Baseball Rebels look back, ahead

Ole Miss plays Friday at 1 p.m. against Lamar; Saturday at 1 p.m. vs. host Rice, and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. against Southwest Missouri State.

A day after the season-opening win over Arkansas State, the 15th-ranked Ole Miss baseball team was back out at practice today, preparing for the weekend in Houston.

Ole Miss meets Lamar Friday at 1 p.m. at Rice's Reckling Park in first-day action at the Owls' Tournament.

Tuesday's opener went just about the way most of the Rebels would have drawn things up. From the weather to the record home opening crowd (3,118 announced) to their performances, the players said day one of the 2005 season was an A-plus.

"This was awesome," said Rebel junior co-captain Stephen Head following Ole Miss' 10-0 romp over Arkansas State. "You can't ask for better weather than this on February 15. It feels like summertime. Everything about the day was just perfect. The way we played was outstanding. Even the young guys didn't appear to be nervous. It looked like they had been playing out here for months."

That pretty much said it all. But there was more.

"Coming out here in this weather and seeing everybody out here," said junior Brian Pettway, "it was like the Tennessee weekend last year when we set the record (with more than 9,200 announced attendance for the Saturday game on Grove Bowl weekend). To see the students out there supporting us. It was a great day, not just for the team but also for The University of Mississippi to have a record crowd on opening day and get great fan support for the team."

Starting and winning pitcher, junior RHP Anthony Cupps, concurred with his teammates.

"The crowd today was awesome," he said. "With all the fans and students out here for opening day, it was just huge for us and helped us today."

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Senior co-captain Barry Gunther was next in line to talk positively concerning everything about the day.

"I appreciate all the fans coming out today," he said. "This was unbelievable. The largest opening day crowd ever in this stadium, and it's a Tuesday afternoon. A lot of them are still out there (half an hour after the game) in the outfield areas enjoying it right now. That's great to see."

Gunther even took it a step further with his assessment of what the fans mean to the team.

"In the one inning where we scored six runs, I'm telling you, the crowd had something to do with that," he said. "You could just feel the emotion from them and how loud they got for you. You just feel it, and the other team sits back a little bit. Then Pettway hits a big (3-run) home run in that inning. The game of baseball is so much momentum, and they really helped us today."

Gunther also had high praise for Cupps.

"I've seen Cupps throw for three years, and he was as sharp as I've ever seen him today," said Gunther of the Jacksonian, who went six complete with only three hits allowed, with no walks, and six strikeouts. "He barely got behind any guys. He's picked up the slider, and he threw it awesome. The right-handers took a lot of bad swings on it. He just looked dominant out there, like he was a Friday night starter. In most programs, he would be a Friday night starter. I'm very confident with him out there."

Gunther said junior LHP Matt Maloney, who relieved Cupps and went two innings allowing one hit with no walks and two strikeouts, and also redshirt freshman RHP Will Kline (one inning, 3 up, 3 down, all fly outs), were impressive also.

"Maloney came in and pitched well and has been dominant all fall and all spring. And then we bring a redshirt freshman, Kline, in and he just filled up the zone. The first pitch of his college career he comes in and throws a slider for a strike.

"But we looked so solid all over out there. (True freshman Zack) Cozart makes great plays up the middle and has a great first day. That was really the way it was for the whole team today."

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Cozart, the highly-touted shortstop from Collierville, Tenn., did indeed make some veteran plays in game one. He also had quite a day at the plate, going 2-for-4 with a double, a triple, and a RBI.

Some players in all sports will tell you they never pay much attention to the crowd and don't really hear them when they are into the game. Not Cozart. He said they were loud and clear on Tuesday.

"That first hit I got, I heard the crowd roar," he said of his sixth-inning RBI double, which gave the Rebs a 3-0 lead. "That was the best feeling I've ever felt in my baseball career. Playing in front of 3,000 fans, I just can't really describe it. These are the best fans. To set the (attendance) record on opening day, you can't ask for more than that."

The reasons they came to the ballpark were several, and one of them was to see Cozart.

"I'm highly confident about my defense right now," said the humble but self-assured shortstop. "I feel no ball can get past me. I play that way to help the pitchers out."

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The pitching rotation for Houston should be junior RHP Mark Holliman on Friday, LHP Head on Saturday, and LHP Maloney on Sunday. RHP Cupps is also a possibility for the Sunday start.

Bianco said the Rice Owl tourney, named the Coca-Cola Classic, will present three challenging games for the Rebels.

"A lot of people don't know about those teams, and that happens in college baseball since the media coverage and publicity is not as national as basketball and football," he said. "Certainly Lamar is probably the best team in the Southland Conference the past few years. I know them very well from the last job I had (as head coach at McNeese State). They went to a regional last year and I believe the last couple of years.

"Southwest Missouri State beat us here (in Oxford) a couple of years ago and went to the College World Series that season.

"Rice is obviously the big name in the field (the Owls were national champions two seasons ago, the year the Rebels played in the NCAA Regional at Rice). But the other two opponents we play will be very tough as well."

Lamar is 6-0 entering Friday's game with Ole Miss, while Rice is currently 4-1 and Southwest Missouri is opening its 2005 season in Houston.

Following Friday's 1 p.m. game between the Rebels and the Cardinals, Ole Miss and host Rice play at 1 p.m. Saturday, while on Sunday the Rebels and Southwest Mizzou meet at 10:30 a.m.

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