Rebel baseball through the eyes of others

The McDonnell boys are into Ole Miss baseball from head to toe. ESPN has arrived in Oxford. The Swayze grass is still green but it's struggling to survive. Rebel student managers have a huge role in the everyday goings-on for Ole Miss baseball.

Jake McDonnell showed up at Ole Miss baseball practice today sporting a new look. His brown hair was totally blond.

Jake's the 7-year-old son of Rebel assistant coach Dan McDonnell and his wife Julie. Seems everybody is getting into the Super Regional spirit around these parts.

But little brother Justin McDonnell, 3, was still as brown-haired today as he was yesterday.

That's because Justin is a big Chris Coghlan fan, according to Julie, while Jake is - yep, you guessed it - a really big fan of Zack Cozart.


Some ESPN people are already in town. Some were checking things out at the stadium, from the press box to the underneaths to the outfield.

Media credentials requests for the Super Regional have been off the charts. ESPN alone asked for 45.

The announcers in Oxford will be veteran Dave Ryan and former major leaguer Tino Martinez.


They're behind the scenes but they're awfully important to the program. The grounds crew has its work cut out for them all year, and when it comes to postseason time the work goes on, and in some cases increases.

"We've been doing a lot of watering with the sprinklers and also a lot of hand watering," said head groundskeeper Darrell Buford. "It's pretty rough right now as hot as it is."

And Buford, a 15-year-veteran of Swayze Field, doesn't mean just for the workers. He's talking about trying to keep the grass alive. With no rain in the area for days, the turf at Swayze is struggling to survive.

"The bermuda grass is trying to take over for the rye grass," said Buford, in a cold weather-hot weather grass scenario. "We haven't had any rain. So we do the best we can to keep the grass looking good this time of year. But it's a challenge."

The grounds crew, headed by Superintendent of Grounds Barry Arrington, has several fulltime staffers. This weekend they may have as many as 15 who are helping as the Super Regional takes place. But with half as many teams as last week and fewer games, the crew won't be here quite as long.

"Last weekend we were putting in 15 hour days during the regional," Buford says.

But Buford, the son of the late Willie Buford who worked at Ole Miss for nearly 40 years and was the original groundskeeper at the current Oxford-University Stadium, says it's a labor of love and a part of his heritage to be responsible for Swayze.

"I've gotta take good care of it," said Darrell, who has several relatives working on the field now. "It's like a part of the family."


The team managers are a hard-working bunch as well. All of them students, they put in a lot of extra hours making sure the team has everything it needs in several areas to succeed.

But make certain of one thing. They are "on the team" as well and are trying to help everyone get to Omaha for the College World Series.

Drew Horn of Booneville is one of the first-year managers. Last year he was in the right field terrace area cheering on the Rebels and gaining a reputation as one of the infamous "hill-sliders" on the slip and slide tarp. But he wasn't close enough to the action. So this year he joined the team.

"It's been amazing this year," said Horn, a senior criminal justice major who wants to go to law school at Ole Miss. "I came here in the fall and talked to Coach Bianco and Titus (Queen, the former head manager for the Rebels who now works with the Birmingham Barons AA team) and got on board."

Horn came to Ole Miss from Northeast Mississippi Community College where he played football. Earlier in life he didn't envision himself at Ole Miss. But the law school was here and in some ways he "saw the light."

"I was a State fan," he said. "But not anymore. I went through the pain of losing the Super Regional here last year. I was just as broken-hearted as everyone else."

This weekend, Horn is looking for that pain to be completely erased as the Rebs hope to book a trip to Omaha.

"I want to be a part of a team that goes to the College World Series," Horn said.

So do the rest of the managers.

"I was in the outfield last year watching, too," said Zach Leech of Amory, who mentioned that Horn was the one who encouraged him to go for the job as a manager. "I want to be a coach after I graduate. Having Mike Bianco as a reference will look really good."

Leech, who attended Itawamba Community College before coming to Ole Miss, said watching the Rebels dogpile after winning the Oxford Regional in 2005 was a scene he couldn't get out of his mind.

"I just kept thinking how great it would be to experience that and be a part of it," Leech said, a longtime Rebel fan.

So, like Horn, he joined the team as a manager.

"It's a lot of work," Leech said. "Sometimes we're up here all hours of the night. But the good part is, when we get that ring, we all get one. We may not be on the field throwing and catching, but it's something we are definitely a part of."

The managers get to the stadium about an hour and a half before the players. They set up the field and get everything ready for practice; get the practice clothes ready for practice days, and get the uniforms ready for game days.

The veteran of the staff is Michael Franklin of Pontotoc. In his second year as a manager, Franklin grew up attending games at Swayze Field.

"I remember coming to Ole Miss baseball games when I was in junior high and high school, and it seemed like there were 100 people in the stands," said Franklin. "We'd come to have a good time, but we didn't really expect to win. Now it's a program that's a great thing to be a part of."

Franklin credits The Ole Miss Spirit message board with helping him get the position, along with his brother Robby, an Ole Miss alum living in Nashville.

"My brother saw where Chuck (Rounsaville) posted that the baseball team was looking for managers," Franklin said. "He told me I oughta look into this."

So he did and last year got to experience an SEC West title, a Regional title, a Super Regional, and a runnerup spot at the SEC Tournament - and that's one that haunts him still.

"Whenever we won the SEC Tournament, I told the (first-year) guys that they really couldn't enjoy this the way we could," he said. "Watching Mississippi State celebrate last year and even Texas in the Super Regional last year gave us the drive for this year."

Franklin says it's the chemistry of the team that also gives them the edge to succeed.

This whole team bonds," Franklin said. "We're all pretty close, on and off the field. I don't think they really see us any different than any of their teammates. They see the work we do to help them."

Franklin says the job isn't easy, but it's a labor of love.

"We also work on the field," he said. "The field crew does the field on game days, but we are responsible for it after practices. Setting it up for the night, watering it, things like that. We wash the uniforms and practice gear. We look at the practice sheet before the players even see it to know how to set things up for that day, in the locker room, on the field, and in the indoor."

Adam Hood knows what Franklin's talking about. The Baldwyn native and East Union High grad was a manager for the Rebel baseball team in 2002 and 2003 before playing for Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. He rejoined the Rebels in May.

"There's nothing like SEC baseball," said Hood, who plans to go to graduate school at Ole Miss. "It's great to be around this team."

Hood played third base at Faulkner but didn't necessarily set the woods on fire as a hitter.

"I finished with a career average of four-something," Hood said and laughed. "Three for five or seven with a double. So manager is definitely my trade. But it was still a great experience there and I met some great people."

While it's a familiar place, Hood has had to learn all new players, except one.

"There's been a big turnover in three years," he said. "Mark Wright's the only one still here from when I was here."

Hood feels this year's team is better than the ones he left.

"This team is more athletic than past teams," he said. "Teams in 2002 and 2003 were big-hitting teams. This team hits for average one through nine. This whole group is so talented."

Then there's freshman Brent Frasier. Brent, a Memphis native and a graduate of Briarcrest, is living his dream of being around baseball.

There was no better moment to prove all this for Brent, who is physically challenged, than when Horn and pitcher Jesse Simpson lifted him out of the Hoover dugout and carried him to the dogpile to celebrate the Rebels' SEC Tournament title.

"That was a great experience," he said. "I was just going to run out there, but Jesse and Drew picked me up and took me out there."

And when he arrived at the mound, it took him a second to realize what to do.

"I kinda just stood there. It was kinda one of those things that didn't hit you right away."

Frasier had one of those big No. 1 foam fingers on, courtesy of his carriers.

"They said if we're going to carry you, then you've got to wear the big finger," Frasier laughed and said.

Brent's roommate this past year was Rebel redshirt freshman infielder Zach Miller, who is from his neighborhood in Memphis. It was Memphis area baseball that got Frasier to this point.

"I worked with Tim Dulin's traveling team (in Memphis), and Coach (Dan) McDonnell was up there at some tournaments," Frasier said. "I talked to Coach McDonnell a few times then."

And that was how he got an "in" to Ole Miss baseball.

There were a few Ole Miss baseball players who went through Dulin's Dodgers, so Frasier knew some of them - guys like sophomore Zack Cozart and redshirt pitcher Phillip Irwin.

Frasier said the job's tough but the rewards are high.

"It's all worth it," he said. "We're still playing and I'm having a blast."

Rebel senior pitcher Stoney Stone says the managers are indeed on the team.

"We respect the work they do," Stone said. "They really help us out. They wash our clothes and get the field ready. They are one of the biggest parts of the program.

"They travel with us and hang out in the locker room. We see them as much as we do our teammates. They're a big part of it all."

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