OXFORD, Miss. – Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco met with the media Tuesday in advance of the 2018 campaign, one in which, by Bianco’s own admission, the Rebels hope to return to a position of prominence in both the highly competitive SEC and the national landscape.
(Click here for video of Coach Bianco’s press conference.)
He also provided a brief update on construction that has occurred during the off season–including new club level seats and the Baseball Performance Center (with an expected completion date of April), where he noted the team has already been able to use the (hitting) cages and pitching (areas) for several weeks.
Bianco commented on the transition from last year’s team that had only six upperclassmen to this year’s team that will boast 14. He praised many members from the No. 1 ranked recruiting class of 2017, specifically mentioning WIll Etheridge, Ryan Rolison, and Houston Roth, who were all three named Freshmen All-American.
Ole Miss returns seven of its starting nine from the 2017 lineup, losing only third baseman Colby Bortles and second baseman Tate Blackman from the everyday lineup. On the mound, the Rebels return seven of their best ERA producers from a 2017 team that finished with the 4th best ERA in the conference.
Ole Miss brings back three weekend starters from 2017, with sophomore Ryan Rolison getting the start on Friday. Rolison’s stats from last year include a 6-3 record with a 3.06 ERA, 61.2 innings pitched, and 64 strike-outs.
Rolison will be followed by redshirt junior Brady Feigl on Saturday and junior James “Big Tex” McArthur closing the weekend on Sunday.
Last season, Feigl’s stats include a 2-2 record with a 4.08 ERA. He pitched 53 innings and notched 54 strike outs. In 64.2 innings pitched last season, McArthur tallied 60 strike outs and held opponents to a .209 batting average.
Returner Dallas Woolfolk, coming off a summer with Team USA, is slated to again be the Rebels’ closer. Last season, the junior made 26 appearances, finished with a 2.15 ERA and recorded a team-high 12 saves. His season strike out-to-walk ratio was 41 to 5.
Senior Will Stokes appears to be the “set up” guy for Woolfolk in the bullpen. In 2017, Stokes made 24 appearances and finished with a 2.67 ERA in 33.2 innings pitched.
Other arms in the bullpen who will compete for weekend starter positions include Houston Roth (Freshman All-American), Greer Holston, and Will Ethridge (Freshman All-American).
“Last year, as good as we were on the mound, we weren’t good enough to compete on Friday night in the SEC,” Bianco said.
“And if you want to compete in our league, you have to compete on Friday night, and I think Ryan (Rolison) gives us the best shot to do that right away.”
Mike Bianco on Friday night starter Ryan Rolison
The outfield will be manned by three of the Rebels’ finest. Thomas Dillard will start in left field. In 2017, the sophomore started 45 games and hit four home runs.
Senior Will Golsan will move to center field. Golsan was the only Ole Miss player to start all 57 games in 2017 and finished with a .312 batting average.
Junior Ryan Olenek, who played center field for the Rebels in 2017, will move to right field. Olenek, who started 53 games for Ole Miss last season, ranked ninth in the SEC last year with a team-high 17 doubles and stole a team-best 10 bases, going 10-for-13 in opportunities.
At third base, it looks as if freshmen Tim Elko and Tyler Keenan will split time, at least initially. “Around the infield, at third base, it could be a couple freshmen,” Bianco said. “One in Tim Elko, and another in Tyler Keenan, both physical hitters, both solid defenders, both will add some power to the lineup. One’s right handed in Tim, and Tyler’s left-handed,” he added.
Grae Kessinger returns at shortstop for the Rebels after starting 53 games there last season. The sophomore from Ole Miss’ historic Kessinger baseball family led last year’s team in sacrifice bunts with eight, ranking seventh in the SEC. The Oxford native helped turn 19 of the team’s 39 double plays in 2017.
As for second baseman, Bianco was non-committal as to who the opening day starter would be, suggesting either Jacob Adams or Anthony Servideo would be there on opening day.
Junior returner Nick Fortes will be the first baseman on Friday when the season begins, with sophomore Cole Zabowski also sharing time at first. Last season, Fortes tallied a team-high .319 batting average along with the second-highest slugging percentage (.486). Zabowski scored eight runs on the season and was credited with 11 RBIs.
Sophomore Cooper Johnson, who was charged with only two errors in 391 attempts last year, will start behind the plate for Ole Miss. Tuesday, Bianco praised Johnson’s off-season work at the plate saying, “Cooper worked really hard with Coach Clement offensively and probably made as much strides as anybody offensively, so we’re really proud of him.” Expect Fortes to get some time at catcher as well.
Senior Tim Rowe (.405 slugging) and junior Chase Cockrell will provide a right-handed, left-handed combination with a lot of power.
Golsan and Feigl elected team captains
Bianco announced that Golsan and Feigl have been elected team captains. Bianco explained that leadership, to him, is not just leading by example.
“I think leadership is more than that. I think it’s more than just showing up for practice at the right time, and those guys (Golsan and Feigl) do that. The other big thing about leadership is how much better do you make the players around you. Just watching them this fall and watching them reach out to younger guys are some of those great qualities you need.”
Mike Bianco on Ole Miss captains
Bianco didn’t offer too much insight into the batting order for opening day, but he did discuss the leadoff hitter.
“Leadoff is the tough one.I think there’s a good chance that one of those second basemen, maybe Servideo or Adams leads off opening day, but we’ll have to play with it,” he said. “Some of those other guys that run well probably aren’t your prototypical leadoff guys, like Olenek and Golsan. They’re good hitters, but I think Servideo and Adams did that for us, and I think they’re ready for that position.”
First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m. against the Winthrop Eagles.
Winthrop has been picked to win the Big South Conference by its league coaches. They will bring junior Nate Pawelczyk, who has been named the Big South Conference Preseason Pitcher of the Year, with them to Oxford.