Will baseball break through more barriers in '05?

Ole Miss starts the season with Arkansas State, under head coach Keith Kessinger and assistant coach Brad Henderson. Keith played at Ole Miss (1987-89) and was a UM assistant coach (1997-2000), while Brad is still the Rebels' all-time leading hitter (1996-99).

The grass is already late-spring green, the outfield fence has been moved in and the numbers repainted, the concession stands and ticket booths are in place.

The Bullpen Club's tent is up and the picnic tables are underneath it. The outfield areas await tents and grills and families in left field, and rowdy, supportive Ole Miss students in right. The Section I gang has their seats at the top and are ready to lead the cheers in the grandstand. The whole place has been polished up for the season, which starts Tuesday afternoon.

Baseball season is always a renewal. Spring is almost here. It means you can get outside to do more. Heck, it's 70 degrees and sunny here Monday.

At Swayze Field, it means that although you are outside, bring a coat or a blanket, even if the sun is out and it's 70 degrees in February or March. There's no place more chilly in the spring around here than Oxford-University Stadium, especially when the sun starts down in the west, which will happen about midway through the opener.

The Rebels played their most recent game at Swayze Field last June 5, a 7-2 loss to the Washington Huskies. That was the morning after the Rebels had lost to Western Kentucky 1-0 the night before.

Since those two days in the Oxford Regional, most fans have come full circle, from disappointment and even anger in some cases at the team's performance in the first NCAA Tournament ever hosted by Ole Miss, to an acceptance that things weren't so bad (save the two games mentioned), and on to an anticipation and excitement heading into the new season.

Ole Miss has had terrific baseball success the past four seasons, from rankings to recruiting classes to a record number of SEC wins in a season to hosting. But there's something missing.

A championship.

The Rebels were close last season. After beating LSU here on a Friday night the last weekend of the season, the Rebels had a shot at the SEC crown. So did LSU. Neither got it because Arkansas slid past both for the SEC West at 19-11, tying Georgia, also 19-11, for the overall title.

Ole Miss lost to the Tigers those final two games and tied LSU at 18-12 in SEC games. It was a record number of SEC wins for Ole Miss, but the Rebels had failed to bring home the hardware.

So on to Hoover in suburban Birmingham we went for the SEC tourney. Following a heart-crushing loss to South Carolina in game one, the Rebels limped back out to the field the following day for a lackluster performance against Arkansas.

But their reward for the total season came when they were awarded the regional site hosting bid. Then came Western Kentucky and Washington.

Sports fans have long memories. They also have short memories. They have selective memory, too.

To say that there is not some apprehension that the season will end with a thud like a couple of others have recently would be inaccurate. It hangs over the program, not heavily mind you, but it's there.

Everyone is well aware of the positives concerning the program the past four seasons. Also mentioned as much by fans is the fact that the Rebels haven't "seen the season through" like a championship program should.

At times it's been a difficult task to get Ole Miss fandom to really understand and grasp college baseball. The masses, I mean. We've had a lot of great fans who sat for years on the wooden bleachers at old Swayze near where the Rebel Shop now sits, and a lot of them moved over to new Swayze back in 1989.

But attracting new fans to the ballpark was a slow process. Now it's been done as the Ole Miss baseball program was 11th in the country in total attendance last season, and a record number of season tickets have been sold for this season.

Baseball can be cruel for fans. We all know that, and it's one aspect of the game we don't like.

On Sunday you can be celebrating a sweep of Tennessee at home, like last year during Grove Bowl weekend, and then two and three nights later be lamenting losses to Southern Mississippi and Arkansas State.

That very thing happened just last season, and the Rebels were ranked in the Top 10 in the country at the time.

You can leave the stadium with a 6-1 win over Auburn on Friday night and be ecstatic over a big first game of the series win; then sit through rain delays Saturday, only to play a seven-inning doubleheader on Sunday and lose both in the late innings by a run in each.

That very thing happened last season, too.

Cruel. Baseball can be like that.

Unlike football where SEC teams hardly ever lose to a Middle Tennessee State or a Louisiana-Monroe or a Murray State or a Troy State (oh wait, that did happen fairly recently to an SEC school in football), in baseball it does happen.

Tuesday's opener against the Arkansas State Indians is a perfect example. Head coach Keith Kessinger and assistant coach Brad Henderson will bring a confident team to Oxford for the 3 p.m. contest. That's because even with all the success the Rebels have had the past few seasons, the Indians hold a 4-1 record over Ole Miss the past two seasons – three games last year, two the year before.

Cruel – if you wear the red and blue.

Arkansas State will come to Oxford already on a roll. They swept Arkansas-Pine Bluff in three games over the weekend by a collective score of 42-7.

Having them here for the season opener should help the Rebels. The excitement of starting the new season will be on the Rebels' side. Ole Miss won't be coming down from an SEC weekend. They won't be looking ahead to a series with Mississippi State or Tennessee or LSU. And it's the only scheduled meeting between UM and ASU this season.

They will be, however, trying to erase many fans' memories of last season's last six games, all losses. The players have put them out of their minds already for a couple of reasons – one, they are kids and can do that easier than the rest of us; and two, the newcomers weren't even here for those games, so it's a totally fresh slate for many of them anyway.

It should be for everybody concerned, really. I picked up a Baseball America magazine last week and it's filled with Ole Miss. The Rebels are ranked 16th in that publication, and there are stories and pictures and capsules of Stephen Head and Mark Holliman and the team.

It's no secret to anybody that Ole Miss baseball is one of the top programs in the country. It just so happens that the Rebels also play in the best college baseball conference in the country.

That's one reason the record toward the end of the season is often not what we want it to be.

Here's what the Rebels need more than anything this season: That championship I mentioned earlier.

Ole Miss needs it. We need to be called "champions" in something, and baseball has a shot – again.

The Rebels need to win the SEC regular season title, or they need to have a players' pileup on the mound on Sunday in Hoover after winning the SEC tourney title. Or they need to win a Regional and move on to a Super Regional.

This year's team should have the arms to go a long way. And it appears it has the bats to do so as well. And defensively the Rebels showed marked improvement last season, which should carry over into this one.

Baseball season, more than maybe any other sport, is a marathon. It's about completing the long and grueling task of a season and playing well at the end and achieving your goals. It's about playing hard every day, but somehow managing to save some for the last few weeks of the season. To have that late-season, regional, and Omaha push that champions have year after year.

The current Ole Miss baseball coaches set the goals high when they arrived. Many of them have been met. Some of them still remain.

It all starts again Tuesday and won't end until sometime four or so months from now – either in Oxford or at some other place that's hosting a Regional or a Super Regional.

Or in Omaha.

Has this young coaching staff at Ole Miss, all still in their 30s, learned the past four seasons what buttons to push to have the Rebels playing their best late in the year?

And what have the players, many of them three and four year veterans now, learned that will help them play just as hard and be just as energetic and enthusiastic and perform as well in May and June as in March and April?

The answers to these questions and more are why they play the games.

Senior catcher and team co-captain Barry Gunther said the team has needed to learn to persevere, to keep pushing through those difficult times that come with great SEC competition late in the season as the wear and tear of a difficult and treacherous schedule begin to take their toll mentally and physically.

The great teams are the ones that fight through it and come out of the storms and troubled times as champions.

There will be those hurdles and barriers and obstacles again this season. LSU and Georgia and Mississippi State and Auburn and South Carolina and Arkansas – the last six SEC series for Ole Miss this season – will see to that.

Can the Rebels push through and become "champions" this year? Of the SEC regular season? Of the SEC tourney? Of an NCAA Regional?

They've almost gotten there. They've been on the brink.

Now they have to persevere in every way, as Gunther said last week.

It all starts Tuesday at 3 p.m.

I don't think I even need to ask. I know you're ready.

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