Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco's opening statement at the 2005 preseason baseball press conference held Saturday afternoon, Feb. 5:
I'm about to being my fifth season here. It's amazing that four years have flown by, and it's amazing how time flies by. Time flies when you're having fun and that has certainly been the case. I've really enjoyed the last four years and we've done a lot of great things, but we realize we still have a lot to accomplish here. We've won more conference games in a four-year span and more regular-season games in a four-year span than ever before in the program's history, but we know and we mention it just about every time we meet as a group, that ultimately the goal is to get to the College World Series and win a national championship. That hasn't happened yet, but hopefully, that's going to happen in the near future and certainly that's our goal every year when we start out. I'm really excited about this year. It's nice to finally have a couple good days of weather. We've had two really good intra-squad games. It's one of those things as a coach, you always go back-and-forth trying to figure out offensively, defensively and on the mound how you stand. Sometimes, I think it's difficult. I sympathize with football coaches when you play your No. 1 offense against your No. 1 defense. Does it mean your offense is real good, or your defense is real good, or the other isn't real good? One of the good things we've seen the past few weeks during intra-squad games is flashes of brilliance on both sides. We've seen pitchers dominate certain scrimmages and then see hitters dominate. Like today, defensively, we saw some plays made in the infield that we've never made here in the previous years. I think we are as athletic, I think we're as strong, and as fast, I think we have as much depth on the mound as we've ever had. As you can tell by my comments, I'm very excited about this team. I think it has everything it takes to be a champion, and we're excited. I think if you would have asked a couple years ago about this team, and where we were, and we would wait for guys like Stephen Head and Mark Holliman to become juniors, we would have said that team would be very good. Well, they're juniors, and I think we have a good club. Of course, we still have some things to accomplish over the next few weeks of practice. But we're excited about it and we can't wait for the season to begin.
Q: Can you talk about the positions where you lost guys from last year?
A: Let's go through the positions. Starting behind the plate will be Barry Gunther. He's a senior catcher and had a great year for us last year, and was selected as one of the co-captains of the team by his teammates. We're looking for him to have another great year. At first base, Stephen Head returns. Again, Stephen has done some amazing things in just two years. We're looking forward to him having a bigger and better year as a junior. Stephen will start as a pitcher the first weekend of the season, so we're still looking for another first baseman; somebody to play at least once a week at first base when Stephen pitches. At second base, Cooper Osteen, another senior returns. He's as good as they come defensively, very solid. He also swings the bat from both sides of the plate. Just a great player. At shortstop, that's one of the question marks. The good news is, both Ryne Porter and Zack Cozart played great in the fall and in the early spring. The bad news is, we haven't decided which one will be the starting shortstop. We'll probably play both of them, and probably flip-flop them back-and-forth until we have an outright winner. The good news is that both of them have played very well. At third base, Chris Coghlan continues to improve defensively. He had a great summer, a great fall and has had a great spring up to this point. He also just keeps on swinging a great bat. He was an All-SEC Freshman team player last year and will probably add to those accolades this year in the postseason.
In the outfield, we still have some question marks to answer and fill in. When you look at the outfield, Alex Presley will certainly be out there and Brian Pettway will move back out there after playing out there some as a freshman. As a sophomore, he mostly was the DH and played some in the infield. Besides those two, we have Miles Franklin and Mark Wright as guys that will push for some time in the outfield.
The DH, that catch-all position. There's a slew of guys, from C.J. Ketchum to Jon-Jon Hancock to Justin Brashear to Justin Henry. Alex Kliman has hit the ball better than anybody this spring and has probably been the brightest spot offensively since we've returned from the fall. So we have five or six different options as far as right-handed and left-handed. Certainly, the goal over the first two-or-three weeks of the season will be to play a lot of those guys, and see and what line-up, what order will be the best when we open SEC play at home against the University of Florida.
On the mound, the ace of the staff returns in Mark Holliman. He will throw Friday night against Lamar in Houston. Stephen Head will throw against Rice on Saturday, and on Sunday, we don't know yet. It will either be Matt Maloney or Anthony Cupps, and both of those guys will pitch on opening day against Arkansas State.
The Arkansas State game, we will pitch several pitchers, but certainly Anthony Cupps and Maloney will be the first two guys to enter the game. And I'm hoping by that game, we'll know which one will be the Sunday starter, but at this point we don't know which one is going to be that third starter.
Q: Who's going to be the closer?
A: Brian Pettway will close to begin the year. Other guys that have done very well, Will Kline, Tommy Baumgardner, Eric Fowler are other guys that I think can come out of the bullpen for us.
Q: Are there any newcomers that have stood out at this point?
A: As far as freshmen are concerned, Zack Cozart has done very well at shortstop and has put himself in position to be the starting shortstop. Again, we're not really ready to concede that yet, because Ryne Porter has done very well also. But, he has a shot to be a starting shortstop as a true freshman in the Southeastern Conference and on a team that is ranked in the top 20 in every poll, says a lot about what type of player he is. Two other guys that are redshirt freshmen, but have a chance to be Freshmen All-Americans and All-SEC Freshmen, are Jon-Jon Hancock and Will Kline. Jon-Jon is going to both pitch and hit, but right now he is further along offensively and has a shot be the starting DH, depending on the lefty-righty, match-up and things of those nature.
Q: Talk about Barry Gunther.
A: I thought Barry had a great year last year, and I know a lot of reporters asked about his offensive statistics because he did have a great year offensively. But if you remember, I use to always refer back to how well I thought he did defensively and that's why he won the job. He can catch and receive and does a great job handling the pitchers. To have someone return behind the plate, certainly as a coach, is a big relief. Knowing you have a guy back there that started the majority of the games last year and can handle the pressure back there. I was a catcher myself, and I'm probably harder on that position than any other position, or more demanding should I say. Barry has grown a lot as a player and certainly is going to be one of the best catchers in the Southeastern Conference, and in the country, this year.
Q: When you first arrived here, you inherited a schedule that had a lot of non-conference road games. This year you have a lot of non-conference games at home.
A: Especially early, it's kind of turned out that way. We like to play at least one away series. This year we go to Rice. Even though it's a tournament, and two of the games are considered neutral site, so when I mean away, I mean not playing at home. Even going to Jackson for the Mayor's Trophy game or playing Southern Miss, regardless of who the home team is, it's an away game. You're not playing on your home field. You have the nuances of getting on the bus or getting on the plane, getting to the hotel, and those types of things. I think it hurt us my second year here when we didn't play an away weekend before going to Florida to open SEC play and it didn't turn out real well. So our goal, and hopefully here on out, at least while I'm here, we will play at least one away weekend. I think also, we want to play at home. We win a lot of games at home. We play better at home. I think most guys want to play in front of our crowds, especially the crowds we had last year, which I forgot to mention if you didn't know, we ranked eighth in the nation for attendance last year. We have a home-field advantage and we want to play at home as much as possible.
Q: What did your team learn from last year's Regional experience?
A: I think I mentioned it to them last night, I think that if you go around and ask all 39 of the players, you'll get some different responses. I know some people that motivates them because we didn't do well and they can't wait. One of the things for me personally, though, is that this is a different team. Each year is a different team, with different leaders. Even though you return some of the guys, and that's a good thing, the guys that return sometimes look at the season in different ways. For example, if you look at Chris Coghlan and Alex Presley last year, they were hoping to be starters and be on the 25-man roster in SEC play. This year, their expectations of the season are different. So even though you may have a lot of the same players, the season is different. As far as what they learned, probably the biggest thing is that you have to play well. When you get to that point of the season, you have to play well, and we didn't play well in those two games. You have to play well in a regional to win. The first night, Stephen pitched well and we didn't hit. We faced a pretty good left-hander from Western Kentucky, but still, if you want to get to Omaha, you have to be able to handle those guys and we didn't. The next day, we didn't pitch very well and we didn't score a lot of runs either. You have to play your best ball when the season is on the line and we didn't do that. So to me, the biggest lesson is, you have to play your best ball against the best guys when your season is on the line.
Q: Talk about why you held intra-squad scrimmages on the first two days of practice.
A: A couple of reasons. We had intra-squad scrimmages on our first two practice days, which we've never done, and really that was for two reasons. One, we start on a Tuesday, rather than a Friday. Therefore, the pitchers that are throwing on Tuesday, it's a little different for them, their week leading up to that than normal. For example, if Mark Holliman is going to start on Friday, he can throw in intra-squads on Friday all the way up to the season and keep his schedule the same. But if a guy is going to start on Tuesday, he can't pitch in a intra-squad game or at least throw as many innings on that Friday, Saturday or Sunday leading to that Tuesday real game. So, we wanted to make sure the pitchers had enough innings under their belts before getting into the season, so that's one reason. The second reason, we have some decisions to make, like shortstop, the outfield and the DH, so we wanted to see the hitters get two more games under their belts, maybe eight more at bats to help us make a better decision regarding the line-up on that Tuesday.
Q: Can you comment on Stephen Head's leadership qualities.
A: I think he's a great leader. When you talk about off the field, he's a great student. I think last semester, he had all A's and a B and is a 3.75 student. He's one of those guys that as a coach, you pick as a leader because not only is he a great player and a great worker, but he does it on the field and off the field. I think this is a better question to ask to his teammates, but from my standpoint, I watched Stephen, that even as a freshman, confidence just dripped of him. In those pressure situations, when the game is on the line either at the plate or on the mound, he wants the ball or wants the bat when the game is on the line. To me, that's what a leader is about. Certainly, you want a vocal leader, you want people that are going to lead just because of their charisma and other leadership qualities that they have. But, there's other guys that lead by example, there are other guys that do it on the field and make everybody feel that it's going to be o.k. I think Stephen is one of those guys, not to say that Stephen is a quiet leader, but I think that is one of those things that makes him a special leader. He's one of those guys that people can lean on, and he wants to be leaned on. He wants the spotlight on him when the game is on the line and it's hard to win championships without those types of guys.
Q: Even though you have a few positions to shore-up, do you feel that you are further along this year in figuring out who's going to play, or is it about the same?
A: As far as who is going to play and who's not going to play, that's never easy. You always have a few positions you're not sure of. You think you have it figured out, you think the rotation is the way it is suppose to be and then it doesn't work out that way. There's always somebody that ends up getting hot and the next thing you know they move up in the line-up. You have them batting eighth and the next thing you know they're batting fifth. Or a pitcher moves up in the starting rotation. One of the things that makes me feel good about this team is that it is a confident team. They're very business-like. They seem like they have fun with the game, they go out there and play. When I say they fun, it's not like there's a ton of laughing, I mean they're serious about it. I think they enjoy each other and enjoy the competitiveness of the intra-squad games. We return a lot of people. I know it says we return five position players, but we basically return six of the starting nine from last year. Ryne Porter returns at shortstop, even though he didn't start last year, he was always behind Matt Tolbert in every bunt defense and every play situation. Miles Franklin was suppose to be the starting center fielder last year, Mark Wright has been here for three years. Even though there are question marks, there are people that have been here. And in that aspect, it lends itself to be a little easier coaching-wise, but probably the easier thing, or the thing that gives you the most comfort, is the pitching staff. When you return the pitchers that were the pitchers last year, when we went to the regional, these were the guys we were counting on. When we went to the SEC Tournament, played Florida, LSU and Arkansas, teams that were ranked No. 8 in the country or above, these were the guys grabbing the ball. These were the starters and the relievers, they all return. I think there is some comfort in that. Mark Holliman was an All-SEC pitcher last year, Stephen Head has done it both as a starter and a reliever. Cupps, and even Maloney. Cupps started against Florida and LSU. Maloney pitched in the regional. So, we have a lot of experience returning on the mound.
Q: Talk about the returns of moving in the fences during the intra-squad scrimmages.
A: The weather has been bad, so we haven't hit very many home runs over the past seven games. Today, I think we hit four. The lines stayed the same at 330-feet. The gaps are now 360 and it is 390 to straight away center field. Everybody thinks we moved in the fence to hit more home runs, and that's the easy answer. Certainly, I think that is going to be one of things, you would hope that if you move the fence in, you would hit more home runs. But that's not the reason we did it. The reason the fences got moved in, we wanted to add a little more offensive punch, and I don't mean by just hitting home runs. But we wanted to be more offensive, and it's hard to be offensive, when you play on the least-offensive field in the SEC. And that's not just Mike Bianco's opinion. If you go around and ask any coach in the league, where is the toughest to place to score runs, everyone would say Ole Miss. Than people say what about the pitching, you've pitched so well over the last few years and that's true. However, I think you can pitch well in big ball parks and small ball parks. I think South Carolina has shown that and LSU has shown that. I think it is hard to be offensive when you play all your home games in the biggest ballpark in the conference, and I think maybe in the entire Southeast or perhaps the country, but it plays big. Our goal, was to make it play average. When Stephen Head, Barry Gunther or Brian Pettway scorches a ball in the gap and it would have gone out at school "x", maybe it will go out at our place. That was the goal, to reward the hitters for when they hit the ball well, and not compile the pressure that it's hard to hit at this place.
Q: Talk about Mark Holliman coming back in the "ace" role.
A: That's a big thing, and we had that in my second year when Pete Montrenes came back. I think one of the things, when you're searching for a Friday night guy, it can be a little scary when you start the season. To know that you have a guy that filled that role last year and was ultra-successful, I mean super-dominate in that role, a guy that was first team All-SEC, to return that guy, don't misunderstand me, we know you have to play the games and Mark has to pitch well, but it makes you feel better than if you had a junior college guy or another new guy. We had to do that two years ago, when we put Mark out there in a Friday night role, than we put T.J. Beam out there, who was the closer the year before, both did well, but it's hard.
Q: Is it a mental edge for you to have your Friday night pitcher returning?
A: That would be a question you would need to ask our opponents. Mark is the only returning All-SEC pitcher, so that won't happen to us. But, when you're facing (former Vanderbilt LHP) Jeremy Sowers, and the players coming back saw him as a freshman, and now you're facing him as a sophomore, you know you're going to have to perform. It's not like you can't win, because we beat Sowers all three years, but you know you're going to have to play a perfect game and your pitchers is going to have to match that with an excellent effort. You're going to have to hit a home run, and that's how you beat those aces. Your guy has a great game and your guys hits a home run and you end up winning 4-3.
Q: Any changes on your staff this season as far as responsibilities?
A: No, everything is the same. Stuart Lake will again be handling the offense, coaching the hitters and coaching the outfielders. Dan McDonnell, our recruiting coordinator has been here all five years with me, is going to handle the infielders and coach first base. Kyle Bunn returns as the pitching coach.
Q: When you first got here, the program hadn't experienced a lot of winning, but now you've been in a regional three of the four years and the program is nationally ranked, how has your outlook changed?
A: We've explained to them over the last few weeks that as expectations grow, the pressure grows. Four years ago for a lot of Ole Miss fans it was exciting for us just to make the SEC Tournament. I think everyone would admit now, that just making the SEC Tournament would be a super-low goal, and everyone wants to get to the postseason. The goal is to get to Omaha and win the national championship, to win the conference championship and be the champion in the No. 1 baseball conference in the country. When you look around and see Stephen Head, Mark Holliman and Barry Gunther, these are all kids that played in championship programs in high school and they will play baseball at the next level. So these kids are use to those pressures.
Bianco: 'We still have a lot to accomplish here'
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