A - Abernethy. One of the clear leaders of the men's basketball team and a veteran of the program now, Todd is one of the real keys to the Rebels winning enough games in the SEC portion of the regular season to get Ole Miss to any postseason. Point guard isn't necessarily a strength of this year's team either from the players there or the depth, but strong point guard play is needed for a team to succeed. The Rebels need for Todd to have an exceptional season. Todd knows that, too.
B – Band. Why is it that Ole Miss has such a good band program, yet the powers that be in the band department refuse to consider having a "volunteer" pep band at "any" basketball games during the holiday season? There should have been pep bands at the women's game against Rutgers and the men's game against Memphis, which was on TV. That isn't too much to ask of area kids who would willingly help out the Rebels and Lady Rebels in a couple of big games by driving back to campus a time or two. It's done elsewhere. It used to be here. It should be again late in 2006.
C – Chadwick. Rebel men's tennis coach Billy Chadwick will field a strong and competitive team again this spring. Will they be Final Four worthy as last spring's team proved to be? That remains to be seen with the departure of top collegian Catalin Gard. This year's team will again make a run at the SEC title (which it defends for the second straight season) and national honors.
D – Defense. It's what championship teams are made of. It's one of the strong points of Coach Ed Orgeron, which we saw as early as game one in the 10-6 win at Memphis. But where did the defense go after running out onto the field against Arkansas for half No. 2 of that important game? Some say it was a tired defense at the end of the season since the offense was so unproductive. I'll go with that one. A better offense in 2006 should help the defense see the season through. Will the Rebels have a more productive offense? Time will tell.
E – Enthusiasm. Of the four so-called major sports (basically the season ticket sports), right now many Ole Miss fans seem to be really enthusiastic about baseball and some about women's basketball. It's hard to get a whole lot of you excited about men's basketball right now. There is always enthusiasm for Ole Miss football, but right now some of that among some of you also appears to have some apprehension to go along with it. It will be an interesting 2006 for all four of those sports as the Lady Rebels try for NCAA tourney No. 3 in a row, baseball tries again to get to Omaha, men's hoops tries to get back to postseason play later this winter, and football tries to bounce back from one of the worst seasons on record and an embarrassing Egg Bowl performance the likes of which we've rarely seen from a Rebel football team in that important contest.
F – Football. At Ole Miss and at all SEC schools (except Kentucky where basketball rules and football follows), the pigskin reigns supreme. The passion and following for college football are unsurpassed in the South. Someone from an out of state media outlet asked me at a recent men's hoops game what the interests were for Ole Miss fans. My response: "Football and whatever else is winning." That isn't the case for all Ole Miss fans, just most, it appears from here.
G – Grove. Even as the losses mounted this past fall in a 2-4 home season, the Grove continued to be a special place for not only Ole Miss fans but for all of college football. Only Eli has delivered more publicity to Ole Miss the past decade in football than the Grove. I'm not so sure what that says about our football in general, but I guess I'm happy about that. The Grove is indeed something special and a part of Ole Miss to cherish. Why else would the Oklahoma AD say publicly last year that he wants an area near the Sooner football stadium to be like the Grove at Ole Miss? Why else would Sports Illustrated's on-campus publication rank the Grove at Ole Miss as one of the top "must-dos" for kids in college from all over the country to experience before graduating. Duke has Krzyzewskiville. Army has its view of the Hudson Valley. Washington and Tennessee have their flotilla of fans who arrive via water. Ole Miss has the Grove, one of college sports' most recognizable features.
H – Hotty Toddy. Where in the world did that phrase come from? Not sure in the case of Ole Miss or when it actually started here. I've heard in the past that it's a derivative of the phrase "Hoity Toity." Maybe it is, maybe not. Here's what I found on the internet concerning that phrase:
"In common speech, "hoity-toity" is an adjective used with disdain to refer to the pretentious, those who put on a show of pretending to possess refinement and sophistication (similar to "highfalutin"). So, some people naturally assume that such an unusual expression, referring to the cultured (even if they are falsely so), must itself have a cultured origin -- in this case a French-language reference to the upper class. "Hoity-toity" has nothing to do with French (or the French), however. The expression comes from our penchant for creating rhyming phrases such as "loosey-goosey" or "helter-skelter," and in this case its base is "hoit," a 16th century verb whose meaning is "to play the fool" or "to indulge in riotous and noisy mirth." ("Hoity-toity" was more commonly used to describe those who engaged in thoughtlessly silly or frivolous behavior before it became more of a synonym for "pretentious.") Attempts to find the word "haughty" an ancestor of "hoity-toity" are equally specious."
Hmmmm. Obviously all it now means to us is that the Ole Miss Rebels are in the house. "Are you ready?"
I – Infield. Perhaps the strength of the Ole Miss baseball team this year, or at least one of them, will be the infield. Yes, sure-handed second baseman Cooper Osteen is gone as is All-American first baseman Stephen Head. But with junior third baseman Chris Coghlan back, along with sophomore shortstop Zack Cozart, the makings of another terrific infield are in place. Add to them sophomore second baseman Justin Henry and senior first baseman C.J. Ketchum and you have another stellar infield for baseball 2006. Others could be in the mix, but those are the likely starters heading into preseason practice in just a few weeks.
J – Justin Reed. There's another one coming our way. Justin Reed has signed to play baseball for Ole Miss beginning in the fall of 2006. He is part of another all-star class of 14 fall signees for the Diamond Rebs. As a junior at Callaway High, Reed hit .508 with 26 RBIs and had 20 stolen bases on the season. The outfielder, who will play his senior season at Hillcrest High, caught the eyes of many on the national level as he was invited to participate in the finals trials for the Junior Olympic baseball team. At the trials Reed started all five games and hit .455, scoring seven runs on 10 hits and tallying six RBIs with an .818 slugging percentage. He also came up with two doubles and three triples in his 22 at bats.
As for the other Justin Reed, the former Rebel basketball star is in his second season at Boston. Through the Celtics' first 26 games this year, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward played in 21 of them, all off the bench, averaging 10 minutes, 2.3 points, and one rebound a game, with five steals and four blocks, and has made nearly 70 percent of his free throws (18-26).
K – Katrina. Silent prayer offered here now for those still homeless, in shelters, searching for their lives and loved ones, many of them Ole Miss people. May the year 2006 be the new beginning you desperately seek.
L – Long snapper. The Rebels have been blessed with two great ones in a row – Sidney McLaurin recently and A.J. Kiamie before him. Fans knew both but their performances went virtually unnoticed since it usually takes a mistake for them to get recognized, unfortunately. But ask Jonathan Nichols or Matt Hinkle or Cody Ridgeway or Rob Park how important they are. So who's gonna fill their shoes? Seth Michaelson? Brent Smith? Andrew Wicker? Someone else? After A.J. and Sidney, the Rebels' new long-snapper will have a lot to live up to at an important position for the team.
M – Mark Holliman. Once a Rebel, always a Rebel. But now also a Cub. The right-hander from nearby Germantown, Tenn., was huge for Ole Miss baseball the past few seasons, along with a host of his teammates. Mark had his ups and downs (but never from an emotional high or low standpoint – always steady), and he lost some games he would tell you when he wasn't at his best. There's no more important guy on the baseball team than the Friday night starter. Hats off to Holliman for being another in a long line of greats and near-greats to pitch under the Friday night lights for Ole Miss in SEC action.
N – NCAA Tournament. Obviously football doesn't have an opportunity to play in an "NCAA Tournament" like the other sports do. (Can you believe that two years ago right now we were Dallas-bound for the Cotton? Where did the good times go?) A tip of the cap to men's and women's tennis, baseball, women's basketball, and women's soccer for making the NCAA field during the 2005 calendar year, and to those individuals in sports like track and field, tennis, and golf who made it to the NCAA tourney in their respective sports.
O – The battle cry once was always "Are your ready?" Now it is often replaced with "Who's still in?" Despite a 3-8 season and some defections from some coaches, players, and fans, most still seem to be "in" with Coach O. Like with Rod Barnes in men's basketball (despite some who feel otherwise), it is always best for our coaches to succeed at their respective sports. Same goes for Coach O. Ole Miss needs a great recruiting class in February and at least a 6-6 season (with a must-win over Mississippi State in Oxford) to show the progress we all want. I'm sure Coach O would tell you he wants to win all 12. Certainly even after an often rough and rocky 12 months, O's still in. Question is, are you? We all need to be.
P – Patrick Willis. Simply one of the finest – if not the finest – defensive players to ever wear the red and blue. With him, the Rebels had a chance to win. Without him, those chances diminished dramatically. Kinda like a team without its quarterback, say had we lost Eli for a game or two in 2003. When Patrick was out, the opposing offenses were much more effective. Here's hoping we see him on the field for Ole Miss in 2006 when the Rebels host Memphis to open the season.
Q – Quarterback. Ole Miss has always considered itself as a Quarterback U. Maybe not so much as Southern Cal might or Notre Dame or Miami. But right up there in say the Top 20 over the long haul. Conerly, Day, Franklin, Gibbs, Griffing, Weatherly, Manning (the elder), Weese, Powell, Darnell, Shows, Patridge, Miller, Manning (the younger). Some with national credentials, and some whose last season as a Rebel put him on that important list. For two seasons now, two different coaching staffs have lost sleep trying to find an effective quarterback among at least three candidates to lead the Rebels to victory. It's been a search like no other here. Hopefully in 2006, a quarterback will emerge to lead the Rebels to more victories. Stay tuned to early February and then spring practice for more important details.
R – Rod Barnes. It's an important season for Rod. Many want to know that if Rod's program has a fourth straight losing season, even with three years remaining on his contract, will he be gone after this season. My first thoughts are that I still believe Rod's team in 2005-06 will have a winning season and play in the NIT. That's quite an improvement over the past three seasons. With a young team of seven newcomers and only two players who have been in the program for more than two years, I am certain Rod has another season after this one to get the Rebels back. But he needs to have that winning season this year. All games are important, but none moreso than when MSU comes to Oxford on Jan. 14 for a noon tip. His team needs to win that contest for every reason you can think of.
S – Super. As in Super Regional. There was a time when Ole Miss fans, the ones who already loved baseball, could only dream of hosting a Super Regional, something even Mississippi State has yet to do. And to have the Texas Longhorns in town made it a national headliner. The Rebels-Longhorns series was the third most watched NCAA baseball series of all-time on TV, and that includes all the years the College World Series has been televised. Rebel baseball in 2005 brought more publicity to Ole Miss and more fans to the stadium than any baseball team in our history, even though four previous UM teams had made it all the way to Omaha. Simply put, the fans who came to Swayze Field this past spring (and many who didn't but just kept up) fell in love with Ole Miss baseball. First pitch of 2006 is Feb. 17 at 3 p.m. The love affair continues.
T – Tommy Baumgardner. The solid, strong lefty with good movement on his not-necessarily-fast fast ball and with a couple of other good pitches in his arsenal will most likely replace Holliman as the Friday night guy. I have a lot of confidence in Baumgardner, mainly because of his attitude, his own confidence, and his maturity. He was virtually unhittable in the fall. If that trend continues through preseason practice of January and early February, Tommy will get that start at 3 p.m. on Feb. 17.
U – oxford-UNIVERSITY stadium. OK, so I cheated a bit on this one with the "U" deal. But the Rebel baseball program does not need to be cheated. The stadium needs to be expanded and upgraded or we'll be looking around in a year or two or three and asking "what happened?" You know what I mean. The administration does too, and I know for sure they are working toward improving all things Ole Miss baseball to keep that program in the national spotlight. However this town and gown connection plays out on this particular project, Rebel baseball ought to get just about whatever it needs. The road to this point has been too long and the path too rough and rocky to allow it to slip any. I know the powers that be know that, and they've always done all they could for Mike Bianco's program. I'm certain they will again.
V – Victory in the NCAA Tournament for the Lady Rebel basketball team, who will surely be in that field for the third straight season under Carol Ross and company. Villanova beat ‘em in round one in 2004 at Iowa State. George Washington made a huge second half comeback to beat ‘em at North Carolina in 2005. I know the Lady Rebs have many goals for this program. One for this year is to get that so-far elusive first-round win in the NCAA tourney.
W – Joe Walker. One of the veterans of the Ole Miss athletic coaching staff, Walker deserved a new track complex and got one a couple of seasons back after years of waiting. You can already see how it has lifted the program as the Rebels were ranked in the Top 15 in the country much of last spring and had a host of individual participants in the NCAAs – nine to be exact, which was an Ole Miss record for track and field. This program will continue to rise as recruiting has improved the past year or two. That will happen when a coach and program goes from no track complex at all to one of the best in the SEC.
X – OK, so it's hard to find an X when you're alphabetizing about Ole Miss sports. This year, however, at least one jumps out. Freshman Xavier Hansbro. One of the seven newcomers to the men's basketball program, I look forward to X becoming more confident and contributing more in the games. I liked him when I watched preseason practice, and we've seen some positive signs from him in some games so far. I envision this year or next a 6-foot-9 player with a smooth shot who can nail a 3 from the outside or slip in with his length and get a rebound for a putback. Monitoring X's progress will be interesting.
Y – Young. We hear that so much from coaches. "We're a young team." Fans often get tired of hearing it, especially when a team is losing. Rod Barnes' basketball team is young, as has been noted. Mike Bianco's baseball team last spring was old, and it made a great run. The baseball Rebels will be younger this year, especially on the mound. So it will be important for them to grow up in a hurry. They are basically still old in the field. Carol Ross' Rebels lost four seniors from last year and ended up with only two newcomers this year. I consider them a young team, but there are some veterans who are contributing and know what it takes to win at this level. Coach O had more than 20 seniors on this year's team, had some defections, had some who decided not to play out their fifth years, etc. There will be some veteran Rebels on the gridiron next fall, but several areas will be "young" – or at least inexperienced. Namely defensive line, receivers and quarterback.
Z – Zzzzzzzz. So I hope you're still awake at this point, some 3,000 words since you started reading. As we wrap up the calendar year 2005, halfway through the school year 2005-06, there are – as always – things to get excited about, things to worry about, hope for the future, concern for some programs, but dreams and goals of SEC and national titles, and a commitment from all to get there.
*** Z-plus – Player of the Year for the calendar year 2005? Many are candidates, but I'll only choose one.
Some who are worthy would be Patrick Willis of football, Catalin Gard of men's tennis, Antwon Hicks of men's track and field, Armintie Price of women's basketball, Jordan Dempsey of men's golf. There are others.
But I will go with the great one from baseball – Mr. Stephen Head, as I liked to call him while we watched him grow and mature into someone special in the world of college baseball. Any of the above players, and likely some others you could add to the list, would be excellent choices. But no player lifted his team season after season and again in 2005 to heights not seen in these parts in years than Stephen did in baseball as the Rebels almost – almost – made it to Omaha.
Happy New Year, Hotty Toddy (or Hoity Toity if you so choose), and here's hoping you're all "In" for 2006 as we travel together down the Ole Miss road.
Ole Miss A-Z as 2005 comes to a close
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