Brashear takes lead role at catcher position

Justin Brashear has waited in the wings to be the Rebels' everyday catcher. And while there are four others on the current roster, Brashear is the frontrunner for the position in the spring of 2006 as fall practices continue.

Like Barry Gunther before him, Justin Brashear has awaited his turn.

The junior Ole Miss catcher sat in the dugout most games and watched as Gunther completed his final two years, two of the most productive seasons in Ole Miss baseball history.

Those two seasons had Ole Miss hosting its first Regionals and this past year a Super Regional, with the 2005 Rebs winning a school-record 48 games.

Gunther had awaited the graduation of former catcher Charlie Waite for two seasons in 2002 and 2003. Then the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native made the most of his opportunity, stayed the course, got in better shape, and gave Ole Miss two great years behind the plate.

The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Brashear is trying to do the same thing. The Lake Charles, La., native, the frontrunner to be the Rebels' everyday catcher in the spring of 2006, is focused to do just that. He says his fall has been decent so far.

"It's been OK," said Brashear, batting .286 with two RBI through four intrasquads. "I made a change with (hitting) Coach (Stuart) Lake and opened up my stance a little. That's helped me see the ball and slow things down. For the most part I feel I'm seeing the ball well and getting good pitches to hit. It gets a little frustrating at times. But all this is good experience for the spring. That's what the fall is all about."

But the first priority for Brashear is catching. The Rebels need him to be the best he can possibly be behind the plate for the team to succeed.

It's such an important position for a team. Only the pitcher handles the baseball as much as the catcher. Coach Mike Bianco himself was a catcher in high school and college. To play for Bianco at his old position means that you have to be at your best day in and day out.

"I'm really trying to work on my catching this fall," said Brashear, who played in a handful of games his first two seasons at Ole Miss after an outstanding high school and youth career. "It's so important. If you want to play for Coach Bianco and his system, then you've got to catch. I've really focused on that this fall. I want to be the best I can be, learn this system, and work hard every day to prepare for the spring."

There are five catchers on the Rebel roster. In addition to Brashear, sophomore Alex Kliman returns along with newcomers Brett Basham and Ryan White, both freshmen, and Miles Cabeceiras, a junior.

"We've got a good group of catchers," said Brashear, a three-time high school all-state selection in Louisiana, a high school All-American as a senior, and a 25th-round selection by the Angels in the 2003 Major League Baseball draft. "We've all been trying to work hard and learn everything. I've been trying to help the new guys out, like Barry did me when I got here. It's been a good group to work with and to be around every day."

Brashear knows that while he is the veteran and frontrunner, he has to continue to prove himself and to improve his entire game.

"Nothing's for granted," he said. "I have to go out and win the spot. All the catchers we have are good players. Brett's got a great arm. Miles can swing it. Everybody's got something they do really well, and we all just want to be the best we can be."

Bianco says Brashear brings a lot to the team and program and has for two years.

"Justin caught the past two years behind a guy that's pretty darn good," he said. "Justin's a great athlete. I think he's done well this fall and he realizes that he can be that guy now. He's playing with more confidence. He looks like he's swinging with more confidence. Defensively he's always been solid and has gotten even better each year. He's really smart and understands the game. He communicates well with me as far as signals. There are a lot of good things about him."

Brashear knows that since he has been here two years, he must be a leader of this team. With the standard that has been set for Rebel baseball during his time here, it is important for those who remain from the past two years to set the example and show the way.

"We lost a lot of guys from last year," he said. "There are a lot of us back as well, guys like (Chris) Coghlan and (Justin) Henry and all those guys who were here and knew just how close we were to getting to Omaha. We know what it takes to get there and we want to be back in that position this year. We want to get there this time. We've got a lot of new faces, so the leadership of the older guys is so important."

Not only have school and baseball been on Brashear's mind these past few weeks but also his family, friends, and hometown in southwest Louisiana. Lake Charles missed the wrath of Katrina, but Rita stormed ashore with a vengeance in that area.

"My whole family was up here for a couple of weeks, and some of them are still here," said Brashear, who said his home is only about 30 miles from the gulf. "My parents, both brothers, grandmother, dogs, everybody. It was good they could get out of there and have a safe place to go. It's been good to have them here, but I know they are ready to go home and see what happened. We didn't have much damage at my house, but the area got hit hard and there are a lot of things that have changed. People have said a lot of the area doesn't even look the same."

New pitcher junior Craig Rodriguez of Sugarland, Texas, and Pearl River Community College is Brashear's roommate.

"He's been tremendous," Brashear said. "He gave up his bed for my grandmother while she was here. It's been such an outpouring from all my friends saying hey you can stay with us if you need to. It's been an experience, and it will all work out for the best."

Brashear says the fall has been good for the Rebels on the field. As the final two weeks of fall ball wind down, he looks forward to seeing how things play out and what additional improvements are made.

"Our offense is doing really well right now," he said. "We've got a lot of guys swinging the bat well, hitting the ball well, being aggressive. That's our philosophy here. We play for the big inning. Pitching's going to be fine too. We know it's coming."

The Rebels will intrasquad this weekend three times – Friday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

They will have four intrasquad games next weekend to wrap up fall practice with times to be announced soon.

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