Reloaded Rebels loaded

They gathered in the south end zone of the football stadium for the preseason press conference Monday afternoon. This time next year they'll likely have this event in the club level of the baseball stadium.

Like the baseball program itself under Mike Bianco, Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field continues to take shape. Or make that reshape. A good college baseball facility will be even better a year from now.

When Mike Bianco arrived at Ole Miss as head coach in June 2000, the Ole Miss baseball program had potential but was not fulfilling it. There'd been an NCAA Regional on the road two seasons before he got here. But that was it for the previous five seasons.

Now the program has national respect. It can be called elite. Top 16 for sure. Top 10 most likely. Ranked fourth nationally in two of the preseason polls this time.

Like the baseball stadium construction, the program continues to be built. But it's clearly more in a reloading situation now than any type of rebuilding.

Even after the Super Regional of ‘05 when Texas coach Augie Garrido said after his team won the national title that the best two teams in college baseball had met in Oxford, the Rebels didn't rebuild. They reloaded.

After last year's up and down season of 40 wins that amazingly was a disappointment for many despite a third-straight Super Regional appearance, the Rebels didn't rebuild. They reloaded.

And they are loaded. Coaches and players admit it's the deepest they've seen it. They know the competition throughout the season, beginning with a 41-win NCAA Tournament Minnesota team, will be tough. But because of their own experience and talent and depth, these Rebels know they are good again and have a shot at that still elusive Omaha trip in June.

The competition at each position is fierce. Zach Miller says he's never seen anything like it.

"I've never been a part of a team like this," said Miller, the third-year sophomore second baseman, a freshman All-American last season. "You've got to compete and do your job every day. It's definitely made me a better player. It's made us all better players. Like in the (middle) infield, Sean (Stuyverson), (Evan) Button, and Tim (Ferguson), we're all happy to be competing.

"Myself, I'm just trying to do what I can do and not worry about other infielders," he continued. "But in the back of our minds, we know we're all competing and we want to help this team out in any way possible. I know they feel the same way, too."

Bianco was asked if keeping players happy will be a problem since there are so many of them that are capable.

"It makes it difficult to make out the lineup," he said. "It's something we have to deal with. The players have been challenged. There are 40 guys on the team. We'll start nine players Friday. That means 31 of them won't start. But there are 56 games in the regular season, and just those nine players alone won't get you to Omaha or win you a conference championship.

"The lineup has always changed," he continued. "We've never had the starting nine at the beginning that we have at the end. We've never had the same rotation, and that's only three pitchers, at the beginning as at the end. We've changed relievers as well. So we try to make sure the players understand that. But as a coach it is difficult to make out a lineup, but it's a good problem to have."

Bianco said having more players this season means the team has an even better chance to push to the end.

"Depth seems to be the thing that's echoed a lot here today, and that's one of the things that will be a difference for us this year," he said. "The last couple of years we haven't had the depth. The last couple of years we've had talented teams, but we've been one deep at most positions. The competition at each position has made the players raise their games."

While the product on the field will again be top-notch and as talented and deep as ever, there's the situation of the expansion of the ballpark. Bianco says the progress is exciting, and he doesn't believe it will hinder the Rebels from hosting a postseason tournament.

"If the stadium was unsafe, they wouldn't allow us to play games in it," he said. "It's going to be safe, and the biggest difficulty might be for the people who submit the bid to figure out just how many seats are available. That's how you come up with the bids."

The third base hill, where fans loved to bring the plastic chairs, shorten the legs, and sit, is no longer available. It's flattened and all dirt now. The rest of the seating from past years is intact.

"We'll still draw more than probably 98 percent of Division I baseball teams," Bianco said. "There's no doubt even under construction that we have the facility to host."

Clearly he has the team to do so again, too.

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