Baseball Rebs break for holidays

Ole Miss students are heading home for the holidays. Coach Mike Bianco says he believes his baseball players will come back next month ready to roll again toward the 2006 season.

The holiday break for students gives them the opportunity to do a lot of things for a month or so. The same goes for the Ole Miss baseball team.

But it's also a time to stay in shape and keep the focus on the upcoming season, which is right around the proverbial corner.

When classes resume on Jan. 16, it will be just over a month before first pitch at 3:05 p.m. on Feb. 17 when Saint Louis University comes to Oxford for three games. Some players will be back as early as Jan. 2 for the start of Wintercession, the two-week period that students can take a class or two and squeeze a semester's work into that time frame.

Ole Miss sixth-year head coach Mike Bianco, a former collegiate baseball player himself, says he understands it's a time away from the game and from school for his players. But he also knows they are mature enough to try to keep their sights on January as they enjoy December.

"There is some hope involved (from the coaches) that they will do the right things, but we also challenge them and explain to them the benefits of doing the right things," Bianco said. "They also deserve a little bit of a break. They've worked hard and they deserve a chance to get back and see their families and enjoy the holidays."

But always remembering the mission and staying the course.

"What you do in the fall and spring and talk about every day from practice to strength and conditioning is to try to be excellent in everything that you do, realizing we accomplished a lot this fall and that we don't want to lose it in three or four weeks," said Bianco, coming off the best season for Ole Miss baseball in more than 30 seasons, hosting a Super Regional against Texas last June. "We'll have a lot of kids come back in early January for the Winter Intercession. Some other guys will also just be back and in the weight room and will be here at least a week before school starts just to get into the flow of things. That's exciting for me that they want to get back here and get ready."

Bianco and staff recently finished up the fall signing period with 14 signatures. A lot of future needs were filled, and the Rebels' baseball name and fame continues to grow and spread.

There were legacies among the signees, like the additions of Justin Henry's brother, Jordan, and Mark Holliman's brothers, Matt. There were players from near and far – from Mississippi and Georgia and Indiana and Texas as with each passing and successful season the Rebels become more of a college baseball household name again.

"It was another great class," Bianco said. "There are some exceptional players in the class. From top to bottom I think it's a strong class. We wanted some left-handed pitching help and we got it. It may sound like typical coach's talk, but we got what we needed and got what we wanted."

As for the upcoming season, who will be the weekend and weekday starters on the mound are probably at the top of most fans' lists when evaluating the 2006 team. At the top of Bianco's list sits Tommy Baumgardner, the left-handed senior who had a solid fall and has the most experience coming back.

"Tommy had a terrific fall," Bianco said. "He was recruited (prior to last school year) to come in and be a weekend starter. Before last season, the only real weekend SEC starter we had was Mark Holliman. We were deep and talented on the mound last year. The other guys had some SEC experience but none were consistent weekend starters, including Stephen (Head). Tommy was recruited to possibly be a starter or if not then to fill a hole in relief. Obviously he did that and pitched a lot of quality innings for us last year."

Bianco said that with the other guys, in addition to Head and Holliman, who stepped up last spring, like Matt Maloney, Eric Fowler, and Anthony Cupps, the Rebel pitching staff was experienced and talented and deep and effective. Baumgardner, a strong, physical, 6-foot-3, 230-pounder, now slides into the role of experienced veteran and probable Friday night starter.

"We didn't need him as much last year on the weekends, because some other guys who had been in the program stepped up and had great years," Bianco said. "This year we need him."

After that, it isn't quite as clear who might be in the mix for starting spots and who will relieve. Senior RHP Stoney Stone has a lot of college experience, and sophomore RHP Will Kline got in some games last spring. Many of the others in the mix for a weekend start, like junior LHP Garrett White, junior RHP Nick Hetland, freshman RHP Cody Satterwhite, and freshman RHP Lance Lynn among them, have no games under their belt at the Division I level.

It will be an older team in the field with a lot of returnees, led by 3B Chris Coghlan, SS Zack Cozart, 2B Justin Henry, 1B C.J. Ketchum, C Justin Brashear, and outfielders Mark Wright, Alex Presley, and Jon-Jon Hancock.

"This team returns a lot of great players," Bianco said. "When we walk out on the field on Feb. 17, a lot of people are going to say, ‘Wow, I didn't realize they returned so many guys.' Most of those guys are position players. We had a good fall offensively. When you return that many defensive players that gave up the fewest runs in the SEC last year, then you feel good about those guys.

"But you win in this league with pitching," he concluded. "If you don't pitch, you're not going to win in this league. You have to pitch to have success, and I think we're good enough to do that."

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