By: Jeff Roberson
The first poll for the 2017 season is out, and the Rebels are among the top 25 according to Collegiate Baseball, checking in at No. 22. That appears to be about right for this team, or at least the Rebels are in a good place to start climbing. If they settle on weekend starters fairly quickly, find a solid closer, and stay healthy up and down the lineup, they’ll be a force.
The roster has some 30 freshmen and sophomores and only a couple of seniors. Normally older teams, if they have the talent, are more ready for SEC and national wars. But don’t let their youth and inexperience sidetrack you. This team is talented and will likely get better week to week.
Only six of 14 Southeastern Conference teams are ranked in this particular early poll. LSU is second, Florida third, South Carolina fourth, and Vanderbilt sixth. Texas A&M comes in at No. 20. The Rebels play them all but the Gamecocks.
Rebels’ foe TCU, that they’ll face in Houston at the Shriners College Classic at Minute Maid Park in early March, is No. 1 in the Collegiate Baseball poll. Texas Tech, another opponent in Houston, is at No. 29 in this poll, which goes up to 40.
The season-opening foe, in Oxford for three games, will be East Carolina, which checks in at No. 13. A whole bunch of SEC teams and some other Rebel opponents dot the others getting votes list, after 40th place. Like Southern Mississippi and UNC-Wilmington, Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, and Missouri.
Georgia and Tennessee, which Ole Miss doesn’t play in 2017, both got votes.
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Colby Bortles, along with Tate Blackman, was named a captain for this team by their teammates. Both will play big roles on and off the field.
Bortles is one of those seniors, like Sikes Orvis a couple of seasons ago, who will return for a fourth campaign with a chip on his shoulder and another opportunity to prove he’s got what it takes to move to the next level.
Bortles, who was named a third team Preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball this month, arrived with a talented group in the summer of 2013, and in his first season played in the College World Series. Now in his senior season, he wants to go back.
“There’s one goal in mind,” he said, “and that’s to go to Omaha. Everybody has that in mind, and we’re striving to get there.”
The athletic Bortles is almost unrecognizable as far as his body is concerned from when he was a freshman. He’s lost a considerable amount of weight heading into the final semester of his college years. His playmaking at third base should be the beneficiary of his efforts to slim down, tone up, and be in the best shape since he’s been here.
“I’ve been working hard in the weight room,” he said. “I’ve lost weight since the beginning of the year. I’m still working on it to get more weight off. I think it really helps me. I feel better, and when you feel better you have more confidence in yourself.”
He started the year at 245 pounds and was closing in on 230 as the Omaha Challenge began in November.
“I wanted to get my hips more mobile,” he said. “To play third base better, you’ve got to be quick on your feet. The goal is 230, so I’m right there. I’ll be good to go, and I know having the extra weight off will help me.”
Bortles said this group is a true “team” in every sense of the word.
“The big thing was everybody mixed well and supported each other,” he said of fall ball. “Whether it was the new guys saying something or the older guys saying something, everybody has respect throughout this team. We’ve been through workouts and fall ball together, and everybody knows what’s expected of us.”
Bortles is a seasoned veteran of first semester college baseball, having been through four of them. All teams are different, but he likes what he sees from the 2017 edition.
“I don’t really think you can compare teams,” he said. “We were really good offensively last year, and I think we’re really good offensively this year. The pitchers made it hard for us to be good in the fall, so they’re good obviously. The fall was a good stepping stone to the spring.”
Bortles, who could also play first base if needed, doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s a confident player and believes in himself. He embraces it.
“I think I’m a good third baseman, and in my head I think I’m the best third baseman in the country,” he said. “But whatever is asked of me to do, I’ll do it. I’m a team player.
“I also worked on a couple of different things with my swing in the fall. It went well and I got a lot of confidence from that.”
Bortles hopes to get to a Jaguars’ game in Jacksonville to watch his brother, Blake, quarterback the team. He’ll have his holiday break to enjoy such things and then return to Oxford early in the new year to help this program try to accomplish what it did when he was a freshman.
“The last couple of years I don’t think we lacked talent or chemistry,” he said. “It really is a couple more plays, a couple more pitches, just a base hit here or there that will help us get back to Omaha. That’s it.”
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Construction has been underway for several weeks on the latest expansion and renovation of the baseball “plant” at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field.
Enhancing the player development side of things is a priority. Expanding the workout areas and adding some underneath amenities are just a part of the plans. It will ultimately be an extensive project over the coming months, and the baseball facilities at Ole Miss continue to lead the way in the SEC and nationally.
More information will be coming on those developments after the new year.