The Rebels have been knocking on the door for a trip to Omaha for a decade, but their inability to kick the door in has been consistent. That’s what makes last season’s 37-26 campaign almost ordinary in Oxford, Miss., in that the Rebs were sent home by the TCU Horned Frogs in the Texas A&M NCAA regional last season. Ole Miss had the early advantage in the regional, forcing the Horned Frogs to drop a game and entering the regional championship unbeaten. Two consecutive losses to the Horned Frogs sent the Rebels home for the year, and left Ole Miss yet another near-miss in their recent string of “warning track shot” seasons.
A top-40 recruiting class added to the Rebels roster this year gives reason for optimism in Oxford, and a healthy group of key returners will certainly make Ole Miss dangerous in the 2013 season. The SEC schedule will prove to be a grind, though, especially in a deep SEC West, and the Rebels will have to be at their best if they plan on faring better this season than they did last.
Another near-miss for the Rebels has not deterred Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco from setting the bar high this seasons, especially after seeing the leadership on the team last year in Oxford. In 2011, the Rebels missed the NCAA postseason, the only time that Bianco’s squad was forced to watch regional play as opposed to participating in the action.
“At the end of the 2011 season, we were all a little in shock,” said Bianco, a coach who has been wildly successful with Ole Miss despite never making a trip to Omaha.
The team responded in 2012 by finishing just three victories away from a 40-win season, securing the SEC’s ninth seed along the way, but they were quickly bounced by fourth-seeded Kentucky. Still, though, the Rebels were in the driver’s seat in the College Station, Tex. regional, but ultimately ran out of gas.
“The team used a lot of energy focusing on getting back [to a regional],” Bianco said. “This year we’re different.”
Coach Bianco’s crew produced on the recruiting trail in 2012, taking in a top-40 recruiting class nationally. While the newcomers are deep in talent, and very deep in pitching, two names that stand out and have impressed Bianco so far are pitcher Jacob Waguesback and Stuart Turner, a catcher out of LSU Eunice.
Waguespack was a 37th-round selection by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2012 MLB Draft, but turned down professional baseball for a chance to play for Bianco and Ole Miss. In a report on RebelGrove.com, the Rivals site for Ole Miss, Waguespack said that scouts from other MLB organizations projected him as a third-to-fifth round talent. The 6-foot-6 pitcher currently flashes a fastball that tops out at 93, and he continues to work on a slider that he began throwing his junior year of high school.
Turner, a catcher out of junior college, has been very impressive so far in Rebels camp, prompting Bianco to say that he has been “tremendous both offensively and defensively.” Last year at LSU Eunice, Turner hit .343 with 12 doubles, two home runs, and 45 RBI. He figures to provide more depth behind the plate in the near future for Ole Miss.
Incoming infielder Christian Helsel has also made an impression on Bianco, and he figures to vie for playing time at second base early on. Helsel, a product out of Altoona, Pa., batted .420 entering his senior year of high school, and was a high school standout throughout his tenure. At one point a TCU commit, Helsel was widely valued from many top programs in the country.
The Rebels return a deep group from last year’s squad, including two weekend starting pitchers in Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, both juniors this season. Bianco also can rely on closer Brett Huber, and he also returns star outfielder Tanner Mathis to the 2013 club.
Wahl went 7-4 last year in 17 starts, posting a 2.55 ERA along the way. Opponents batted just .211 against the righty stud, who was named to the All-SEC second team. Wahl was selected for the USA Baseball National Collegiate team, and he received some innings in relief for Team USA. The Americans won bronze in the tournament.
Mayers was impressive in the 2012 campaign as well, posting a 3.50 ERA last season with a 6-3 record. The righty recorded 71 strikeouts, third best on the team and 33 behind Wahl, compared to just 30 walks, second-lowest among Rebels weekend starters. He held opponents to a .222 batting average, and he allowed one fewer home run than both Wahl and now-former Rebel RJ Hively.
Mathis had an excellent 2012 season and got drafted in the 27th round by the Minnesota Twins. As the only Ole Miss returner to start all 63 games in the 2012 season, Mathis hit a blistering .359 with 12 doubles and 23 RBI. He ranked third in the SEC with a .460 on base percentage and seventh with 39 walks. Additionally, Mathis gave opponents fits by going a perfect 8-for-8 on steal attempts.
With three outfielders and the entire left side of the infield returning from 2012, position battles are limited on the Ole Miss roster. But just because they’re few in number does not mean they’re low in intensity.
The battle at second base to fill a void left by first-team All-American Alex Yarbrough, who hit .380 with 43 RBI last season and started all 62 games in which he appeared, is fierce so far in Fall camp. Some players named to be fighting for innings at second included Jake Overbey and newcomers Lance Wilson (junior college) and Helsel.
Overbey also finds himself in a position battle at first base, where he also battles Sikes Orvis and Will Allen. All three saw action last season, with Overbey making eight starts in 26 appearances, Orvis gaining eight starts in 37 appearances, and Allen leading with 56 starts. Allen appears to be the favorite of the trio to see significant playing time, although possibly not exclusively at first base.
Bianco is pleased with the lack of change on the team, which should come as no surprise.
“We’re a little more experienced than a year ago,” he said. “In our league that helps you out a lot.”
Ole Miss breaks away from the norm in that the Rebels are deep in fall traditions. The first is a Labor Day party at Coach Bianco’s house, which includes a team meal and fun events, such as a largest cannonball-splash contest, corn hole, and what Bianco called “Labor Day Olympics.”
Another tradition is the annual “Pizza Bowl,” a series of games in which team veterans draft teams to compete against one another. The winners then get to eat pizza while the losers get to run.
Finally, the Omaha Challenge takes place right before Thanksgiving break. Players split into groups and compete in a rigorous series of physical challenges, including an obstacle course, tire flipping, swimming, and more.