Rebels begin preseason baseball practice

The Ole Miss Rebels hit the baseball diamond for preseason practice for the first time Tuesday. Here's a look at some of the first-day highlights and comments from players and Coach Mike Bianco.

Cool but sunny conditions greeted the Ole Miss baseball team for its first practice of the 2006 season Tuesday afternoon. The "official" start of practice was delayed a day after wet grounds forced the cancellation of what would have been the team's first practice on Monday.

Players didn't seem to mind the wait. They were just glad to finally be out on the field together as a team.

"It's better weather, so it's a perfect day to start," said junior outfielder Mark Wright. "It's January and we're out here in sleeves, so it doesn't get much better than this."

Wright said that although the Rebel players have worked out together for months and have been through the four weeks of fall ball, the first "official" start of preseason team practice is always a highlight of the school year.

"It's special because we're all on the field at once," said Wright, a left fielder for the last two seasons but projected to be in right field this spring, replacing the departed Brian Pettway who left after his junior season to turn pro. "There's a lot of excitement out here. Everybody's got a lot of energy. The new scoreboard's going up out there. So it's a good day for us as we get started."

One player who may have been more excited about the day than most was junior catcher Justin Brashear. His wait has been two years to be the frontrunner behind the plate, and now he hopes to stay there as he heads into preseason practice in the No. 1 catcher's spot.

"It's what I've been waiting for since I've been here - the chance to be the starter," said Brashear, who played behind veteran Barry Gunther his first two seasons at Ole Miss. "It's what I've been working for. Obviously everybody's excited, but I may have a little more pep in my step than most of the guys."

Brashear says he has prepared to make sure the Rebels have a solid player behind the plate.

"I worked hard in the fall," he said. "I lifted harder. I really concentrated on getting stronger. I hit as much as I could, and I tried to stay in shape. I want to take it to another level. I'm ready to go."

Brashear knows catcher is not only an important position on any team, but at Ole Miss it seems to carry even more significance. There have been some good catchers here, and Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco was himself a college catcher.

"It's been a proud tradition," said Brashear of Ole Miss catchers. "Barry and Charlie (Waite) and Carl (Lafferty). I just hope I can go out there and do as good a job as those guys have done and can keep it going. Those people before me have worked hard. I believe I'm up to the challenge. I'm looking forward to it."

Junior third baseman Chris Coghlan, one of the country's best at his position, said a lot of the focus has been on building off last year's successful season and taking it another step this season.

"Every year I've been here, Coach (Bianco) has told us our goals and they remain the same: To win the SEC West, win 40 regular season games, host a Regional, host a Super Regional, go to the College World Series and win it," Coghlan said. "Those are our goals every year. Last year I thought we were the most talented team in the country, and we didn't make it. I think we have a real good shot this year."

Coghlan said the disappointment of losing to Texas and not making it to Omaha faded over time, and the realization of a special team and season finally took its place.

"It took a while, and I'm sure it did for everybody on the team, to put it behind me," Coghlan said. "It took a while to get over it. I'm sure it was the same for the fans who supported us, the coaches, everybody. But now I look back and we accomplished so much. Hopefully we can finish it off this year and take things another step."

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, in his sixth season, said day one was productive, even though the session left a little to be desired.

"It's really good to be out on the field. It's been a long time since we were out here, like the middle of October," Bianco said. "It was a beautiful day, a great day to get started. With so much rain this past weekend, the field was still in great shape. So it's exciting to be back out. There was a lot of energy, which is normal for a first day. Everybody went about their business and was focused.

"But the fact is we weren't real good today, not real sharp. Defensively we weren'r real strong. I thought we had pretty good offense. But as far as some of the drills and fundamental stuff, it looked like the first day."

"We did some defensive things. We did some pitcher's fielding. We did some offense and hitting. Today's schedule had us also working on run-downs and pop flys. Tomorrow we will review that. We did some base running today and tried to review some of our base running off first base. So we got in a lot of work today. We'll add a little more each day."

Bianco said the long ball was the order of the first day.

"We hit a lot of home runs today. Either the ball carried or we swung it well. We hit an inordinate amount of home runs, and it wasn't like we had a lot of wind today. Mark Wright, Cullan Kight, Jon-Jon Hancock, Brett Bukvich, all hit a few home runs today."

Visitors at practice today were former Rebel players Brian Pettway and Stephen Head.

The Rebels will practice each afternoon this week. Saturday they will sign autographs and visit with fans in the concourse of Tad Smith Coliseum at 1 p.m. prior to the 2 p.m. men's basketball game against LSU. The baseball team will scrimmage at 3:30 p.m. at Swayze Field Saturday. They will also scrimmage at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

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