Top Challenge

Will Allen of Gainesville, Fla., admits for a long time he wanted to be a Florida Gator baseball player, like most kids who grow up in Oxford want to play for Ole Miss. That's especially the case if they have some other built-in ties with the home team like Will.

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Will Allen from Jeff Roberson on Vimeo.

In addition to growing up with Florida sports basically in his backyard, Will's dad, Bill, played football for the Gators.

A trip to Oxford a few years ago changed some things, however. Will saw an environment he liked and an opportunity he felt was right.

"I came up here one Friday my junior year and kind of fell in love with here and Oxford," he said, mentioning the Rebels were playing Alabama and there were thousands in the stands and in the outfield supporting Ole Miss. "The fans and the atmosphere definitely played a role. And the coaches, I fell in love with the coaches here. At the end of the day, I had a better opportunity to play here."

And he's taken advantage of it, emerging this school year as the Rebels' starting catcher. He was already playing well this season. But since he fractured the little finger on his throwing hand in non-conference action nearly a month ago, Allen's offensive numbers have actually improved, even though he missed some games.

Allen said not playing those few games while he recovered were beneficial in some ways.

"With some time away from the game, I thought about my approach and what I wanted to do," he said, batting around .230 then and hitting .343 currently. "Taking some mental at-bats also helped, just watching some games. I'm seeing the ball well, so hopefully that keeps up."

Allen played in 36 games as a true freshman last season with 28 starts. But only one of those starts was at catcher, while most of the rest were at first base. He did DH a couple of games.

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said while Allen stepped up as the Rebels' starting catcher in the fall and preseason, the coaches also knew he could be effective at the plate.

"We always knew he could be a good offensive player," he said. "Last year he played a lot as a freshman, getting near 100 at-bats. He's swinging it well."

The top-ranked Gators are loaded with talent and confidence, now 23-2 on the season and 5-1 in the Southeastern Conference and coming off a 4-1 win against No. 4 Florida State Tuesday night. But this is only one of 10 series in the SEC season, and that's at least one way Bianco is viewing these three games.

Will Allen emerged in the fall and preseason as the Rebels' No. 1 catcher
Bruce Newman

"It's another opportunity in the Southeastern Conference," he said. "It's a big one for the fans because they're the No. 1 team in the country. But I think it's important for us to be ourselves. I think it's important for us to stay with that, stay the course. But it's going to be an exciting weekend. The weather should be great, and we'll have great crowds."

Allen agrees and says he and his teammates, at 18-7 overall, 3-3 in the SEC and ranked 16th this week, believe they are ready for the challenge.

"I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to play against them," he said. "You can't really do too much. Just focus on one pitch at a time and do whatever you can to win the game."

Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field hasn't been kind to the nation's top-ranked visiting teams when facing Bianco's clubs in recent years. The Rebels have faced the nation's top team twice in the last three seasons and walked away with the series win both times - vs. No. 1 Georgia in 2009 and vs. No. 1 South Carolina last season.

Dating back to 2003, the Rebels have hosted a top 10 team in a regular season series 13 times, and Ole Miss has won 10 of those 13 series.



UF - Hudson Randall, Jr., RHP. Randall (3-0, 3.41) has 34 strikeouts and two walks in 37 innings this year and set a career-high with 11 strikeouts at South Carolina last Thursday night.

UM - Bobby Wahl, So., RHP. The Sophomore right-hander enters the weekend with an overall record of 4-0 and holds a 2.36 ERA through his six starts. He has struck out 42 batters and walked 12 in his 34.1 innings of work, while holding opponents to a .222 batting average. Wahl took no decision in his last outing at Alabama, allowing four runs on seven hits with two walks and eight strikeouts in 5.1 innings of work. Wahl has posted wins over No. 10 TCU, UNC-Wilmington, Houston and Auburn this season. He also took no decision in the series opener against Miami (Ohio).


UF - Brian Johnson, Jr., LHP (4-0, 3.13). Johnson has won both of his SEC starts versus Vanderbilt (6.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 9 K, 1 BB) and No. 6 South Carolina (6.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 K, 2 BB) and has registered 28 strikeouts in 31.2 innings.

UM - R.J. Hively, Sr., RHP. Hively is coming off a pair of solid outings over the past two weeks in what can only be characterized as "hard-luck" outings. Despite taking a loss and no-decision in his last two starts, Hively has allowed one earned run in the last 15.0 innings of work. In his last start at Alabama, Hively worked a career-long 8.0 innings and allowed one unearned run but took no decision as Alabama came up with a walk-off, two-run home run with two outs in the ninth to take a 3-2 win over the Rebels. Hively has turned in a quality start in four of his six starts this season. He has struck out 41 and walked only six and is holding opponents to a .207 batting average this season.

SUNDAY, 12:30 P.M.

UF - Jonathan Crawford, So., RHP (2-1, 3.95). Crawford has started on the weekend for Florida the past four series and yielded one earned run over five innings last Saturday in Columbia. He has totaled 27 strikeouts and issued nine walks in 27.1 innings this year after pitching 3.2 innings as a freshman.

UM - Mike Mayers, So., RHP. Through five starts Mayers has a 3.47 ERA through 36.1 innings of work. He has struck out 28 and allowed only eight walks while holding opponents to a .205 batting average against. In his last outing against the Crimson Tide, Mayers allowed three earned runs on five hits with five strikeouts in 6.2 innings of work. The sophomore has shown the ability to go deep into games, working a career-long 8.2 innings in the start against Auburn two weeks ago before the Tigers put together a two-out rally in the ninth to spoil the bid for a complete-game victory by the right-hander.

A LOOK AT FLORIDA: The Florida Gators enter the weekend series with an overall record of 23-2 and are ranked No. 1 in the country. Florida is coming off a midweek win over No. 4 Florida State and claimed the weekend series at No. 6 South Carolina last weekend. Mike Zunino leads the Gators at the plate, hitting at a .376 clip with nine home runs and 32 RBI. Florida is hitting .295 as a team this season with 37 home runs and 164 RBI. The Gator pitching staff holds a 2.81 ERA and has posted 206 strikeouts while allowing only 47 walks this season. Opponents are hitting at a .236 clip against the Gator pitching staff.

THE SERIES: Ole Miss and Florida have met 89 times with the Gators holding a 45-44 lead in the all-time series after posting a series sweep of the Rebels last season. The two teams first met in the 1948 season with Ole Miss winning the series 2-1 in Oxford.

(Bill Bunting of Ole Miss athletics media relations contributed to this story.)

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