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The Journey to this Point...2016 Ole Miss Baseball

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By Tate Hawkins, Ole Miss Athletics Media Relations

In case you missed it, or you've been focused on the winter sports, Ole Miss Baseball is already five weeks into the 2016 season. After an 8-2 win over UT Martin on Tuesday, the Diamond Rebels are 20-2, tying its best 22-game start in program history.

The Rebels roll into the second weekend of SEC play and the first at Swayze after winning nine of their last 10 ballgames. Ole Miss sits in the top 10 of all six major college baseball rankings across the country, sitting as high as sixth in the Collegiate Baseball national poll and making them one of four SEC teams in the top 10.

Ole Miss got off to its hot start early by winning seven of the first eight games in Oxford, including a sweep over Florida International, taking two-of-three against then-No. 2 Louisville, as well as midweek wins against Arkansas State and Memphis. Then, the Rebels went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to participate in the 2016 Chanticleer Classic, winning all 3 of their games. Ole Miss posted victories over Ball State, then-No. 18 Coastal Carolina, and Cincinnati outscoring the three opponents a combined 22-6.

Following the weekend road trip, it was back home to Swayze where the Rebs would continue their winning ways by picking up sweeps over Southeast Missouri and Grambling State, taking a 12-game win streak into the first weekend of SEC play.

Ole Miss opened conference play by taking two-of-three from the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, winning on Saturday and Sunday and bringing their record to 19-2. The Rebels followed the victorious weekend with a midweek win over UT Martin. 

The impressive start has been accredited to masterful pitching and hot hitting. The Ole Miss pitching staff boasts a club ERA of 2.42 led by weekend starters Brady Bramlett (2.03), Chad Smith (3.91), and Sean Johnson (1.96). The bullpen features relievers David Parkinson (1.35), Dallas Woolfolk (0.00) and Andy Pagnozzi (2.42), and closer Wyatt Short (0.87) who has five saves. The Rebel hitters are led by Tate Blackman (.347, 2 HR, 21 RBI), Henri Lartigue (.339, 1 HR, 9 RBI), Colby Bortles (.329, 3 HR, 19 RBI) and J.B. Woodman (.325, 4 HR, 21 RBI). The Rebels have put 20 baseballs over the walls for homers, led by J.B. Woodman and Cameron Dishon who both have hit four dingers of their own.

This weekend, the Rebels host the 20-2 South Carolina Gamecocks, who are ranked as high as No. 10, for their first home SEC series of the year. The three-game slate is set for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in observance of the Easter Sunday holiday. So dye your Easter Eggs fast and postpone the egg hunt to Sunday because the baseball needs the support of Rebel Nation for this weekend's big top-10 matchup. Pack Swayze and be ready for the bottom of the fifth...

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What They're Saying: Baseball Opening Day

After advancing to the College World Series in 2014, the Ole Miss baseball team is set to open the 2015 season with a three-game series at home against William & Mary, starting Friday at 4 p.m. CT.

Here's a look at the opening day lineup via @CoachMikeBianco

Ole Miss enters the 2015 season ranked in three of the six major national polls, coming in at No. 18 in D1Baseball.com and USA Today Coaches' polls and No. 19 in the NCBWA poll.

More From OleMissSports.com and Ole Miss Blog:

Previewing the Batting Lineup and Pitching Staff

Ole Miss Baseball 2015 Walk Out Music

Blackman Embraces Preseason Expectations

Knight Ready to write his Own Story

More Big-Picture Stories:

Closer look at opening day lineup, writes Chase Parham of RebelGrove/Rivals.com

How will Ole Miss baseball look in 2015?, writes Hugh Kellenberger of the Clarion-Ledger

Deep, talented SEC looks for another run at CWS, writes David Brandt of the Associated Press

Ole Miss baseball has talent to keep good times rolling, writes Hugh Kellenberger of the Clarion-Ledger

Rebels not sitting on last year's success, writes Parrish Alford of the Daily Journal

More Player Feature Stories:

Bramlett recovered and ready to start, writes Chase Parham of RebelGrove/Rivals.com

Knight Time, writes Jeff Roberson from the Ole Miss Spirit/Scout.com

Freshman Blackman expected to make impact, writes Chase Parham of RebelGrove/Rivals.com

More from D1Baseball.com:

D1Baseball.com's breakdown of No. 18 Ole Miss from Kendall Rogers

Ole Miss is picked to finish third in the SEC West and second baseman Tate Blackman was named preseason SEC Freshman of the Year in D1Baseball.com's SEC preview from Kendall Rogers

Ole Miss is projected as a No. 2 seed in the TCU (Fort Worth) Regional in D1Baseball.com's Preseason Field of 64

D1Baseball.com's survey of head coaches on the new lower-seamed baseballs and their impact on college baseball from Aaron Fitt

More from Chase Parham of RebelGrove/Rivals.com:

Pre-SEC Ole Miss opponent capsules, looking at the nonconference schedule prior to SEC play

Bjork clarifies baseball student guidelines, talking about the new student guidelines for right field at baseball games

Freshman Kyle Watson vying for time in left field and other notes


Previewing the Batting Lineup and Pitching Staff

Ole Miss held its annual media day on Monday inside the Diamond Club at Oxford-Unversity Stadium, ahead of the Rebels' season opener Friday at 4 p.m. against William & Mary, the opening game of a three-game series. 

Here are some notes and quotes from the media opportunity with head coach Mike Bianco and selected players, looking at the batting lineup and the pitching staff heading into the start of the 2015 season.

The Hitters:

"As we start this spring, I in a way struggled to explain to the team, something different and something exciting for you to write about," Bianco said. "But, it seems that I come back to the same sentence, it seems very similar to last year. What I mean by that is we return some big pieces on the field. 

"When you look around the field on Friday, you will see Sikes Orvis, Errol Robinson, J.B. Woodman, Austin Knight, Colby Bortles. These are some guys who certainly played big roles for us last year in getting to the College World Series. And like last year, there is certainly going to be room for some new guys to step in and help us."

Projected Defensive Lineup:

C Austin Knight

1B Sikes Orvis

2B Tate Blackman

3B Colby Bortles

SS Errol Robinson

LF Connor Cloyd/Josh Watkins/Kyle Watson

CF J.B. Woodman

RF Cameron Dishon

Speaking to the batting order, Bianco said Woodman will likely lead off, followed by Robinson, Orvis, Bortles and Henri Lartigue, who will back up Knight at catcher and be a possible designated hitter. After those five in the order, Bianco said a lot of it will be determined by lefty-righty matchups.

More on Austin Knight:

Knight has appeared in 74 games over the last three year, drawing the start in 16 games, including two games behind the plate in the College World Series as senior Will Allen moved to designated hitter due to injury. During his career, Knight has played behind two Johnny Bench Award finalists in Allen and Stuart Turner, who won the award in 2013.

Knight: "I'm very confident going into the season. I'm looking forward to getting out there and competing against somebody else. I got to play behind two very good catchers and very good people (Stuart Turner and Will Allen). Being able to learn from those guys has been great."

Bianco, on Knight: "To catch in our system, every coach on the staff was a catcher, it's tough to catch here. We're very hard on the catchers. There is a high expectation, not only for your performance, but also your leadership, getting the signals, being able to handle the staff, body language and all these other things we talk about. That's one of the reasons why Austin will be starting on Friday night. Not only can he handle it behind the plate and catch the ball and hit for us, but he's our best option as far as leadership and doing all the things we need from that position."

LHP Christian Trent, on Knight: "I was close to him last year, but Will caught the majority of my games. He's going to be fine. He's going to step up and take the place of Will. He has a good arm. He's really good at receiving the ball. As a pitcher, I'm already comfortable with him."

More on Tate Blackman:

Sikes Orvis and Errol Robinson return at their respective spots in the infield. They are joined by Colby Bortles, who played in 40 games, drawing the start in 14 games, nine at designated hitter and five at first baseman, as well as Tate Blackman, the preseason SEC Freshman of the Year by D1Baseball.com, who will start at second base for the Rebels.

Blackman: "It's a blessing to get the opportunity. I came in here as a freshman, trying to work hard on and off the field. My goal was to come in here and making a big impact my freshman year, and hopefully Friday will be a good day for me and for my team."

Bianco, on Blackman: "We think he is our best option at second. We saw a kid that didn't play like a freshman, not just with his ability, but with the way he carries himself. Tate looks like the guy that is most ready to play. He is an outstanding hitter, runs well and is a good defender. I am excited about all of the freshman.

Orvis, on Blackman: "He has a lot of talent, a lot of power, a lot of juice, and he's not afraid to mess up. He gets right in there. He's a hard-nosed player. He's going to be really good. The game speeds up on him as it does for all freshmen, but he has all the confidence in the world in himself, so he'll be fine."

More on the corner outfielders:

J.B. Woodman, the Rebels' leading returning hitter by batting average (.298), returns to the outfield, as he moves to center field, having played mostly right field and designated hitter this past season. Cameron Dishon will step into a bigger role as the start right fielder, having played mostly as a pinch runner and defensive replacement over the last two years. 

At the other corner outfield spot, what Bianco called the big question mark, as they open the season, Bianco said they will probably play a lot of guys to start with, mentioning junior college transfers Connor Cloyd and Josh Watkins, as well as freshman Kyle Watson by name. Another freshman, Will Golsan, might also figure in the mix.

Bianco, on left field: "I don't know if you need to have two games in a row or three games in a row," Bianco said. I don't know if there's a number. It's more feel. The goal over the first four weeks is to find the best lineup by the time we get to LSU on the opening weekend of SEC play. One of those guys can DH, somebody can play left, one of the other outfielders could sit a game and we can play two of those guys, so a lot of it just depends."

The Pitching Staff:

"On the mound, we are a little different than last year in the sense that last year at this time I think that was the big talk and most of the questions in the preseason press conference were about the pitching and the starting pitching, maybe for the lack of experience in the projected starters," Bianco said. 

"This year we return two of the SEC starters (Christian Trent and Sam Smith) from last year, along with some guys who have tons of experience like Scott Weathersby, Wyatt Short and Matt Denny. These are guys who gained some valuable experience for us last year."

Friday: LHP Christian Trent

Saturday: RHP Sam Smith

Sunday: RHP Brady Bramlett

Trent, on the move from Saturday starter to Friday starter: "My routine is not going to change. You're still coming to the field and do everything pregame I did last year. The role is different. Pitching on Saturday, the mindset was to win the series or push the series to a third game. I like the role of Friday because you can start the series off with a win and give your team a chance to get ahead in the series early."

More on Bramlett and Johnson:

Earlier in the spring, Bianco said Sean Johnson, a 6-foot-7 right-hander from the junior college ranks, would be a weekend, but he's been dealing with tendinitis and will be limited to bullpen work in the first weekend. In his place, Smith will move up to Saturday, and Bramlett will get the start on Sunday. Bramlett, himself, missed the last part of the 2013 season and the entire 2014 season due to recovery from a torn labrum.

Bianco, on Bramlett: "You don't know when they come off an injury where they are going to be or how they are going to be that first year back. When they are released and able to pitch you have to see how they are. 

"Brady had a really good fall. Once we got back, his three starts were probably better than any of the starters. He was pretty spotless here this January and early February. We are excited. He is a guy when we recruited him a couple years ago we knew would have a big time fastball. His slider keep coming, and he has improved his change-up. We really think he is going to have a big year."

Bianco, on Johnson: "We mentioned earlier to some of you that Sean Johnson would be a weekend starter. He came up a few days before our first intersquad game with some tendonitis in his shoulder. He is fine and he threw a bullpen on Friday. Sean will throw another bullpen tomorrow. He will not pitch in the first weekend, he just isn't in shape enough to start and log that many innings. Look for him to, at some point, get back into that starting role."

More on the bullpen:

After the graduation of Brett Huber two seasons ago, the program's all-time saves leader with 38, five different players recorded saves for the Rebels this past season, two of whom return in left-hander Wyatt Short and right-hander Scott Weathersby. Bianco also mentioned left-hander Matt Denny and right-hander Will Stokes, a freshman, as arms out of the bullpen. 

As far as the closer situation, Bianco said it will be a combination of guys, at least to start the season, similar to last season.

More from Bianco: "At the beginning, we'll go with a handful of guys and see if somebody emerges. Last year, we tried to force that a little bit. I think that guy has to just emerge. If that's the case after a certain period of time, if there's one guy we are better if he's pitching at the end of the game, then certainly we will do that. 

"We have shown an ability to do that in the past, when you look back at guys like Brett Huber, Jake Morgan, Scott Bittle or Stephen Head. If not, you can certainly win the other way, where you put the best guy out there on that particular day, much like we did last year, especially at the end of the year."

Observations from the Best Seat in the House -- Feb. 1

The men's basketball team found some consistency, while the women's basketball will be looking to snap a four-game losing streak, as the teams enter the heart of Southeastern Conference play. It's also the week of National Signing Day and the beginning of the Mike Smith Era for Ole Miss softball, and opening day for Ole Miss baseball is now less than two weeks away. Here are some thoughts and opinions on the week that was:

- Throughout the season, head coach Andy Kennedy and the men's basketball team have talked about establishing some consistency, and of late, stacking wins together. Ole Miss did just that this past week, rallying to defeat Mississippi State 79-73 on Wednesday night and cruising to a 67-47 win at Missouri on Saturday afternoon. With three straight wins, it's the Rebels' first multi-game winning streak since Dec. 18-22 and their first three-game wining streak since Nov. 23-29.

- Against Mississippi State, Jarvis Summers led the way with 22 points, one shy of his season high, all in second half, including a key four-point play to effectively close out the win for Ole Miss. After going 0-of-2 from the field in nine first-half minutes, having picked up two early fouls, he finished 4-of-10 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, and 12-of-15 from the free throw line.

"When you watch Ole Miss play down the stretch, it's always Jarvis Summers making plays," said Mississippi State head coach of Summers. "He has an unbelievable ability to not get sped up or get caught up in the moment. He stays the same way throughout and that gives him an ability to make plays and be calm no matter the situation."

- Against Missouri, it was all Stefan Moody, who was the only Ole Miss player in double figures with 23 points, including a highlight-reel put-back dunk that Kennedy said not only invigorated him, but their whole team, as the Rebels outscored the Tigers 50-32 the rest of the way. Missouri got as close as 48-39 with 9:38 left, before Ole Miss answered with a 15-0 run over the next 6:31 to push the lead to 63-39 on the way to the 67-47 final.

- In addition to LaDarius White, the Rebels' third-leading scorer, who has come off the bench in 15 of their 21 games, Ole Miss has gotten lifts from Dwight Coleby, Terence Smith and Anthony Perez. The most surprising lift, if you take away his contributions last season, has been from Perez, who after scoring just 14 points in 82 minutes through the team's first 18 games, has scored 21 points in 47 minutes over the last three games.

"In the Florida game, we were really searching," said Kennedy of Perez. "Our frontcourt wasn't being as productive, and I went to him because I've seen what he can do. He was a valuable part of last year's team. He stepped up and made some plays. He led us in rebounding in 12 minutes of action, which tells me he was active. I gave him an opportunity (against Mississippi State), and he took advantage of it." 

- Free throw shooting also continues to be a storyline for the men's basketball team. The nation's leader in free throw percentage (80.1 percent), which would also lead the NBA, Ole Miss has hit 212 of its last 254 from the line, including 78.4 percent (29-of-37) against Mississippi State and 86.7 percent (13-of-15) against Missouri. The Rebels are led by Moody, who leads the SEC and ranks sixth in the nation shooting 91.7 percent (88-of-96) from the line. He has made 31 straight free throws, six free throws shy of the SEC record for consecutive free throws made in conference play.

- As of the most recent Bracketology from ESPN's Joe Lunardi (Jan. 29) and CBS Sports' Jerry Palm (Jan. 30), Ole Miss is the next-to-last and last team in the NCAA Tournament, one of six SEC teams in the field, and another, Tennessee, is among the first four out in both projections. Ole Miss plays five of those teams, four at home, starting with a home game against Texas A&M on Wednesday night.

- The SEC, as the Associated Press' David Brandt noted, has a logjam with Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee all tied for third place in the SEC standings at 5-3, one game behind second-place Texas A&M at 6-2. John Gasaway, an ESPN Insider college basketball contributor, suggests Ole Miss could be the second-best team in the SEC behind No. 1 and lone unbeaten Kentucky. Here's Gasaway:

In Kentucky's first game of the SEC season, the Wildcats were taken to overtime in Lexington by Ole Miss. At the time, it seemed like a worrisome portent for John Calipari's top-ranked team, but here we are seven games later, and UK is the nation's only undefeated team.

For their part, the Rebels have also looked pretty good since that game at Rupp Arena. Andy Kennedy's team now boasts the league's second-best per-possession scoring margin, and in fact, Ole Miss has been especially impressive on offense.

As a 5-foot-10 junior who functions, in effect, as a 2-guard, Stefan Moody will trigger categorical confusion everywhere he goes. Then again, he's making more than half his 2s in conference play, and also shooting better than 90 percent at the line -- Kennedy probably doesn't lose any sleep over what label we give Moody.

Granted, "second-best team in the SEC" is no great tribute this season, but that may well be what's on the line this Wednesday when the Rebels host second-place Texas A&M. The close shave that Kentucky suffered at the hands of Ole Miss a few weeks back may not have been a fluke after all.

- Speaking of the SEC, it's not as bad as you think it is, writes Mike DeCourcy from the Sporting News.

- Former Ole Miss men's basketball star Marshall Henderson started a travel blog, and here's his first post, chronicling his travels and professional basketball career in Italy and Qatar and his acceptance of an offer to continue his professional basketball career in Iraq. Insightful read. Stay tuned to his Twitter account, @NativeFlash22, and his blog, The Road Most Traveled, for future updates.

- The women's basketball team has gone through a brutal five-game stretch, facing four ranked teams and another, LSU, was receiving votes, knocking off No. 18 Georgia, before dropping the next four to No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 18 Mississippi State, LSU and No. 1 South Carolina.

- As head coach Matt Insell said before, and said again Sunday, Ole Miss likely needs to get to at least eight SEC wins to garner NCAA Tournament consideration. Through nine SEC games, the Rebels are 4-5, looking at three remaining home games, possibly all against ranked teams, in their last seven regular season games.

"We had a tough stretch, but we're not going to waver," Insell said." We're not going to panic. We're going to play to the final buzzer. We know what it's going to take to get on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. We know it takes eight wins in this league to get on the bubble. That means we have to win some road games and we have to pull an upset at home."

- Tia Faleru, the Rebels' leading scorer and rebounder, has picked up two or more first-half fouls in three of the last four games, all losses for Ole Miss, and it's a concern for Insell and the Rebels going forward this season. After scoring in double figures in 16 of the first 19 games, she has scored in double figures just once in the last four games.

"We're a different team, if she's on the floor, or she's not on the floor," Insell said. "I have challenged Tia Faleru. I told her she has to step her game up and she has to be a force for us."

- South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley led the Gamecocks to a 10-18 record in her first season. It took her three season to lead them to a winning record and four seasons to lead them to an NCAA Tournament appearance, and now in year seven, she has the Gamecocks off to a 21-0 start and a No. 1 national ranking. Staley sees some similarities in what she has built at South Carolina and what Insell is building at Ole Miss, writes David Cloninger from The State.

- After being ranked No. 18 in the D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25 rankings, Tate Blackman, who's expected to be the opening day second baseman for the Rebels, was selected as the SEC Preseason Freshman of the Year by D1Baseball.com.

- In case you missed it, check out The Season: Ole Miss Baseball Day One.

- The Mike Smith Era for Ole Miss softball begins on Thursday, as the Rebels travel to Tempe, Arizona, for a four-day, six-game tournament. For Ole Miss powder blue fans, one of the new uniforms they will be wearing this season are these, which the team wore during one of the media timeouts of the men's basketball game against Mississippi State.

- As she did on the set of College GameDay nearly four months ago, pop superstar Katy Perry stole the show at the Super Bowl. A self-proclaimed Katy Perry fan, myself, I was pleased with the inclusion of the 2008 hit, "I Kissed a Girl," and then she ignited the Ole Miss fan base, dancing with Landsharks and other costumed creatures as she delivered "Teenage Dream" and "California Girls."

- Here's more on Katy Perry and her touching down in football fandom, writes Melissa Hoppert from New York Times.

- Lastly, a congratulations to former Ole Miss running back and current New England Patriot Brandon Bolden, who became the 16th Super Bowl champion in Ole Miss history. Here's my story on his wild ride, from undrafted free agent, to Super Bowl participant, and now Super Bowl champion.

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    Tiffany J. Moore said:

    This is amazing with what he have done so far! Hope that he'll achieve more in the future!

    in post Evan Engram Hauls in Midseason Accolades

    Fiftyyears fan said:

    How can you have five straight top 25 recruiting classes and look as bad as Ole Miss has this year. Easy lack of coaching fundamentals. Look at Mason at Vandy, nothing but 2 and 3 star recruits out of high school and he developers players that want to win. Hugh freeze has 3, 4 & 5 recruits and he expects them to win because of what they were in High School. Mr. Freeze you have not been teaching the fundamentals of football or winning in life. Mr. Freeze you have quit on your players because you have some false expectations of what they are instead of what you can develop in them. Either do your job or quit. Oh yea, please quit running your smoke and mirrors offense, everyone has figured it out. Run a physical offense that can open up holes for your running backs and then your pass attack want require 12 are 14 four and five star receivers. Mr. Freeze you have problems and you need to know that you are not smarter than the rest of the coaches in the SEC.

    in post Rebels Unable to Send Senior Class Out on a High Note

    Karen Holden said:

    Not every pass can be caught. Too low, too short whatever. Not every Kelly pass is perfect. Records were broken by receivers also. But they sre not going to catch every ball thrown. The loss to Auburn was not one players fault. You win or lose as a team.

    in post Late Mistake Spoils Chad Kelly's Historic Performance

    Trent browning said:

    Hey I was just wandering if these are the only 2 olemiss players signing. If there are more signing please respond to me ASAP. Also wondering if neil everett will sign any autographs. Thank you very much

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