Ole Miss and Texas play baseball against each other this weekend at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field in the Super Regional. But Friday it was all about the preliminaries.
The Rebels simply had a home practice for an hour or more, while the Longhorns got used to some unfamiliar surroundings.
"Beautiful facility," said a pleasant and personable UT head coach Augie Garrido in his team's post-practice press conference underneath the first base stands where the Rebels' indoor bullpens usually are. "We're glad to be here. It's a great opportunity."
"I really like the field. It's a great surface," said senior shortstop Seth Johnston, Texas' leading hitter at .384 (the UT home field in Austin is Astroturf). "The ball seems to stay down more (as it comes at you), and as an infielder I really like that. You have to charge balls more and make sure you stay down. That's the No. 1 thing."
And so it was with the whole Texas entourage today. They seemed genuinely happy to be here.
"We're honored to be here and be a part of this Super Regional," Garrido said. "We understand Ole Miss has a great club. We played another fine SEC team in the Regional last week in Arkansas. We expect that again this week.
"The coaches do a good job here. Their team knows how to play the game the right way. They're fundamentally sound. We hope we can do the same."
Kyle McCulloch, one of the Longhorn starting pitchers, says facing the strong Ole Miss lineup of hitters is a challenge.
"I know they hit the ball really well," said the sophomore rightie who is 10-4 on the season with a 3.07 ERA. "They put up some pretty good numbers. I'll just go out and pitch my game. They're a good club, and I'll just have to go out there and battle."
Texas all-star catcher Taylor Teagarden has had back problems all year. Lately he has played well but hasn't practiced at all. It's helped.
"Obviously the coaches have given me a lot of leeway in letting me kinda handle this," said Teagarden, who was 11-of-18 in the Regional last weekend. "They've helped me out a lot letting me do that. I just took some time and took it easy. My back has gotten better the last few weeks and that has paid off. I feel good and I'm ready to get after it again."
Ole Miss is ready for the Super Regional as well. The Rebels are pleased to be hosting and are excited to get it underway.
"We're just going into this as a three-game series that starts one-day later," Stephen Head said. "It's really no different than any other weekend except that it's a Super Regional."
And that is the key. Two wins more and the Rebels are at the Super Bowl of college baseball – Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, a place no Ole Miss team has been since 1972.
"Everybody's ready to play," said Brian Pettway, batting .391 with a team-leading 20 home runs. "Everybody's relaxed and looking forward to it. I guess you could say there is some nervousness. If we weren't nervous, it wouldn't be normal. You can't play baseball at this level without being a little nervous about it. But we're ready."
Playing at home will help, the players say.
"I think it will be awesome again," said Matt Maloney, the scheduled second-game starter for the Rebs. "Playing in front of our home fans, there's going to be a ton of them here. That's really going to help us out playing for our fans in our home field."
Texas is aiming for its 32nd visit to the College World Series, while Ole Miss is shooting for trip No. 5 to the ultimate destination for those who play the college game.
"I think we're just anxious more than anything and ready to play," said Head, who is batting .319 with 18 home runs. "We'd love to have played today, but we had to be moved back a day for TV and whatever. We're just happy and excited to be in this position. This is one step closer to our goal of Omaha."
Cooper Osteen, the Rebels' sure-handed second baseman, is never at a loss for words. When asked today in the press conference if he was ready from prime-time on ESPN, the man the crowd calls "Cooooooop" said he had been getting ready all week.
"Yeah I went out to the mall and picked up a few new things to get ready to be on TV," said the south Floridian, who may have been the trendsetter for several of the players on the team who now have the "baseball blond" hair.
Coop's smile and comments broke up the room as well as his head coach and fellow teammates on stage with him.
"Seriously, it will be exciting to be on TV, and we're looking forward to the whole weekend and trying to get to Omaha." said one of two Rebels with the yellow "Tour de Defense" t-shirts on at practice today.
Nobody among those in the room knew how that happened - the other recipient of the yellow shirt for Friday's practice was pitcher Anthony Cupps.
"How did that happen?" said Coach Mike Bianco to all the players in the room, who said he defers each day to his assistants to select the player to be awarded the yellow shirt for best defensive player of the previous day's practice. "Must have been a tie. First one all year."
"How'd a pitcher get it?" Head asked.
Of course there sat Head wearing Coop's No. 7 gray practice t-shirt. What's up with that, Stephen was asked.
"Yeah, I didn't see mine in there and I just grabbed Coop's since he was wearing the yellow one."
The Rebels were having fun. We could all tell that. They are, however, ready to play some baseball.
But they may have to wait. Who knows what the weather holds with a tropical storm heading inland over the next day or so.
"Whatever it takes to get the games in, that's what we'll do," said this weekend's NCAA representative in Oxford, Gene McArtor, former head coach at the University of Missouri and later with the athletic department at Mizzou. "We may have to start games late, and we may have to go deeper into the evening than any of us would like. If it comes to that, we'll just deal with the circumstances as they are. That's not much of an answer, but that's the best we can do right now."
McArtor said the gametimes will stay as they are now – 6 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, as well as a TBA "if needed" game on Monday.
"We don't have a specific deadline as to when we have to get the games in," McArtor said. "We just have to get them in. Obviously the later we go the more it hurts the team that advances on to Omaha. But we will find a way to settle this series on the field. It might keep everyone up late some night. But we'll do what we have to do."
Bianco said Texas having all right-handed starters could be a plus for the Rebels but not necessarily so. For most of the season the Rebels have been better against righties statistically.
"I think we'd be comfortable if they were starting a lefthander or a righthander," Bianco said. "If you look throughout our lineup, I think Stephen handles left-handers well. (Chris) Coghlan does and with Brian (Pettway) and Mark (Wright) in the middle of the lineup, I just don't think it's that big of a factor. We'll have Justin (Henry) leading off, and that could be a positive. So I don't know how big a factor that really is in the big picture."
Bianco said the Texas pitchers, with a staff ERA of 2.88, are some of the best in the country.
"They're very good," he said. "Fourth-ranked staff in the country. They throw a lot of strikes. They don't walk very many. They don't give up very many hits. They don't give up very many home runs. They're just as solid as can be.
"They only have nine pitchers dressed out. We dress 11 guys who can pitch. They've done it with those nine all year. That's nine quality arms they're running out there."
Texas is known for its small ball approach and its sac bunting and basestealing type of offense. Rebel starter Mark Holliman says that won't change much about how he approaches the game.
"I will stick with the same gameplan I've had all year," said Holliman, 8-4 on the year with a 3.85 ERA. "You just have to pitch and go out there and make plays. That's really all you can do, just go do what you do best and play well."
Bianco continues to be impressed with the crowds this season.
"It actually started building a couple of years ago," he said. "We've drawn more than 100,000 at home for a couple of years in a row. It was a pretty electric sight last weekend for all three games. The crowd was really into it. Just a great showing by our people.
"It really got to be something back in Hoover. I'd never seen anything like that at a baseball game. There were 12,000 people and it was split right down the middle – half red and half maroon. That was a really neat thing.
"The kids are excited and are very proud and appreciative of the way the fans have really turned out for them."
The home team advances from a Super Regional to Omaha 79 percent of the time, according to statistics.
"Everybody plays better at home," Bianco said. "The crowd. The surroundings. The field. Your own bed. It means a lot to be at home. It's more advantageous to be at home."
Garrido said, when asked, that of course his team would prefer to play the Super Regional at home. But he doesn't necessarily feel slighted by the NCAA that two top teams are meeting in Oxford.
"We're happy to be here. As long as you're in the tournament, that's all you can ask for. There's always a certain level of confusion in all things like this. It's never going to be perfect. I don't want to be judgmental on how we get here. Our players worked hard. We know Ole Miss has one of the best teams in the country. At some point you're going to be matched against another top team. What you do is just take the weekend and enjoy it.
"This seems to work better than the BCS," he quipped.
Oxford native, Ole Miss alum, and longtime Austin, Texas resident Ron Franklin of ESPN was at practice today. He was joined there by Bruiser Kinard's son Frank. Both are in town for the University High School reunion.
Fortunately for Franklin, it just so happens that Ole Miss and Texas are playing in the Super Regional in Oxford. He won't, however, be doing the TV play by play or color of the Rebs and Horns.
Rebels-Longhorns ready to play
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