Longtime friends battle for shortstop spot

Sophomore Ryne Porter and freshman Zack Cozart play shortstop for the Ole Miss Rebels, but only one can play at a time. The longtime Memphis-area friends talk about their efforts to be the best at the position for the 2005 Rebels.

They both can comment with authority on each other's games. And it's not just because they play the same position or the fact that they've been teammates this school year.

Ole Miss sophomore Ryne Porter and freshman Zack Cozart are vying for the spot vacated by four-year Rebel shortstop Matt Tolbert. They've been working hard to win it this entire school year.

But there've been few surprises for each of them. That's because they basically grew up together.

Ole Miss fans have been well aware of the battle for shortstop this past fall and into the preseason. But it's actually an amicable war between two old friends. When it comes to being the Rebels' every day shortstop, both Porter and Cozart root for each other while obviously giving it their all to win the spot for themselves.

"Zack and I get along great," said the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Porter, a Houston (Tenn.) High graduate who played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Collierville, where Cozart played. "I've known Zack since I was like eight years old. We grew up together. Our families are good friends. Both of us respect each other as players. We both know we are capable. It's been good for the team to have competition like that. You need guys to battle for positions. And it looks like the battle's going to last into the season."

Cozart's story of their friendship and their past is virtually the same.

"I've played with him and against him my whole life," said Cozart, a 6-1, 185-pound, Collierville (Tenn) High alum. "I know the kind of player he is. We're out there competing. Whoever gets the job will keep working hard, and whoever doesn't get the job will keep working hard."

Cozart admits maybe it isn't the best possible situation to be in since they are both such good friends.

"It would probably be easier if we weren't," he said. "Our parents (Jay and Terri Porter; David and Mary Cozart) are best friends too, so this is just the way it's all turned out."

Cozart, 19-years-old, actually played baseball with and is even better friends with Porter's younger brother, Russell, also a good baseball player and a catcher at Houston High.

"We played on the same team, and their dad was our coach," Cozart said. "So there's a long history there for all of us."

Porter, 20, again said basically the same thing.

"I knew Zack was a good baseball player, and my dad was his coach," said Porter, also mentioning that his father coached Cozart from the time he was eight until he was about 13 years old. "He's going to be a really good SEC ballplayer. I knew that coming in."

But all in all, this story simply comes down to baseball and being the best player possible and letting the coaches sort it all out. That seems to be the approach the two have taken.

And while they've been here, they've both worked hard to improve their games and become the best players for the Rebels that they can be.

"I've improved my condition and strength," said Cozart, who went 3-for-5 in Saturday's scrimmage with a double and two RBI – for the fall he's batting .333 (15-for-45) with seven RBI, three doubles and no recorded errors. "Working out like we have in the fall and spring, I've gained about 15 pounds and my hitting and my speed have gotten better. In the fall I hit for power more than average, but in the spring it's been more average than power. And I feel like I've played good defense."

Porter has a year under his belt with the Rebels. Last season he played in 16 games with 11 at-bats and hit .182 with a double and one RBI. The year's experience of playing Division I baseball helped Porter going into this season.

"I don't think I'll be as nervous as I was last year," said Porter, whose uncle, Jimmy Porter, played football and baseball for Ole Miss from 1970-72, while his father, Jay, played baseball at Mississippi State from 1981-83. "I learned from Matt Tolbert last year that you have to come out and be confident and just play the game. Being around Matt every day helped me out a lot. He was a four-year starter in the SEC. I knew he knew the game."

Porter says it's been a good fall and spring for him.

"I feel I've played well," said Porter, who was 2-for-4 in Saturday's scrimmage and is 14-of-40 for the spring intrasquads for a .350 average with a double, four RBI and four errors recorded. "I heard Coach (Mike) Bianco had said at the press conference last week that they would play us back and forth for a while, like every other game for each. But I really don't think that will last long. If one of us plays great for a week and one of us doesn't, then I think he will make a decision. And that's the way it should be. I think he's ready to make a decision. We're both going to get our chance, and it's just whoever steps up and makes plays and gets hits."

Cooper Osteen has a stake in this shortstop battle. The second-year Ole Miss senior second baseman will be teaming up with a fellow middle infielder during games. Osteen solidified his stronghold on second last year. He says whichever player is at short this season will do well.

"They're both incredible shortstops," Osteen said of Cozart and Porter, both 4-for-5 in the stolen base department this spring. "They're both very capable and are very easy to play with. I'm very comfortable with both of them. They're both really smooth and make plays."

Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco says the program's lucky to have them both.

"We're fortunate," he said. "Part of me wants to say it's time for the season and we need to know who is playing shortstop. The good news is they're both really good. Ryne was here last year and has experience. We didn't redshirt him last year because we knew he would be the only returning shortstop with experience. Defensively he has a great glove and a lot of confidence and continues to get better offensively. Zack has the prototype body and is a good all-around player. He's a good hitter, a good baserunner, and plays good defense. Both of them have made some great plays this year in preseason and in the fall."

Cozart arrived at Ole Miss with a lot of hype and accolades. He had his choice of colleges. He chose Ole Miss and is excited about being a Rebel.

"I'm here because of the coaches, and because it was close to home and I knew a lot of the players already," he said.

And the first person he mentioned? Ryne Porter.

"There are a lot of players here from the Memphis area, and that has made it a lot easier to adjust," he said. "My friends like Ryne and Mark Wright and Mark Holliman – guys like that. This is the place I wanted to be."

Porter says it's the place he wanted to be as well. And he's enjoying the day to day competition to be the best shortstop at Ole Miss this season – just like his longtime friend, Zack Cozart.

"I can promise you there will be no hard feelings," Porter said. "Zack's like my little brother. He was always at our house, always playing basketball with us. If I play or he plays, things will be OK. Nobody's going to be mad. We'll all be fine."

And either way at shortstop, the Rebels will be solid in 2005.

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