Ole Miss-Maine: the way things ought to be

Mississippi and Maine, miles and miles apart, bridge that long-distance gap through baseball to show us what intercollegiate athletics should be all about.

There's a lot that's good about college baseball. Look no further than the relationship between the Ole Miss and Maine programs to see that it's a sport that's a little different.

Arguably none of the major sports on the collegiate level have the sportsmanship and camaraderie of baseball. And no relationship has proven it more than the one that has developed between Ole Miss and Maine.

So what do those involved from the northeastern part of the United States say about all this? Even those who weren't a part of last June's NCAA Regional in Oxford understand what these two have going in their short-term friendship.

"It's no secret. We've been talking about this for a while," said first-year Maine head coach Steve Trimper, who was the head coach at Manhattan College in New York prior to replacing former Maine head coach Paul Kostacopoulos last August after "Coach K" became head coach at Navy. "I had the chance to watch the games (from last year's NCAA Oxford Regional) on tape. We were looking forward to coming down just because of the hospitality that was shown the boys last year. It's just a great baseball environment. The fans appreciate good baseball and are supportive of both teams. They want to come out and see good baseball, and hopefully they did today. We're the type of team that will play hard and do our jobs with no showboating or anything like that. I think people appreciate that."

Ole Miss fans clearly have an appreciation. The Black Bears in return say they feel right at home in Oxford, which was the location of their final game of last season and their first game of this season.

As for game one Friday of the current three-game series, the Black Bears lost to the 19th-ranked Rebels 9-2. After this series Maine will take a two-week road trip to Florida for their next 13 games.

They don't play a game at home until April 13 and will play only 16 games all season in their home state. All their practices so far this season have come indoors in a "bubble" on their campus that sports teams use.

Even in defeat on Friday, the Bears weren't too disappointed in their efforts.

"We came out early and didn't make the pitches we wanted," Trimper said. "Ole Miss has good hitters, and if you leave the ball up, they'll hit it. Our next pitcher came in and kept the ball down, which helped. But for the first time out, we're pretty pleased. We played pretty clean defense for a northern team that hasn't been outside yet. We're coming out of the gym to the game. But that's no excuse. We're used to it."

The Black Bears' appearance in Oxford last spring was three games long – a 5-0 loss to host Ole Miss; a 12-2 win that eliminated Southern Mississippi; and an exciting 11-10 elimination loss to Oklahoma.

But their fun didn't end with the loss. As Ole Miss rolled to a 20-5 win over the Sooners to claim the title and move on to the Super Regional against Texas also in Oxford, the Black Bears moved about the stadium as almost honorary members of the Ole Miss family.

Left-fielder Ryan Quintal, one of the team's captains, was a fan favorite among Ole Miss people last year. He says his two trips to Oxford are experiences he won't forget.

"They definitely remembered me," Quintal said of the outfield terrace fans. "Some people out there were yelling at me to tell the coach to put the freshmen in when we got down a few runs so I could go up there and hang out with them. I was a little tempted because they're such nice people.

"We've been looking forward to this for a long time," Quintal added. "We had such a good experience down here. The people are so nice and the field is impeccable. I've actually e-mailed some fans down here and kept in touch that way. So it's a good time."

Centerfielder Joe Hough, another team captain, said he too has enjoyed his unforgettable experiences at Ole Miss.

"Last year was a lot of fun," Hough said. "The people of Oxford were awesome to us. They treated us like we were their own club. Obviously the stage was a lot different last time (NCAA Regional), so it's a little different this time around. But everyone's been real nice to us down here again. It's a good feeling to know that people can be nice to us and also support their team, too."

It's probably what college athletics is supposed to be about in the big picture. In college baseball, you seem to get more of that than in just about any sport.

Ole Miss and Maine have proven that last June and again this February as the memorable baseball experiences of players, coaches, and fans continue through Sunday. And of course both teams want to win.

"It's good to see them again," said Ole Miss junior catcher Justin Brashear. "They're a good bunch of guys we got to know last season. But we want to play well and win. I know they do, too."

And even though the weather, nice for February on Friday, might be a bit of a problem Saturday, Trimper says the Black Bears intend to play all three games before leaving town. Their flight back north leaves Birmingham, Ala., around 6 a.m. Monday.

"We're here to play three games," he said as a supportive athletics director Blake James stood nearby. "We'll get all three of them in by Sunday night. We can stay here a while, and we'll sleep on the bus if we have to."

No doubt, the type attitude college baseball, and intercollegiate athletics as a whole, should be all about.

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