Well, for all but one.
Senior third baseman Colby Bortles is the last remaining player from the 2014 Ole Miss baseball team that reached the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. It was the Rebels’ first appearance in the College World Series in 30 years. They went 2-2.
It’s no surprise, then, that Bortles was named a team captain for the second year in a row. Ole Miss has 36 players on its opening day roster. Eight are upperclassmen. None are more accomplished than Bortles, a preseason All-American and All-SEC selection.
“The freshmen will come up to me and ask, ‘What’s it’ like?’ I just try to explain it the best I can,” Bortles said. “The ultimate goal is to get there. They’ll understand once we go there how awesome it is and how much you want to be there.
“It was the greatest experience of my life, the most fun two weeks of baseball I’ve ever played. We went 2-2. It’s the mecca of college baseball. (Ole Miss head) Coach (Mike) Bianco says it all the time, there’s no unhappy people on the flight to Omaha. Everybody’s happy. Whether you have 200 at-bats or three, when you’re going to Omaha, you’re going to be happy. So I try to explain it the best I can and try to make them as hungry as I am to get there.”
Bortles played in 40 games in 2014, starting 14. He made nine starts at DH and five at first base, and he appeared in three games (one start) in the College World Series. His pinch-hit walk against Texas Tech provided the game-winning run in a walk-off win.
He’s a different player now. He’s started a combined 115 games over the last two seasons, including all 62 a year ago as one of four Rebels to play in every game. He made 61 starts at third base and one start at first, hitting a team-high 21 doubles, which was good for second in the SEC and fifth-most in a single season in school history. He ranked 15th in the SEC with 50 RBI.
“He has the most experience,” Ole Miss second baseman and fellow Rebel captain Tate Blackman said. “He’s won a regional game, a super regional game and he’s been and won in Omaha. He’s definitely a shoulder to lean on and knows how to win games around here. He’s definitely a good guy to go up to when stuff hits the fan. When we don’t know where to go or who to turn to, he’s always the guy I personally talk to. He’s done it all. He has the most experience. It’s definitely a good advantage to have him around with us.”
“When you think of guys who are leaders, you think of guys like Colby,” Bianco said. “They’re not the Vince Lombardi speeches or somebody standing on a stool in the locker room. It’s the day after day after day guys that do it the right way, that are great teammates, that love the university and love playing in the program. That’s Colby Bortles. If he wanted to play pro ball, if he didn’t want to be here, he could’ve easily gotten drafted last year. His draft stock dropped when they knew it meant a lot for him to return his senior year. I didn’t know what a huge impact it would be; I knew it would be great for us to have him back. But I didn’t know how great until you look now. We’d be a totally different team without him. You just watch his presence in the dugout and in the locker room in everything that we do. Everybody looks over their shoulder at him to get their cue for what to do. Part of being a great leader is being so open and so welcoming to young guys. He’s got such a great personality. His teammates appreciate what such a good teammate he is.”
Bortles will again man third base in his final Rebel season. And as a .272 career hitter with, arguably, the most power potential on the team (17 career HRs), he figures to bat in the middle, and anchor, a batting order that he believes can hit for power, average and force action on the bases.
But even if his role were smaller, if he was just another name, he’d be OK. He wants to win. Because he’s been to the mountain top, and he wants to go back. Everything else is immaterial.
“Last year I thought we were really good. I’m on the team, so I’m always going to say we’re going to Omaha,” Bortles said. Ole Miss won 43 games last season and opens the 2017 season Friday at 4 p.m. against East Carolina. “But I really believe this team can do it. You look around and there’s no weak spot. We can hit, we can hit for power, we can run, we can steal, we can play defense and then we’ve got 10 pitchers that are unbelievable. I think we can get there.”
“Him and J.B. (Woodman) are by far the best leaders I’ve ever played for or played with,” Blackman said. “Him being back again, he took a leadership role last year. He’s doing it again. He showed me the way to lead. He does the right things. I’m not really a vocal guy on the field either, so I just try to show the upperclassmen this is how we practice, this is how we play. We’re going to play the right way and we’re going to play hard. Don’t hold anything back each and every game.”
Bortles said he welcomes the opportunity to lead the way. It’s his time.
“It’s different. My freshman year, we all looked to Austin Anderson. We looked to Will Allen. Whatever they were doing, that’s what we did,” he said. “It’s different. I’ve got to be extremely aware of my reactions and what I’m doing and certain stuff like that. Me, Tate and Will (Golson) are the right people for it. We’re extremely selfless. We’re not going to have a bad attitude. If I go 0-4 and we win, I’m going to be extremely happy. The same with Tate and Will. Once they see that and realize that, then they’ll understand.”
An Omaha mentality.