Ketchum wants final UM season to be his best

C.J. Ketchum is the elder statesman of the Ole Miss Rebel baseball team. Before the first pitch in 2007, the Joplin, Mo., native will be 24 years old. Maturity has been one of the reasons Ketchum has succeeded at this level of college baseball for two seasons.

C.J. Ketchum has had a solid two seasons at Ole Miss.

From a part-time, pinch-hit role as a sophomore juco transfer to the starting first baseman's role as a full-timer during his junior season, the Joplin, Mo., native will be one of the veterans of the 2007 Rebels. By the first pitch of the season, Ketchum will be a mature 24 years of age.

That maturity came through in a big way this season as Ketchum had to replace three-time All-American Stephen Head at first base. Big shoes? You bet. Head was the first three-time All-American in UM baseball history.

Ketchum was just the guy to step in. A less mature or younger player might not have been able to cope with the constant comparisons to Head, both defensively and at the plate. But C.J. did his best and took care of business. If not for Mark Wright's three-run home run in Hoover to seal the title game in the ninth, a 9-3 UM win over Vandy, Ketchum would have won MVP honors for his efforts in the four games there.

Obviously draft-eligible, Ketchum did not hear his name called in June. He enters the 2006-07 school year with being the best he can be as his goal, not only for his future but also for his team. In Oxford this summer, Ketchum is taking classes and working out. Come September, he'll be back out on the field for the Rebels' fall practices – somewhere.

First base is the likely spot, but there's also been some chatter about playing C.J. some at catcher. He's heard the talk from the coaches, and he's not sure how serious they might be about making him a catcher. But he says he'll give it a shot if called on.

"I'm willing to try anything," said Ketchum, who played a season at Crowder Community College in Missouri before coming to Ole Miss. "I was like 12 years old when I last played catcher, but I'm sure I can still do it."

Here's the reason they might give C.J. a shot behind the plate. First, Justin Brashear has gone to the pros. Miles Cabecieras has decided to focus on school at Ole Miss and has given up baseball. Returning catchers are Alex Kliman and Brett Basham. Freshman Tyler McMullen from Southeast Lauderdale High will also be in the mix.

But you can't have enough catchers to handle all their chores from the games to practice to bullpen work. That appears to be why Ketchum's name is being tossed around for the position.

And the fact that Ketchum is athletic and has the ability to do the job.

But fall baseball will prove how any of that pans out. For now, Ketchum is the Rebels' returning first baseman, and that's an area he wants to improve.

"It was a learning experience over there this year," Ketchum said of first base. "Defensively I started off poorly but felt like I improved steadily. I know I have a lot of work to do defensively.

"Offensively I felt like I did OK again. I'm comfortable as a hitter, and I usually feel good about getting on base when I'm at the plate."

Ketchum batted .337 with 13 doubles and two home runs in 2006. His fielding percentage of .985 was tops among everyday infielders.

Ketchum said he's already looking ahead to his last year in red and blue. He knows there's a good chance for another special season, and this time they want to make it to that ultimate goal of Omaha.

"It was great this year winning the SEC Tournament, winning a Regional, and hosting a Super Regional again. But we still came up short," said Ketchum, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder. "Miami was a hot team just like Texas was last year. They just played better than we did those last two games.

"It was kinda déjà vu all over again for us. But like Coach Bianco said, I'd rather be one of 16 teams knocking on the door than not knocking at all. We know someday the door will open for us. Hopefully that's next season."

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