proven, but there's a lot of depth and options. There are a lot of kids that compete and work hard. This group comes to work every day, and they're fun to be around."

Two former Rebel players crossed paths with McConnell, who came to Ole Miss from Northeast Texas Community College. Scott Bittle and Jeremy Travis are both recent Northeast Texas and Ole Miss alums.

"Scott came here (to Ole Miss) when I went there," McConnell said. "I replaced the assistant coach he had there. I coached Jeremy Travis his sophomore year there (before he came to Ole Miss). Really good people."

McConnell said the difference in Ole Miss baseball from just a few years ago until now is obviously noticeable.

"I played (for the Razorbacks) at Ole Miss in 2002," he said. "I haven't seen any of this since then (until last fall). The change is pretty drastic. We're very fortunate."

Levy came to Ole Miss from Auburn where he was the strength and conditioning coach for a program that led the nation in home runs in 2010. The Tigers hit 131 round-trippers. That has to look good on a resume' for a guy in his profession.

"The biggest thing was we had a group of guys that had been there for three years, and they had a chance to develop into that," said the Jamaica native who moved to the U.S. at age three. "There were six or seven guys that had been there a while, and they had the biggest impact on the team. If you have juniors and even guys come back for their senior year, then you're going to have a better team. A fifth-year guy, like Matt Smith here, helps, too."

Everybody's been talking about the new bats. Levy says they are different but the approach is basically the same.

"You can see that the ball doesn't jump off the bat as much. You don't get that crisp ‘ping' sound you used to get. It almost sounds like wood."

Which appeals to many baseball purists and fans.

"It will be interesting. My philosophy is that if they change the bats, then we've just got to get a little bit stronger. That's the approach I'm taking.

Rich Levy
Courtesy: Ole Miss
"Still, the philosophy is that we want to make solid contact with the ball. If you can do that and can put the ball in play, then we can do some good things. Obviously we still want to hit some home runs, too."

There are plenty of other aspects to Levy's job than just making sure the Rebels are strong.

"Our big philosophy here is speed development," said Levy, who grew up in New York, went to high school in Connecticut, and college in Massachusetts, then headed South to coach. "We use a lot of short sprints and working on their mechanics more rather than just going out and running long distances. We do a lot of things that will help the guys get faster.

"With the pitching staff, it's all about their agility and their footwork and their core strength," he continued. "So we also do a lot of work with them on speed development, just to get them moving quicker laterally, so they can get off the mound and get that bunt, things like that."

And there's more.

"Another big part for us is nutrition," said Levy, who made stops at VMI and Arkansas before Auburn. "I talk to our guys often about different things they can be doing to improve their performance. Especially with young kids, you've got to remind them to eat right and train hard."

Levy says a couple of examples of players who have seen the benefits of the program this school year are a freshman and a sophomore.

"Preston Overbey and Alex Yarbrough," he said. "Alex has put on 13 pounds, and he's more confident in the weight room. He's definitely made some strides. And Preston has also put on like 13 or 14 pounds. Those two come to mind when you talk about how they've come along."

Another is Matt Crouse, today's starter and a pitcher that had trouble keeping weight on – until this year.

"One of the things we do for these guys is that they can come in and get some fruit or a bagel or a Gatorade shake and head on out. So instead of going to class hungry, they can get those calories they need.

"Crouse has put on about 10 pounds and he's done a good job keeping it on. The challenge will be to do that during the season. We'll try to do some things to combat that."

Levy likes working with the Ole Miss program, one that he says is used to winning and winning a lot.

"I'm in a better situation," he said. "Auburn is a good school but not nearly the baseball program as Ole Miss from top to bottom. Ole Miss has been in the playoffs the last nine or ten years, and Auburn like one time in the last eight."

And he's ready for first pitch 2011.

"I'm tired of seeing the guys just in the weight room," he concluded, mentioning the workouts are scaled back to only two per week during the season. "It's time to see them on the field."

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