OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) – A seasoned and hungry mix of Rebels ran onto Swayze Field today for the first official practice of the 2019 year. With exactly three weeks to go before the season kicks off on Feb. 15, the baseball team showcased its stars and allowed fans some of their first glimpses at new Rebels donning the red and navy.
Ole Miss competed in a scrimmage Friday afternoon and will hit the field again Saturday for the second of two intrasquads this first weekend. The Rebels will compete in multiple scrimmages for the next three weekends, all open to fans wishing to attend, as they prepare for their first contest versus Wright State at Oxford-University Stadium in early February.
Head Coach Mike Bianco, as well as sophomores Anthony Servideo and Tim Elko, discussed with the media their offseason progression and their high expectations for the season to come.
"You want to figure out who your best nine are, and right now, that's really hard," Bianco said. "I've been a part of three national championships, and I don't remember a year where we said 'we have too many players, we're just too good.'"
The Rebel skipper may have a strenuous task ahead in trimming his lineup down to nine members. Ole Miss returned seven of its nine starters (each having started 48 or more games) from a season ago, and with returning impact players such as Servideo and Elko exceeding expectations in the offseason, some difficult choices lie ahead for Bianco and his staff.
With so many valued pieces to the club, especially within the infield, multiple Rebels have tried their hands at positions outside of their regular duties. Servideo, Elko, and junior Chase Cockrell, all primary infielders with a powerful bat presence, have been practicing and scrimmaging both around the dirt as well as in the outfield, and Bianco likes what he has seen from his multi-dimensional athletes.
After struggling to see significant time as a freshman, Elko is poised for a breakout year on the diamond, no matter where he ultimately ends up.
"I think I kind of put some pressure on myself freshman year, and this fall I just said I was going to go out and play how I play, and that's what I did," Elko said.
The sophomore finished third among eligible batters in the fall with a .405 batting average and excelled with his summer team. Bianco has commended Elko's ability to fit into the lineup in multiple ways, whether as a corner infielder, corner outfielder, or a DH.
The Rebel coach also discussed junior Thomas Dillard's offseason, one that saw the 2018 team home run leader split time in the outfield as well as at the catcher position. Cooper Johnson is expected to begin the year behind the plate, but Dillard's experience adds significant depth to the catcher position.
In Friday's scrimmage, junior Will Ethridge helped silenced the bats of the blue team and worked the first two innings of a pitcher's duel that would see the red team ultimately win 5-2. Ethridge and fellow junior Houston Roth earned the starts for their respective teams and dominated opposing batters early. Roth too worked just two frames, but recorded five of his six outs by himself, fooling batters with a nasty breaking ball that helped him rack up five strikeouts.
Over the course of the next three weeks, Bianco wants to see his pitchers work efficient innings.
"This is a veteran team, and certainly we want to pitch clean on the mound, and when I say that, throw the ball in the strike zone, stay ahead of hitters against this good offense, be able to manage your two or three innings and get through it," Bianco said.
The Rebels will be signing autographs and meeting their fans at Saturday's Meet the Rebels at the Pavilion before the basketball team takes on nationally-ranked Iowa State in Oxford.