Finishing Up

A year ago this weekend, Ole Miss baseball was playing in a Super Regional at Louisiana-Lafayette, looking for the first trip to the College World Series for the program in 42 seasons. The Rebels won two of three games against the Ragin’ Cajuns and were Omaha bound.

This season, after a 0-2 NCAA Regional in Los Angeles last weekend, Ole Miss is looking ahead to the 2016 season.

The 30-28 overall mark was not indicative of the Ole Miss program the past 15 seasons. It was the lowest overall win total in any season since the last century. However the Rebels were seeded second at the Regional at UCLA, mainly because of a RPI in the high 20s most of the season, a strength of schedule ranked No. 1 in the country all season, and the fact that they finished sixth in the Southeastern Conference regular season out of 14 teams.

But that didn’t translate to moving on to a Super Regional because of a loss to Maryland, who won the Los Angeles Regional, and a loss to California State-Bakersfield.

Last season Ole Miss was 48-21 and, besides national champion Vanderbilt and runnerup Virginia, was the last team standing at Omaha.

With the loss of key players and some injuries that happened prior to the 2015 season, it was going to be difficult for the Rebels to match last season’s run to late June. And ultimately they didn’t come close.

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said he always wants to be optimistic about any of his team’s futures prior to a season.

“I don’t know if we ever think that,” he said of if he thought there would be a drop off from last spring and summer’s sensational season. “I would think most coaches realize teams are different and there are new opportunities. One of the things we’ve tried to never do is make excuses going in or talk about rebuilding years. Certainly there are strengths and weaknesses to every team, regardless of your philosophy.”

He knew, as everyone did, that last season’s team lost a lot of quality players.

“When you look at least year’s team in 2014, there were a lot of older guys,” Bianco said. “There were a lot of guys (after that season) that we lost to graduation or to the draft and those types of things. A lot of good players.”

There were some indications as early as February and March that this year’s squad might have some challenges to even get to the NCAA Tournament, which ultimately they did by finishing the regular season strong and well above the .500 mark at 30-25 heading into the SEC Tournament.

“This team was different,” Bianco said. “We challenged this team early on, a young team, and we said we can be really good. But obviously some things had to happen for us. And earlyon it was tough for a lot of reasons.

“When I look back on it now, it was tough from the get-go. Even looking back 365 days from the draft, from some guys leaving the program, to injuries, to guys getting off to a slow start. Again I don’t know if we ever look at it as rebuilding, or this year you’re not supposed to be as good as next year. I don’t think coaches look at it that way.”

While this year’s squad did have challenges, Bianco said he doesn’t want anything to come across as excuses.

“There are bumps in the road. There are things that don’t happen the way you thought that are going to happen. I am very guarded to mention those or use those, because you are trying to build a team to win a championship. And you don’t want them to have that crutch or that plan B or that ‘hey, we’re not really supposed to do this.’ Certainly we had a lot to overcome.”

Why the slow start offensively this season for this team?

“Some of it was some of the older guys got off to slow starts and then played well at the end, like Sikes Orvis and Austin Knight and Errol Robinson and Colby Bortles,” Bianco said. “Guys who had good years last year and at the beginning of this year got off to uncharacteristically slow starts. We returned starters but some of them were young. They were sophomores, a lot of those guys. A lot of pressure was on them and some of them were in different roles.

“Like Errol, who I thought had a terrific year but a there was lot of pressure on him. Last year he was the freshman out there playing the infield between two seniors, (Austin) Anderson and (Preston) Overbey who did great jobs of helping the young guys. And other older guys like (Will) Allen and (John) Gatlin and so many older guys on that team. Now these guys – Bortles, Robinson (J.B.) Woodman. Those guys had different roles this year.”

Bianco felt, despite the issues, that the players responded positively to the coaches.

“I thought (first-year assistant) Mike Clement did a great job keeping them grounded and staying consistent with them in practice and keeping it from going the other way. One of the things we’ve talked about this team, more specifically offensively, is getting better as the season progressed and playing better in April and May. And you want that all the time, regardless of what kind of start you get off to, you’d better be better in April and May. And I think certainly offensively we were.”

More From Bianco -

* On improving as a program into the future: “The easy answer is to play better in all aspects. Certainly we have to be more offensive. If you look at next year’s team, this will look like a different team than the team that just walked out. We’re looking at returning seven of the starting nine. We’re looking at Bortles and Woodman and Robinson and those guys that are now three-year guys, guys that have been on the field a lot. When you talk about experience, there’s no substitute. Certainly you feel a lot better when there is experience out there. “

* On other aspects that can help the program improve: “This year we just didn’t pitch well enough to win. That’s as big a factor as anything with this team. In this game you’ve got to do it all. But you’ve got to pitch. If you’re going to win this league and host and get to Omaha, you have to pitch. Next year when you look at the class coming in, I think there’s 13 pitchers in that class alone. So there’s a bunch of new arms. Coach (Carl) Lafferty and I are both excited to get to the fall to with the new pitchers.”

* On the injuries to pitchers Sean Johnson (Tommy John surgery in February of this year), Brady Feigl (Tommy John surgery last fall), Preston Tarkington (Tommy John surgery last fall) and even Sam Smith (sports hernia lengthy recovery and femur fracture) and if they were key factors in the pitching not being quite good enough?: “I think it’s a part of it but not the only part. When you look at this staff, I don’t remember having a staff when there was such a separation of the guys really you could count on or have success to the guys that didn’t. One-third of our innings were from guys who had 6.0 or higher ERA. Not one-third of the pitchers, but one-third of the innings. To me that was the biggest factor.”

* On where the returning pitchers are in their recovery: “Feigl finished up his throwing program right before the season ended. Looked terrific. Healthy and ready to go. Now it’s about becoming a real pitcher again. The other guys (Tarkington and Johnson). Tark is a little further along than Johnson. He’s throwing bullpens and doing well. Johnson is moving forward with his.”

* On Kyle Watson: “Played as a freshman. Ton of starts. Lot of good things. Everybody saw how talented and athletic he really is. Saw some bad times that happens to everybody with some loss of confidence at the plate. Here’s a guy that a couple of weeks before the season starts we throw him into the outfield. At the end he’s as good as any outfielder out there. He finished second on the team in stolen bases. Certainly he played like he’s going to be an impact player in this program.”

* On Christian Trent and Brady Bramlett: “Two different conversations. Trent is going to have an opportunity to get drafted. We’ll see what next week holds for him. He’s had a terrific two years here, and he will have a decision to make if he will have a third year here. Bramlett is excited to get past that first year (after injury, surgery, recovery). He pitched No. 2 and did a terrific job. We talked about taking some time off, resting the arm, and coming back for a great fall. Hopefully through some rest and training he will get stronger and throw harder than he does now.”

* On Tate Blackman: “He was one of those guys that was kind of the face of that class coming in. It was tough. He had a tough year. But he handled it. In practice he had energy and the way he interacted with his teammates and in the dugout, I’m really proud of him. I think it was a combination for him, which it usually is when you don’t have success. In doing so, in my opinion, some of his mechanics started to deteriorate. Short, compact swing started to get longer. One of those things we sometimes see with hitters just trying to do too much. I really thought his last week or week and a half of batting practice, may have been his best BP since the fall. I told him to go to the Cape (Cod) and have a great summer and get ready for a great year next year. ”

* On Sikes Orvis: “He’s the guy with the 40-foot poster on the stadium. He’s the face of the program. Certainly a fan favorite and a good guy and a great player. He was a great player when he got here but didn’t play as well the first couple of years. It’s no surprise he finished the way he finished. Sometimes it doesn’t happen immediately. As a coach it’s hard for me to put into words. But one of the neat things is to watch kids grow up at this stage in their lives. Sikes has certainly left his mark here.”

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