Play Ball!

The College of William and Mary is in town for baseball’s season opening weekend. I don’t necessarily think there will be any revenge factor in all this since probably half the Rebel team wasn’t here two years ago.

I said on Rebel Yell Hotline Monday night with Chuck that the last time Ole Miss fans were mad at the program - really mad - was when the Rebels lost two games to William and Mary in the Raleigh Regional of the NCAA Tournament in June, 2013.

Oh, sure, there were a handful of times last season folks were a little restless and upset. There was, after all, a four-game losing streak with a loss to Southern Mississippi followed by a sweep at Alabama. And there was a Governor’s Cup loss in Pearl to Mississippi State and a blown second game loss (even though the Rebels did win the series) against the Bulldogs at Dudy Noble Field.

But nothing to match the disgust of the summer two years ago when the Tribe sent the Rebs home from N.C. State to end another season short of not only Omaha but a Super Regional.

William and Mary will be a formidable foe again. But most of the time these type teams – Maine is another that comes to mind – aren’t as strong this time of year as they will be in three or four months.

That’s not to say this will be any kind of cinch sweep for Ole Miss. The Rebels are opening their season as well, and you never know how a baseball series will turn out.

The Tribe will send ace Jason Inghram to the mound today, the left-hander who competed against the Rebels in Raleigh in the tournament’s opening game. Inghram picked up the win as he worked 8.0 innings and allowed two runs on eight hits with a walk and three strikeouts in a 4-2 Tribe win.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Inghram is one of only four seniors on this 2015 William and Mary baseball team.

On day two in Raleigh, Ole Miss beat Binghamton 8-4 but was eliminated by William and Mary 4-1 on day three. The Rebels didn’t even face the home team Wolfpack, and that’s never a good thing when you lose before even facing the host.

That was then. This is now. Ole Miss finished third in the country last summer with a College World Series appearance. William and Mary had a good season, 34-22 in 2014, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament field.

It’s Mike Bianco’s 15th season at the helm of Rebel baseball, closing in on the length of time Jake Gibbs was head coach, which was 19 seasons. Tom Swayze was head coach for 21 seasons.

Those are the three head coaches in Ole Miss history who have taken a team to the College World Series – Swayze three times (1959, 1964, 1969), while Gibbs went there once (1972) and Bianco now has been once (2014).

Today will begin to answer some, but not nearly all, of the questions for this year’s Rebels.

Will Christian Trent, without a loss to his credit in 2014, be as effective this season in the “ace” role as last year?

Will Sam Smith be able to hold up this year as a senior weekend starter?

Will Brady Bramlett stay in the other weekend role? Will Sean Johnson grab a weekend starting role after his tendonitis is fully gone?

Will Austin Knight and Henri Lartigue be as efficient as Stuart Turner and Will Allen the past two seasons behind the plate?

Will Colby Bortles be able to handle third base? Will Errol Robinson have a successful sophomore season? Will Sikes Orvis take out his frustration of not being drafted by showing everybody how worthy he is?

Will the Rebels continue to send, as they have during fall and preseason practices, the baseball out of the park in 10-years-ago-like manner because of the new baseball?

Will the shoes of Auston Bousfield, Braxton Lee, and Will Jamison be adequately filled - and will they be as speedy too – by Cameron Dishon, Connor Cloyd, and Kyle Watson? Will J.B. Woodman, with a solid freshman campaign, step up even more in year two? He’s projected to be one vying for the leadoff hitter’s role.

There’s depth in the pitching staff. How good will they be? Will they stay healthy?

How far can this Rebel team go, when all is said and done?

Many of the questions are the same year after year. Often only the names and faces change.

It’s my 25th consecutive season to cover Ole Miss baseball. Can it really have been that long?

In ways it does seem that long. Gibbs had just stepped down as head coach, and Don Kessinger was in his first season. The stadium was smaller. The attendance nowhere near what it is today. And the interest in baseball at Ole Miss was significantly less, although historically better than most Southeastern Conference schools.

I didn’t make any lists of the greatest 25 players or moments or anything like that. But many of the days at Swayze and on the road were unforgettable covering this program. And some of them only remembered by a few of us who were there at the time.

Like the time Ole Miss and Southern Miss played an extra inning game in Oxford years ago. We didn't think it would ever end. A third base group of mainly Ole Miss students called "Sno's Cold Corner" (named for Rebel third baseman Chris Snopek) was giving Golden Eagle head coach Hill Denson all kinds of (mostly good-natured) heck the entire game. Soon as the game ended with Ole Miss winning, Denson strolled over to those guys, threw his USM cap up to them, pointed at one of their Ole Miss caps, and stuck the Ole Miss cap on his head as he walked toward his dugout before heading back to Hattiesburg. We all got a good laugh out of that moment. Hill Denson is a class act.

Or the time I was out at Swayze for a fall high school all-star tournament and there were two kids there that told me they were committing to Ole Miss. So I wrote a story about them. I had no idea at the time how much Stephen Head and Brian Pettway would help change Ole Miss baseball forever.

Or riding the bus with the team – the only time I’ve ever done that - for a game against Livingston (now West Alabama) at Meridian Community College’s field. Played two innings, rains came, the game was called, and we boarded the bus to head back to Oxford. Or the night Arkansas and Auburn played 17 innings in the SEC West Tournament, held at Swayze, and there might have been a hundred of us there when it ended about 1 a.m.

Or the day Ole Miss and Auburn started at 2 p.m., and three tarp pulls, rain delays, and eight hours later, the Rebels had won. Or the Sunday in Bianco’s second season when Vanderbilt led the Rebels 9-1 in the eighth, and Ole Miss won 10-9 in the tenth to complete a sweep. The day before, Ole Miss had set a record for stadium attendance at the time– 6,727. Now there are games regularly here with at least 4,000 more than that.

Hosting a NCAA Regional for the first time in 2004 and a Super Regional the next year for the first time. And the momentary disappointments – but the promise of a brighter future – of both those events.

The SEC Tournament championship in 2006 and the SEC overall title in 2009.

The games against Washington in the 2014 Oxford Regional and the drama of the three games at the Lafayette Super Regional.

And Omaha.

It’s another opening day – six for me covering for the Oxford Eagle and 19 now at the Ole Miss Spirit.

As the saying goes, “It just never gets old.”

See you at the ballpark today, or sometime this spring and summer, as the Rebels again take the field in February, hopeful of playing until late June.

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