Second Season

Ole Miss and South Carolina play a series for the first time in three years this weekend in Columbia, S.C. It will be one college baseball enthusiasts across the country will keep an eye out for.

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The Gamecocks, ranked No. 1 by most polls, are 16-0, while the Rebels are ranked in all the top 25 polls, most highly in USA Today at No. 12.

It's the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play, and every team in the 14-team league is looking forward to the 30-game war over the next 10 weeks.

"I know the guys are excited," said Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, who has been a part of situations like this one for years. "It will be a great challenge for us, playing the No. 1 team in the country in a great facility with a tremendous atmosphere. I think the guys are really looking forward to it."

No Losses

USC is perfect in the win-loss column this season. The Gamecocks have pitched nine shutouts in those 16 games this season, which obviously means their pitching and defense are championship caliber.

South Carolina hasn't given up a run in its last four games – that's three contests last weekend against Brown and a midweek game Tuesday against Furman.

The Gamecocks' other victories this season have been against Bucknell for three games, one game against Presbyterian, three games against Eastern Kentucky, and Clemson three times.

They also have one common opponent with the Rebels. Ole Miss opened the season with three wins at Stetson by margins of 7-0, 11-1, and 8-2. South Carolina played Stetson twice, winning by scores of 7-1 and 4-2 the first week of March.

Bell Ringer

Ole Miss had several candidates vying for the starting spot at second base by opening conference weekend. All are talented. Some have experience.

Freshman Brantley Bell's offense and improving defense the past couple of weeks all but solidified his position as the Rebels' starting second baseman. As he continued to get opportunities during the first month of the season, the son of current major league coach (Reds) and former MLB player, Jay Bell, just couldn't be kept out of a talented lineup of players as he continually produced.

"He just keeps doing it," Bianco said after Bell went 4-for-5 with a double, a RBI, and a run scored against Southeastern Louisiana in Wednesday's 8-3 Ole Miss win.

He did have the Rebels' lone error in the contest, and that is likely equal part continuing to improve at this level and part the number of opportunities a middle infielder has the ball hit his way.

"You gotta be proud of him," Bianco continued. "He's just a ball player. He hangs in there and gets a lot of good swings off and a lot of good results."

Bell was on the radar early but has certainly been there a lot lately, batting a headlining .500 in the 13 games he's played, with six of them starts.

Brantley Bell
Bruce Newman

"It's the best conference in college baseball, just like pro ball," Bell said of his excitement to be playing for the Rebels in the SEC. "I came here to have this experience, to almost be in the minor leagues already, because I know it's good competition."

He likes where the Rebels are heading into conference play.

"I think we're prepared," Bell said. "We're ready to face the No. 1 team in the country. We're ready to go. I think we're swinging the bat well and pitching well. Everyone's excited."

Leading Off

Braxton Lee had been leading off all season until the Rebels' latest game in Hammond, La. The junior from Pearl River Community College and Picayune Memorial High has struggled at the plate lately.

His batting average has cooled down to .209 through 18 games. His on-base percentage, so important for a leadoff guy, is .316 in his first month of Division I college baseball.

So in the Wednesday win against the Lions, Lee was in the second spot in the lineup, still playing left field, while center fielder Auston Bousfield led things off.

"We just wanted to change it up a little bit," Bianco said. "No. 1 to take a little pressure off Braxton and allow him to do some different things, from bunting to hit and run and do some things he can do with the bat. And of course Bousfield runs so well he can do anything. He's having a tremendous year."

On Wednesday, Bousfield reached four times, going two for three, was hit by a pitch, and reached on a Lion error.

"I don't mind the leadoff spot," Bousfield said. "First, second, all the same. You've just got to execute."

Bousfield agreed he believes the Rebels are ready for SEC competition.

"I think we're in a good spot," he said. "We've been playing good ball. I think we've showed a lot of toughness to this point."

Now that SEC play begins, that toughness will be needed more than ever.

"The coaches have preached that all fall and most of the spring," Bousfield said. "In tough times, close games, we've found a way to pull it out. That's what great teams do."

Linking It

Here are some notes and stats heading into SEC play:


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