Baseball Rebels return to work

Coach Mike Bianco and staff welcomed 38 Ole Miss baseball players to the start of fall classes Monday with the first day of conditioning and lifting. The entire group was eager to get going and so were the coaches.

"We're just getting started," said the fifth-year Ole Miss head baseball coach. "We're making sure everyone is registered and taking care of their academic stuff. Sunday was physicals day, and the returnees and the first-year guys got that done."

From now through fall practice, which will run four weeks with the usual intrasquad scrimmages, the team will focus on the four-on-ones as they are called and allowed by the NCAA. That is individual work with four players in a group with a coach. No team practice is allowed at this point.

Fall practice begins Sept. 20 with Scout Day. That's the day when pro scouts are invited to Swayze Field to see the Rebels up close.

Bianco says it's good to have everyone back on campus. It's always exciting to get things rolling again.

"It's refreshing time of the year," he said. "No more draft concerns to deal with, and everybody is excited to be back. It's always a very positive time of the year."

It wasn't quite as easy a summer as it had been in the past for the program. There had been few losses to the draft in Bianco's first four years. This year the Rebels were hit harder than in the recent past with returnee Seth Smith, as projected, leaving the program after three years to turn pro. Also signees RHP Chris Raybon of Meridian CC, INF/P Van Pope also of Meridian CC, and Rhyne Hughes of Pearl River CC signed pro contracts over the summer.

"It's part of the game," Bianco said of the summers dealing with the draft and whether or not players will sign with the pros before classes begin. "It's probably going to always be a part of our game. But it's over again now, and this is our team (pointing to the players who were beginning their conditioning drills Monday). We can now start to really focus on our goals and go to work."

Bianco also returns his entire staff intact. Assistant Coach Dan McDonnell interviewed for the head coaching position at the University of Memphis, but the Tiger hierarchy went another direction. McDonnell has been with the Rebel program since Bianco was hired in the summer of 2000.

Also returning are fourth-year pitching coach Kyle Bunn and second-year hitting coach Stuart Lake.

The veterans returning to campus were among those ready to roll. Senior catcher Barry Gunther, who played in the Cape Cod League along with several other Rebels, said his summer went well as his team lost in the Cape's championship series.

"We came in second, but it was a lot of fun," said Gunther, who didn't actually go to the Cape until a few weeks into the season in June. "I actually struggled a lot in the beginning, but I finished strong. So I felt good about the summer. I caught real well, the best I've ever caught. I wanted to go play and get better, and I feel I did. Now everybody's back here, and we're ready to start again."

Junior first baseman/pitcher Stephen Head, named the MVP of his team in the Cape league, said he had a productive summer as well.

"I got to face some of the best pitchers in the country, and that was a big thing," he said. "You saw them day in and day out, and I had some decent success against them. So that was good."

Head, who did not pitch this summer and only played first base, said the Cape is special, and he's glad he got to play there.

"It's a lot of fun and there are some real rivalries there," he said. "Those towns look forward to it each summer. They compete with each other on who can break attendance records and who is going to be the champion. It's all fairly close up there. The furthest drive we had to make was like an hour and 15 minutes. Most are much closer than that."

Head was second in the league as far as hitting goes for most of the season, although he tailed off at the end a bit.

"It was a blessing in disguise," he said of not making Team USA again this summer and getting a chance to compete in the Cape. "Those Team USA guys get 60 at-bats the whole summer and not nearly as good pitching as you see in the Cape. And you see it every day. Obviously you get noticed more in the Cape by pro teams. So while (not making Team USA for the second straight summer) was a tough thing to take at first, I feel it all worked out for the best."

Head said the Rebels are ready to build on last season's success of most Southeastern Conference wins in school history (18) and first-ever NCAA Regional hosting for Ole Miss.

"It's a new season," he said. "We're ready to get rolling and build on what we've done here the past few seasons."

Sophomore catcher Justin Brashear was out of action early in the Cape. He tore an MCL in an exhibition game even before the regular season started.

"There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth and there was a play at the plate," he said. "I had kinda blocked the plate, and the guy coming in ran into me and buckled my knee. It was a full tear of my MCL in my left knee. I knew immediately something was wrong."

Fortunately for Brashear, surgery was not needed. An MRI was negative and rehabbing was all it took to get it healed.

"I didn't get to play a game for two and a half weeks," said Brashear, who was on the same Cape league team as Rebel junior pitcher Anthony Cupps. "I missed 12 games. But I'm 100 percent now and actually caught a doubleheader the last day I was up there – 18 innings. I feel great and it's good to be back."

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