A New Season

It's February and it snowed in Oxford Sunday night. That can only mean one thing: baseball season is just about here.

We'll gather in the Diamond Club of Oxford-University Stadium at noon today for the preseason press conference. Some of what we'll hear we already know, like Drew Pomeranz will start Friday against Louisiana-Monroe. I guess nothing is certain, but that's about as close to a certainty as you could come.

Who else will start this weekend? Probably returnee Aaron Barrett and newcomer Trent Rothlin. In preseason practices, Barrett appears to have overcome whatever caused him to underachieve last season. Rothlin went first to Clemson and then the JUCO route, but now has some age on him as he settles into a potential weekend starter's role at Ole Miss.

But as head coach Mike Bianco told us last week, others are in the mix, especially Matt Tracy, a three-year Rebel who has matured in a lot of ways and has been swinging a mean bat these last few weeks while spending a little time in the outfield.

The most pressing question for the pitching staff is who's gonna fill Jake Morgan's shoes? David Goforth is the obvious first choice, and he's proven to be more than adequate. He got roughed up a bit Saurday in the intrasquad, but he's normally an effective closer. That could change, but he looks like the guy Bianco will call on when the Rebs are leading and the innings are nearly gone – at least the early part of the season.

The outfield has several capable candidates and has been a strength of the team in the preseason, from both a numbers and talent standpoint.

Kevin Mort is entrenched at shortstop, while Matt Snyder is most likely the guy at first base. Since Matt's brother Mike has been sidelined by a recent appendectomy, third base has become open. Mike was the frontrunner there.

Now that bag could go to any number of players, including Zach Miller, who moved over from second to third last season. Several players have been working there, including newcomers Miles Hamblin and Chris Ellis and veteran Matt Smith, now in right field after being at first base the past couple of years.

This also brings into the mix the consistent Alex Yarbrough and another newcomer, Jordan King, at second. Bianco said the coaches will be doing some experimenting with the infield in the early-going.

Taylor Hightower appears to be another in a long line of capable, talented catchers during the Bianco era.

That's an era that now reaches its 10th season. On the third weekend, the Rebels will return to the scene of the first NCAA Tournament Bianco led them to – at Tulane. A three-game series awaits with the Green Wave just off Carrollton Ave. in the Garden District.

The Rebels headed to New Orleans back in late May 2001 for postseason play, and they haven't missed a year since, except 2002 when a collapse of major proportions enveloped the team and they couldn't shake it. They still went 37-19 that season, but bags were packed before the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.

Besides that year, the Rebels have been a player on the national baseball scene every season. Bianco and company have made sure of that.

Ole Miss had never sold 1,000 baseball season tickets in a season before his arrival. As of last week, the count was more than 5,000 and growing for this season in the Rebels' home stadium, one of the nation's finest.

Omaha and a trip to the College World Series remain the elusive goal. The Rebels, whose fourth and most recent trip was in 1972, have been oh-so-close several times and were again last June when Virginia came to Oxford. But Ole Miss was left with more what-might-have-beens.

Now all the attention turns to this season. The coaching staff is stable and has a work ethic unmatched. Carl Lafferty and Matt Mossberg both played in the UM program under Bianco and have been on staff the past few seasons. Rob Francis is in his second season with the program and his first on the field after serving a year as director of operations. He's one of the up and coming young coaches in college baseball.

First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday against the Red Hawks of the school formerly known as the Northeast Louisiana Indians. And the opener will be played on that day at that time, too.

Unless, of course, the snow and wintry conditions we got in Oxford Sunday night happen to return late this week. You never know this time of year.

But there is one thing you do know when it's February and uncomfortably cold: baseball season can't be far away.

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