Reaching some goals but not all - yet

Funny how things change. I don't think I've heard anybody mention that the Rebels won 40 baseball games this season. They got to that point with the 21-13 Oxford Regional title win against Sam Houston.

They took 40 wins with them to Tempe but couldn't get more. There was a time for Ole Miss baseball when 40 wins was a goal that had never been reached. Sure, the seasons were shorter until the "modern" era of college baseball, which came along about 30 years ago.

The first 40-win Ole Miss baseball team was 1995, a talented team which still features among its alumni a current big-leaguer in David Dellucci. There wasn't another 40-win Reb team until 2005. Now there've been three in a row; therefore not much talk of that noteworthy accomplishment anymore.

The '95 team was another one of those "almost Omaha" teams we've come to know. Back then there were only 48 teams in the field, and only eight Regionals of six teams. The Rebs, in the loser's bracket, had to beat FSU twice on a Sunday in Tallahassee to go to the CWS. The first one went the Seminoles' way 13-1 and that was that.

Mike Bianco came on board seven years ago this month and talked about the goals: 40 wins, host a Regional, a Super Regional, get to Omaha, win the whole thing.

One thing's for sure; three out of five ain't that bad. Of course folks now want more. The taste of real success the past three or four seasons has only reinforced the last two points of those goals - Omaha and winning it.

There've been some significant steps along the way in the Bianco era. After the Rebels were eliminated by Wichita State from the Houston Regional at Rice back in 2003, a handful of reporters got together with Bianco.

We sat in the lobby of the team hotel and Bianco, as always, was cordial enough, just a couple of hours after his team's last game of the season, to spend as much time as we wanted talking about his program.

It had only been three years in the making to that point, but there was some impatience, even on the part of the head coach.

"Did you think things would happen faster?" we asked him, although Ole Miss had been to a Regional at Tulane his first year along with the one at Rice in year three.

He said he thought things might have moved along faster, such as hosting a Regional and getting closer to those goals he'd mentioned from day one. But he also said that he thought the Rebs were getting close, and he pointed to a large and talented group of young players. The next four seasons were unmatched for Ole Miss baseball, at least in the "modern" era.

The promise of the 2003 team for the future came in the form of names that became household ones for Reb fans. Names like Head and Pettway, Fowler and Cupps, Gunther and Babineaux, Holliman and Wright, players who would take Ole Miss to that next level of hosting and to Super Regionals, ones that laid a foundation for the program today.

And so when the Rebels host and advance and fall short in a Super Regional, there's pain and disappointment. The team got back early this morning. They head to their summers now, some to remain in Oxford, some to summer ball, some to the pros.

Some will be back next year to try again. There are areas they'll work to improve, as individuals and as a program.

They'll look for a closer. Not having an effective one as much as needed might have been the No. 1 downfall for this team, if you're making a list. It could have been what made Bianco stick with his starters longer and not make changes he might otherwise have.

Scott Bittle had success with seven saves in the pre-conference. But his confidence got a couple of jolts at Vandy in weekend one of SEC play, and he was never the same in that role.

The Rebels lacked some of the power they had the past couple of years. But just as significantly they also lacked some extra-base hitting and timely hitting to score runs so the head coach wouldn't have had so many tough decisions to make late.

Last year's Rebs: 59 home runs, 145 doubles, 19 triples; this year - 51 home runs, 102 doubles, 18 triples.

Couple of examples, one positive, one negative. Ole Miss beat Georgia on a Sunday afternoon 9-0 - with 12 singles and nothing else. And Kline trying to finish the first game in Tempe with a team that until the late innings had 12 hits but only one run.

So we look ahead to some things. A replacement at short for Cozart. Improved defensive play at third for Overbeck. Who will play first? Will Justin return or will there be an outfield spot open? What about catcher? Who is projected to help among the newcomers?

We'll try to start getting some answers to these and more this week.

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