Rebels seeded 5th nationally as Regionals begin

On opening day of the Oxford Regional, Ole Miss will play Maine on Friday at 7 p.m., while Southern Mississippi will play Oklahoma on Friday at 3 p.m.

The Ole Miss baseball team crowded together in the players' lounge area of Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field earlier today to watch the NCAA selection show. But there would be no rousing celebration.

There were only a few audible "yeahs" and "allrights" when their name appeared on the screen as the No. 5 national seed.

The lack of shouts and hugs and high-fives had nothing to do with any disappointment. It had everything to do with unfinished business.

The Rebels already knew a few things for sure. They knew they were in the NCAA Tournament field, so get a pen and mark that down. Check. They knew they were hosting a Regional. Check again.

They were almost totally 100 percent sure they were a top 8 national seed. So put a check with a pencil on this one with an eraser just in case.

When No. 5 national seed came up on the screen for Ole Miss, that's when you heard only a few cheers of excitement but maybe more sighs of relief. Another check – now with a pen again.

As soon as they heard their name called, saw which teams they are hosting, found out what other Regional that the Oxford Regional would be matched up against in a Super Regional (Austin), then it was back to work.

Back to things like weight room and conditioning work this afternoon, bullpen work for some, and mental preparation for all.

"We expected to see our name up there (among the national seeds)," said Ole Miss fifth-year head coach Mike Bianco. "If we weren't up there, would we have been disappointed? I would say yes, because as I said after the SEC Tournament on Sunday, I believe we had accomplished everything that was needed to be a national top 8 seed.

"But again it's not up to us and we're not in the room and we don't make those decisions, and you always have to realize that the people in that room can't make everybody happy. But I'm proud and happy that we are one."

So are the players, who see their top 8 seed for exactly what it is – that the road to Omaha got just a bit less bumpy since they know they will have two possible weekends now at home to get there, which would be the first visit for the program since 1972 when Ole Miss made its fourth and last trip to the College World Series.

"It's worked out just like we wanted," said senior catcher and team co-captain Barry Gunther. "We're hosting a Regional and we can host a Super Regional. If the Texas Longhorns win theirs and we win ours, that would be an awesome thing to have happen here."

Gunther knows the Rebels can't look ahead, however. First up, the Maine Black Bears Friday night at 7.

"We have heard for so long how we don't finish strong," Gunther said. "This year we have continued to do well. We've won like 12 of our last 15, something like that. We just need to keep playing like we have lately."

Gunther said he is pleased with the Regional field, although whatever teams were sent to Oxford would have been fine with him.

"I like the opponents coming here a lot actually," he said. "We have some history with Southern (Miss). We hate to play there, and they hate to play here. It's usually tough for us there and tough for them here. Now they get to come here and play in a Regional. That will be exciting."

The Rebels and the Golden Eagles have to first get past their Friday opponents to meet on Saturday. USM plays Oklahoma at 3 p.m. Friday prior to the Ole Miss-Maine matchup at 7 p.m.

One Ole Miss player very interested in the goings-on Friday is Saturday starting pitcher Matt Maloney.

"We were hoping to get a national seed and we did," said the junior left-hander, who relieved Mark Holliman in the Saturday game of last year's Oxford Regional against Washington. "It's good to know already that I'm going on Saturday. I pitched last Thursday (in Hoover), so I should be really rested and ready to go."

Since that will mean nine days between appearances, Maloney was one of the few Rebels who put any time in today on the field as he threw some bullpen work.

Junior co-captain Stephen Head said the 44-18 Rebels have put their 0-2 Regional performance from last year behind them. There have been 62 Ole Miss baseball games played since then.

"We had lost one of our (starting) pitchers last year at this time (Brae Wright)," said Head. "This team is so much different than last year. We were almost with our backs to the wall when we played in the Regional here last year. We will put up a real good fight here this year."

Head said last year's Regional could actually be summed up in one phrase.

"Just some unfortunate timing with the hitting," he said. "We just didn't hit. We had the pitching to win it, but this year I think we have one of the best offensive teams and one of the best pitching staffs this school has ever had."

And defensively, the Rebels have been stellar all season. But they will not be on the defensive when Friday rolls around. They are eager and ready to win the Regional this time so they can host that Super Regional the following weekend.

"We kinda figured Southern would come here," Head said. "We are familiar with them. But we have to get through Maine first. Maine has a long way to travel, and Oklahoma is a good at-large team. But the way we're playing right now, it doesn't matter who they send here. If we play like we have the last half of the season, we'll be fine. Let's just play."

It continues to be the national seed that has the Rebels most excited.

"Having had such a good SEC Tournament and getting to the championship game locked it up for us," said junior Brian Pettway. "Last year we learned a lot about playing in a Regional at home. It will be great to play here in front of our own fans again. We want to make last year up to them. We want to win the Regional and then host a Super Regional."

Maine is the fourth seed here and won the America East Conference, receiving the automatic bid. The Black Bears are 34-17 this year and were 14-7 in league play. Their head coach is Paul Kostacopoulos in his ninth season. Maine made the College World Series in the 1980s. Mississippi State played in a Regional at Maine several years ago.

Oklahoma is coached by interim head coach Sunny Golloway, who took over when Larry Cochell resigned May 1 under pressure after a report that said he made racial comments concerning a player. The Sooners are the third seed and finished 33-24 this season, 14-13 in the Big 12, and went 0-2 in the Big 12 tourney last week. Under Golloway the Sooners are 10-4. OU won the national title in 1994 under Cochell. Golloway, then the head coach at Oral Roberts, was a finalist for the Ole Miss job after the 1996 season, along with current LSU head coach Smoke Laval (then head coach at Louisiana-Monroe). Ole Miss hired Pat Harrison.

USM is the second seed and is 41-19 overall. Southern finished 20-10 in Conference USA and was eliminated in the semi-finals by TCU in the C-USA tourney held in Hattiesburg. It's the third straight year the Golden Eagles have been in an NCAA Regional under Corky Palmer. Ole Miss won two of three games against USM this season, winning in Oxford and Jackson and losing in Hattiesburg.

Bianco said he and his staff will now find out all they can about the other schools coming to Oxford.

"The only team we know much about is Southern Miss," he said. "We know the others have great baseball tradition. Today and tomorrow we will gather all the information we can on all these teams. They are all good programs, and their records show they are really good teams. Like in any Regional, if we're going to have success we're going to have to play well. We'll have to continue to play like we have the past couple of weeks and really the last half of the season."

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