Ole Miss Season Preview – Highway To HooverSEC Extra
On this episode of the Highway To Hoover podcast, join Joe Healy and Mark Etheridge as they preview the Ole Miss Rebels before the 2023 College Baseball Season! In this preview, they’ll discuss Mississippi’s strengths as a team, potential areas of concern, and what the Rebs need to do in 2023 to be the best versions of themselves.
The Highway To Hoover Podcast is brought to you by Brock’s Gap Brewing Company (Hoover, AL).
Note: Below is an edited transcript of the podcast above. Our transcription program has a little trouble with Mark’s charming southern drawl, so there may be a few errors here or there. We did our best to edit the names and grammar where we could. Thank you for your understanding!
Today, we’re going to talk about the Ole Miss Rebels. The conversation starts with they broke through and won a national title, right after rival Mississippi State, no less. Certainly an interesting deal there.
Mark, you’ve been covering the SEC closely long enough now – your time really covering the league intensely overlaps pretty neatly with Mike Bianco’s time at Ole Miss. So you’ve really seen this whole deal from the beginning.For people who are younger, even younger than me, I first started getting into college baseball right around the time Bianco took over. But for folks who are even younger than that, they may not truly appreciate that Ole Miss wasn’t always like this, even before the national title. It was not a program that was the consistent winner that it has become.
Give us a little historical context here for just the last 20 years basically of Ole Miss baseball compared to what we were talking about before, which of course makes the national title even sweeter.
Bianco took over for Pat Harrison, and he came in with that Skip Bertman mentality and program blueprint, and it really didn’t take long for them to be competitive. They started to gain some momentum, and next thing you know, there’s money pouring into the program, the facilities are improving. And of course, it’s nothing like it is now. It’s incredible now. But there were incremental steps, both from a program standpoint and from a competitive standpoint.
And then they were the program that would get close and have the great regular season and just have this just demoralizing defeats in the postseason. Finally they broke through and got to Omaha, and then they had a little drought again with some really good teams. And then last year, after having an up-and-down season – they started the year as one of the preseason darlings and then just really lost it, lost it on the mound –they were able to figure it out. They always had a really good offense, and man, did it click down the stretch. I got to see them in the Hattiesburg super regional. And I remember thinking, “I don’t know who’s gonna beat this team.” And of course you’re thinking about, this is a No. 3 seed, this is a team that, according to a lot of us “experts,” shouldn’t have even been in the regional field. But boy, they got in and they made the most of it. And at the end of the year, they were the best team in the country.
It’s a really cool story because this year everyone’s going to be looking, like, “Who’s that team that’s really talented that can pull an Ole Miss and take that next step and get to the promised land?” Because they certainly removed all doubt and proved that they were the team to beat a year ago.
It’s such a great story just in the micro of the 2022 season because of the ups and downs. It’s a great story in the slightly larger picture of this was a team that had been on the doorstep even since 2014 when they got to Omaha. Even since then, as you alluded to, there were so many doorstep moments. And then of course there’s the period between the early 2000s when Bianco takes over and just getting to Omaha in 2014. And then of course there’s the big macro, which is this program was a nowhere program. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, it was just the facts of the situation. It was just really not a factor and has turned into a national title-winning program. It’ll be interesting to see where they go from here, and that’s a good segue into talking about this year’s team.
Ole Miss last year went 42-23 and 14-16 in SEC regular-season play. I feel like just describing their record that way does a disservice to what they did because then of course, they went on to win the national title and then coming into this season, they are ranked No. 4 in the country.
OLE MISS STRENGTHS
I will go ahead and hit leadoff on this one and talk about what I like about this team. I really like the position player core. They lost some key pieces, and we’ll talk about that I’m sure before this episode is over. Tim Elko, Justin Bench, Kevin Graham, Hayden Dunhurst were all key position player pieces, key offensive pieces and, especially in Dunhurst’s case, a key defensive piece.
But I still really like this group. Jacob Gonzalez is the headliner there. He’s arguably the best shortstop in the country. Jacob Wilson at Grand Canyon might have something to say with that, but he’s certainly in that discussion. Kemp Alderman’s coming off a really nice year and could be poised for another leap. It feels like Peyton Chatagnier is going to be the guy who really makes them go. Maybe last year he didn’t have the year that he would’ve hoped to have had in a lot of ways. Calvin Harris has been a role player, and he swung the bat really well last year in a part-time role. He’s going to be a full-time player this year in his natural catching position. TJ McCants is a really toolsy guy who I think might be poised for a bigger year this year. They added a couple transfers in Ethan Groff from Tulane and Anthony Calarco from Northwestern. Those guys are both going to be instant impacts.
I don’t see any reason why this lineup, especially from an offensive standpoint, can’t just pick up where they left off in terms of production. The pieces that departed are big, don’t get me wrong, but I have a lot of confidence that this offense, maybe it’s not quite the same, but could they be 90-95% as good as they were or perhaps even better if things go really well? I think that’s on the table. I just really like this group.
Yeah, for me, it’s the lineup, as well. Gonzalez, Alderman, Harris, Chatagnier, Groff, McCants, you hit ’em all. This is a lineup that’s going to hit a lot of home runs. And of course, in Ole Miss, that means a lot of beer showers in the outfield. And I guess if you come to Hoover, that means Brock’s Gap beer showers, right? This team is going to be really challenging to pitch to. They’re going to get deep into your bullpen. They’re going to put up crooked numbers. It’s that kind of offense. That was the way this team was a year ago. They would come out and score six, seven runs early and then just have to hold on. And then the pitching figured it out as the year went on, and then they didn’t have to score that and they became a different team.
This is a similar lineup with similar players. For me, the strength of this team is that position player group, especially offensively.
It was a group last year that got better as the year went on offensively because they started scoring runs in different ways. There for a while it was real homer dependent, so they’d score three runs on five hits because it was like four runs on two solo home runs and a two-run home run. It was just a lot of that. So, that’s going to be a key, and I think they have the athletes to do that, to score runs in some different ways.
OLE MISS QUESTION MARKS
My question about this team really starts with their rotation beyond Hunter Elliott. We saw that the rotation at the end of last year was very different for Ole Miss. Dylan DeLucia was not really part of the core plan on the weekend rotation, and he ended up being the most important piece in that regard, arguably. Beyond Hunter Elliott, there are questions.
They’re looking at a freshman in Grayson Saunier who really impressed in the fall. I think there’s a lot of optimism about him and for good reason. And Ole Miss is not afraid to throw freshmen in there in the weekend rotation. Gunnar Hoglund was that way. Ryan Rolison was that way. But then beyond them, they’re also looking at a DII transfer from the University of Indianapolis, Xavier Rivas, a lefty who put up good numbers at that level, had a really good summer in the Northwoods League and physically looks the part – he’s got a good starters’ build; he’s not an undersized guy. The stuff is not electric, but it’s good and it plays up, like he’s got some deception. He gets a lot of swing-and-misses on his fastball, which typically tells you there’s some deception going on there. But we are talking about a freshman, and even if you go back to Hoglund, it’s kind of easy to forget now because of where he ended up being drafted, but his freshman year was not totally smooth sailing. There were bumps there for him. So, that’s not a sure thing for any freshman, no matter how talented. Carter Holton made it look fairly easy last year. But that’s not typical.
And then Xavier Rivas as a Division II transfer, you just never know how that’s going to go. There is a little bit of downside risk there. To me, that’s where the questions start for Ole Miss, how well does their rotation acquit itself beyond Hunter Elliott? I don’t have a lot of concern about Hunter Elliott, but it’s what they get after that.
And that is the concern for Ole Miss. How are the roles going to be defined after Elliott? You mentioned all of the different starting candidates, and there’s others, too. They would love to keep (Jack) Dougherty at the end of the game and not have to move him into the starting rotation and be able to throw him twice in a weekend. During the postseason, he was really good and he had a good fall. So, if you’re able to keep those defined roles and get them early enough, because that was really the problem last year. That was where a lot of the struggles came, and they almost waited too late before it all got pieced together. I think that’s the key, finding those roles so that you can fit together the talented pieces that you have and you’re not still searching in May. If they can get this figured out in March and April, then look out, this team is going to be a handful once again.
WHAT DOES OLE MISS HAVE TO DO TO BE THE BEST VERSION OF ITSELF IN 2023?
As we start to talk about the things that would have to go well for this team to be the best version of itself, I think that’s where it starts for me. Last year’s team proved that there is time to figure out roles, but the key for me is finding out who their best guys are, because it took them a little while to settle on DeLucia and Elliott and realize Dougherty is actually a weapon in the bullpen and Derek Diamond is is a one-time-through-the-order starter. It just took them some time to do that, and they have that luxury. The season is short on the calendar, but it’s long in terms of giving you time to figure that out.
To me, we know it’s Hunter Elliott and it’s Doherty in some role and it’s Mason Nichols. But even if Saunier and Rivas are those guys immediately, they’re going to need more than five guys. So who else is in that mix? I think it’s important for them to land on, “Who are the guys we want to go into the fox hole with? Who are the guys who we want in important roles?” And then you can play with the pieces. But you do need to settle on a core group there. So, I think that’s important. Let’s nail down the guys who we really trust to go into SEC play, and then we can play around the pieces. Do we toy with Dougherty back in the rotation if something doesn’t work out there? Do we want to keep him in the bullpen regardless?
I think there’s those kinds of questions that you can answer, but I think first you have to figure out where you want to invest your innings when you understand that you have a lot of talent on the staff, and it’s just a matter of finding those pieces.
I think for me, it’s the leaders of last year’s team who you’re trying to replace. There were some gamers. They were some guys who would fight and were good clubhouse guys. Where does that come from? Because when you have a special team like that and the chemistry and all the clubhouse camaraderie that you go through when you have a special run like that, you can’t just order it up from GrubHub and it comes in for the next season. It’s gotta happen organically, and it’s so hard to reproduce. If there was an easy recipe, coaches would fire it up right away. So how will that happen? Because now the expectations are different. You’re expected to get to Omaha, you’re the No. 4 team in the nation and you won it all last year. Just hosting a regional is not good enough anymore. So you’re a victim of your own expectations, and I think to get to where you want to be, you’ve got to find that chemistry again and that rapport last year they figured out and was a huge part of that late-season run.
It’s a good point. In one of the preseason content pieces on Ole Miss, I wrote that, if Ole Miss baseball was a house, folks like Tim Elko and Justin Bench, Kevin Graham and Hayden Dunhurst were load-bearing walls. They weren’t just productive players. And they also weren’t necessarily the fiery, charismatic, cult of personality type leaders either. They were just steady hands that the younger players could look up to, and if they weren’t panicking, they knew that it’s not time to panic. And that’s important.
It’s a great point by you because I think that leadership stuff has to happen organically. You can’t really force that. Because of that, though, you are at the risk that sometimes that just doesn’t happen because it has to happen organically. And sometimes it just doesn’t. That is certainly something to watch as Ole Miss looks to have another special season.
I’ve been asked about Ole Miss a lot this offseason. What now since they’ve won the national title? And it’s a team that has the talent to have another special season, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.