Cozart improves at the plate, in the field

Ole Miss sophomore Zack Cozart, an All-SEC freshman in 2005, had an all-star week for the Rebs against USM and Auburn. He hopes to keep it up.

It's hard to really say whether Zack Cozart was recruited more because of his bat or his glove. When you're as good as Cozart is turning out to be as a Division I college baseball player, it's likely both.

One of the best shortstops in all of college baseball, the sophomore's bat has come around lately to propel him into one of the fiercest and most productive competitors in the Southeastern Conference this season. His glove has always been special.

Last week was a prime example, especially on offense. In four games (one against USM and three against Auburn), the Collierville, Tenn., native batted a blazing .556 with a double, a triple, and a home run. He scored five runs and drove in six. He was 2-for-2 in steals and didn't strike out a single time, going 10-for-18.

That's against a ranked Southern Mississippi team and the SEC's Auburn Tigers. Not too shabby, but it's all basically become expected of Cozart, who had several other bigtime choices than Ole Miss for college.

He made his mark last season as a freshman, playing in 67 games, starting 62. He earned All-SEC freshman honors, setting Ole Miss freshman records for runs scored (53) and at-bats (221). He batted .281 with nine home runs, 16 doubles, a triple, and 46 RBI.

His 2006 season stats are on the upward climb. He's batting .323 with six home runs, seven doubles, a triple, and 37 RBI.

Like several of his teammates, Cozart has been on fire lately. His solo home run against MSU Tuesday was the only run of the night in the Rebs' 1-0 victory in Jackson.

"It was definitely the best week of my college career," said Cozart, a 20-year-old criminal justice major. "But you still have to keep working at it. One week you can do what I did last week, and then this week might be the total opposite. So I can't get on too much of a high from it. I have to keep working."

Cozart's home run came in the eighth inning on Sunday, a two-run shot to left just short of the terrace seats at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. It put Ole Miss up 12-1 against the Tigers, posting on the scoreboard the final runs of a productive day.

The Rebels had beaten Auburn 14-2 in game one of the series before falling 6-2 in game two. Ole Miss had 38 hits on the weekend. The series before, the Rebels had 41 hits in a sweep of Georgia.

"After the Alabama series, things changed," Cozart said. "During the Alabama series (a sweep by the Crimson Tide) it just seemed like we were going up there swinging without a plan at the plate, not looking for a pitch we wanted to hit, not working aggressively with the fast ball, things like that. We've had a different approach lately. If we see a fast ball, we're going to hit it. In the SEC, you've got to swing at it."

A team that was 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play after the series at Alabama was grasping for any positives it could find. It needed a big win, a lift to get it going in the right direction.

A 9-8 come from behind win over Southern Mississippi on March 28 in Oxford seemed to be that lift. Since then the Rebs, though not perfect nor without losses, have played much better.

"It's always big to come back and win a game, especially after they hit a grand slam late (like USM did)," he said. "We'd lost some close games, and we needed that for some confidence. We showed that confidence at Georgia and again this past weekend."

Like hitting, winning is also contagious. The Rebels are now 6-6 in SEC play.

"It's weird how baseball works," he said. "Everything can be contagious. Sometimes everybody seems to be hitting and sometimes nobody seems to be able to hit. It's big for us early in a game to get a few hits so we can get some runs, give the hitters some confidence, and help our pitchers out."

Cozart says he's a lot better player now than just two seasons ago when he was a high school all-star just an hour up the road in an eastern Memphis suburb. Fielding, hitting, strength, conditioning, experience, awareness - it's all at a higher level for him now two years into his college career.

"I'm a lot better hitter now than I was in high school," said Cozart, an all-around athlete who also played basketball and football for Collierville High. "Fielding, hitting, everything. You have to continue to improve to play at this level."

Coach Mike Bianco doesn't mince words when talking about his outstanding shortstop.

"Zack Cozart is the best shortstop in the Southeastern Conference," the sixth-year Rebel head coach says in the baseball media guide this year. "He does it all. He can beat you with his bat or with his glove, and he is a good baserunner."

Cozart and the Rebels continue their quest to move up in the SEC standings at South Carolina this weekend. It's the halfway point of the conference season, and with three of five series at home after that, the Rebels can make a run, just as they did last year at this time.

"Everybody's feeling good about themselves now," Cozart said. "We know we're back in the race and we look forward to keeping things headed in the right direction."

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