Anticipating The Season

Alex Yarbrough spent some time in Key West on a family vacation before Christmas. It won't be long before he'll be headed back to Oxford for his third season of college baseball, as hard as that is to believe.

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Time flies, especially when you're having fun, as they say. Trouble is, the Ole Miss Rebels haven't had as much fun the past couple of seasons.

But it hasn't been Yarbrough's fault. For both of his first two seasons at Ole Miss, he's been one of the team's leaders and best players.

Statistically last season he was the Rebels' best player. Mainly at second base, the Allen, Texas, product was the team's best hitter with an average of .350, tied for the doubles lead with 14, was the sole leader in triples with three, tied for second in the home run department with seven, was second in RBI with 38, and started all 55 of the Rebels' games.

That last stat is the one that haunts. Playing only 55 games means the Rebels didn't make postseason of any kind. Yarbrough believes they'll right that wrong this spring, and much of that is because of what he saw in fall ball.

Yarbrough's own fall was solid and he led the team in hitting again.

"I was really happy with the way the fall went for me," said the junior whose consistency in all facets of the game this fall was apparent. "I made a conscious effort to work on stealing bases. Coach (Cliff) Godwin has been great with me, fine tuning some things with my swing and my approach. He's awesome to work with. He wants to win so badly, just like all the guys on the team."

After the fall ball sessions, there were the smaller groups of players that work with a coach. It's somewhere between individual work and team work, and there is a lot of teaching and learning.

"I think we had a great session after fall ball ended," Yarbrough said. "We middle infielders worked on defense quite a bit, because we thought that was an area that needed work. We felt we had a really good fall in every facet of the game. But defense is something we really tried to harp on. That seemed to work out really well."

Then there was the "Omaha Challenge" the team has after fall ball ends each year. It involves several events that test the physical and mental prowess of the team. This year strength and conditioning coach Rich Levy had six events planned: vertical jump, sit-up challenge, swimming, stadium run, speed obstacle course, and power obstacle course.

Alex Yarbrough
Bruce Newman

Freshman Will Jamison took the overall title, and Yarbrough was impressed.

"That's just unheard of," Yarbrough said of a freshman winning it. "It's fun to watch guys compete, and there were some guys that really impressed you. So that went really well. It's a great team-building thing. There is an individual champion and a team champion since we are divided into teams. It's amazing to see how well you can do when you push yourself that hard."

Yarbrough sees depth as a real plus for this year's squad, something that was lacking the past couple of years for Ole Miss.

"There are so many guys that could be in the starting lineup on opening day," he said. "There's a position battle legitimately at every position. That makes guys really push themselves. I think a lot of guys got a lot better this fall because of that."

Yarbrough, like all his offensive teammates, faces a pitching staff that appears to have tremendous potential. He saw some good things from several of the pitchers in the fall.

"Bobby Wahl's a guy that sticks out in my mind," he said of the frontrunner to be the ace of the staff in 2012. "I got the chance to play with him in the Cape this summer, and he was averaging over two strikeouts an inning as a closer there. I was really happy to see he could translate that into being a starter in the fall. He did a great job every outing he went out there. He's a guy that isn't afraid to come at you with a fast ball. His off-speed got better every time he went out there. I'm real excited to see what he's going to do this spring.

"R.J. Hively was another guy I wasn't too big of a fan of facing. I was always happy when I looked at the lineup and saw I wasn't facing him. He's another guy that can get it up there in velocity. His slider is a great out pitch. He had a great fall.

"Mike Mayers made great strides this fall and really put himself in position to do great things this spring as well. Young guys like Josh Laxer and Hawtin Buchanan really started to settle in toward the end of the fall and were impressive. They're on their way to having great careers."

The season starts in less than two months, Feb. 17-19 for a series at TCU. That's basically in Alex Yarbrough's back yard. It's a season he looks forward to with much anticipation.

Yarbrough points to several aspects of this year's team he senses will be the ones that should put the Rebels back on course for postseason play.

"I think the depth is a huge thing and can really take us a long way," he said. "There are guys who can step in at literally every position and do as well as the guys who are starting. The energy and camaraderie and team chemistry is by far the best it's been in my three years. That goes a long way. There's good leadership, and the young guys know they can go to the older guys on the team when they need help.

"I'm really excited about this year. I think we've got a chance to do great things."

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