Playing For More

Regional time is just different. In a sense it's what you play all those earlier games for, to get to this point and host.

But it isn't the end of the line, or at least you hope. What you hope is that it's the beginning of something bigger.

Thursday prior to the start of play has its interesting moments. The teams always seem to enjoy their practices.

You can tell by Monmouth's reaction they are in a bit of awe with their surroundings. But they are handling it. Better yet, they're enjoying it.

"The minute we drove past here last night, we immediately knew it was going to be an awesome situation," said Hawks head coach Dean Ehehalt. "We've been fortunate enough to have been to a few regionals before, and we've been to some great places. But I can honestly say this will be the best place we've been to up to this point."

The Hawks are 0-6 alltime in the NCAA Tournament in baseball, including a 12-3 elimination loss to Ole Miss in 1999 at Texas A&M.

The most notable moment of the day was when Missouri head coach Tim Jamieson said he would hold his first-game starter until the second game.

"There is no guarantee," said Jamieson, of beating Western Kentucky with Nick Tepesch (Soph., RHP, 6-4, 5.81) instead of Kyle Gibson (Jr., RHP, 10-3, 3.47). "But for us to win the Regional, (Gibson) is going to have to beat the home team. He's the one that's going to handle that the best."

What Gibson has to handle, according to Jamieson, is 10,000 Ole Miss fans and the atmosphere that accompanies that, as well as the home team itself.

"It may not happen, and we may not get to that point," Jamieson said of his Tigers beating WKU and facing Ole Miss, if the Rebs get past Monmouth as most predict. "But we're not here to win (just) Friday. We're here to win a Regional."

Western Kentucky has the most familiarity with the venue. The Hilltoppers split two games with the Rebels during the regular season here last year.

One of WKU's players, Chad Cregar, is from Oxford, played at Oxford High School and is a key hitter for his current ballclub. Matt Hightower, Rebel freshman catcher Taylor Hightower's older brother, is a star pitcher and hitter for Western Kentucky.

Mike Bianco was asked if the pressure to host in the expanded stadium and to advance beyond a Regional increases year after year.

"I don't know if there's more pressure. I think you feel that pressure every year," he said.

The Rebels have been to NCAA Regionals seven years in a row and eight of the nine years Bianco has been in Oxford, starting with his first season when Ole Miss played in the Regional at Tulane.

"I think it's more expectations than pressure – from myself, our staff, our players, and certainly our fans," Bianco continued. "I think that's a good thing. I learned a long time ago from my mentor (former LSU head coach Skip Bertman) that high expectations beat low reality any day of the week. You want to be part of something that's a winner. I don't know if I feel any more ‘pressure' this year than I did going to New Orleans my first year, really.

"We went down there to win, expected to win," he concluded. "You feel that every year, I believe."

Hosting these Regionals can become habit-forming. Last year there were quite a few people experiencing withdrawals as the Rebels were shipped off to Miami to play.

There were also some emotions running high throughout a good portion of the Oxford community earlier this spring when the men's tennis team, the No. 2 national seed, was all set to host and the NCAA sent them elsewhere.

Now everybody is focused on hosting more postseason baseball and seeing if the Rebels can go the distance this time. It all starts Friday at 3 p.m. when two-seed Missouri takes the field and three-seed Western Kentucky gets ready to bat.

Then at 7 p.m., when the Rebels race to their respective defensive positions, if there was more of a roof, it'd come off the place.

It's Regional time again in Oxford.


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