Rebel players, coaches open up at Ole Miss Baseball Ladies Forum
OXFORD, Miss. — This time of year can bring rain and dreary days, but baseball season cranking up means spring is just around the corner. For Ole Miss baseball, pre-season prep includes intrasquad games, conditioning, and an event coaches and players embrace — the Ole Miss Baseball Ladies Forum.
For eight seasons now, the team has hosted the event which has grown to full capacity and even has a waiting list for attendance. This year’s forum was held January 28. Why do so many women attend the event? Honestly, they just love the sport and want to learn more about the coaches, players, and inner workings of Ole Miss baseball.
The forum provides opportunities for attendees to hold question-and-answer sessions with a group of players chosen by the coaches and with the coaches, themselves.
This year’s forum had four groups comprised of players of various positions. One group consisting of Kemp Alderman, Calvin Harris, TJ McCants, and Josh Mallitz answered questions from the ladies concerning everything from Omaha to rituals to pre-game routines.
When asked if the team enjoyed the trip besides the game itself, Alderman replied:
“We enjoyed it, but we were there to win the whole thing. We went to the zoo and did some activities together, but the main thing was we were there to play baseball and do what we came there to do.”
Kemp Alderman on the trip to Omaha
The players also talked about their favorite memories of last year’s season. “I would have to say T. J.’s grand slam home run against LSU. It was a pretty good one,” said Calvin Harris
McCants laughed and replied, “I’d have to agree with him (Harris).”
Alderman jumped in with his answer, smiling, as he patted McCants on the back, “When I hit the walk-off after T. J. hit the grand slam.”
As far as rituals, many of the players commented on what they do as a pre-game ritual. Most get to the field early, stretch, play catch, and participate in daily maintenance and hitting. One attendee asked pitcher Jack Dougherty what he is saying on the mound when fans see him so animated.
“Honestly, not much,” Dougherty explained. “It’s a lot of breathing because I get really nervous, and it calms me down to breathe heavy and focus in on one thing. So, it’s not so much talking as it is like twitching.”
A visit with the pitchers
An attendee asked the pitchers if they remember the scouting report exactly when a hitter comes up. Jackson Kimbrell explained, “Coach has the charts in front of him. So, we just go up there and throw whatever pitches he calls.”
Sophomore pitcher Hunter Elliot added, “You kind of remember it. You especially remember what you want to throw to the good guys. The guys with really low batting averages you don’t worry that much about. You throw to your strengths rather than their weaknesses.”
Dougherty added, “You remember the big glaring things that are on the charts, but not every detail. You try not to think about it too much. You just want to go pitch.”
The pitchers all say they love it when it’s the third strike and fans throughout the stadium begin clapping in unison. “With the clapping, it really makes you want to throw a fastball,” Mason Nichols said. But then he chuckled and continued, “So, it’s kind of anticlimactic when Coach B puts down like a change-up.”
‘What was that pitch?’
The pitchers were asked if they had ever thrown a pitch — good or bad — and asked themselves, “What was that?”
Nichols told a touching story from Omaha that left attendees a little teary. “This is a pretty cool story and part of my testimony,” Nichols began.
“In Omaha, I came into game one of the national championship. I came in with guys all around the bases. Coach B called slider first pitch, and I throw it and it just doesn’t go anywhere near where I wanted it to go. The next pitch, I take a deep breath and compose myself. I’m very nervous, and I’m looking around at all the people. The next pitch, I said a little prayer. I said, ‘Lord, just help me put this pitch in the right place.’ I threw it, and it felt like it didn’t even leave my fingertips really. It just kind of almost slipped out, but it was probably the best slider I threw all year. The first one had jetted off, but that one was right to its spot. After that, I could get into a groove a little bit. That’s the pitch that answers that for me. I don’t feel like I threw that pitch.”
Baseball players are known to be a superstitious bunch, so inevitably the question of whether players have a superstition surfaced at the Forum.
Second baseman Peyton Chatagnier explained his. “My biggest one I have throughout the full year is I have a little action figure, Jobu, who is a character from a movie in my locker. In the movie, he helps the batter hit a curve ball. So, I like to think that guy can help me hit one too.”
Gonzalez told attendees he has worn the same wristband every game since he was thirteen years old.
The conversation with the hitters then turned to umpires and strike zones. While opinions varied, hitting coach Mark Clement offered some insight.
“Traditionally speaking, some of the umpires that have been around for a really long time can be frustrating for hitters because their zones tend to be bigger,” Clement explained.
“Some of the young umpires from the SEC come from professional baseball. So, those guys are taught to call a strike a strike and a ball a ball. We, as hitters, can really appreciate that to where their zone doesn’t vary from side to side.”
Coach Mark Clement on strike zones
Team Captain Garrett Wood
Garrett Wood has been elected team captain of this year’s Ole Miss Rebel baseball team, and several players at the Forum commented on why the Claremore, Oklahoma native was chosen.
Chatagnier took the opportunity to explain to attendees the process of selection. “I think you have to know how our election works,” he said.
“At the end of the fall, we have to fill out what we call an ‘As You See It.’ We have to list all the players and rank them how we think they are. If we were the coach, what would the lineup be and who would our captains be? There are two spots. The first spot and the second spot. The first spot gets two points, and then the second spot gets one point. After that, the coaches tally it up. If there is a drastic difference in spots, then the top one will be the captain. If there’s somebody that’s closer, then there will be two or maybe three captains. Obviously, Garrett is the only captain this year — which shows you there was a drastic difference, and we all think he is someone that represents our program really well.”
Peyton Chatagnier on choosing a captain
Shortstop Jacob Gonzalez had his own reason for voting for Wood.
“He shows up at the field the same person every day. He doesn’t show emotion. If he’s having a bad day, you’d never know. He keeps everyone together.”
Jacob Gonzalez on Garrett Wood
Third baseman Reagan Burford told attendees his reason for choosing Wood, “Garrett’s just a great leader, and as a captain that’s what the program needs. He makes everyone smile, but at the end of the day, if he needs to get your butt, he will. I think that’s one of the responsibilities of a captain, and there’s no one better for it.”
Perhaps the ultimate compliment of the day for Wood came from junior college transfer Ethan Lege.
“I came in here and play the same position as him. He welcomed me with open arms, showed me around, and showed me the ropes. He’s our captain for a reason.”
Ethan Lege on Garrett Wood
The group of new freshmen and transfer players described to the ladies how big a role the Rebel fan base played in their decision to choose Ole Miss.
Xavier Rivas, a transfer pitcher from Indianapolis explained what the fan support means to him. “A main reason was you guys (fans). There are a lot of great teams in college baseball, but few pack the house every single night with 10,000 plus.”
Assistant coach Carl Lafferty is the longest-tenured assistant coach in the SEC among the sports of football, basketball, and baseball, and he knows how much fan noise can impact a game.
“In the sense of a big pitch in a situation, the louder you (fans) get the more unnerving it is for the pitcher out on the mound. We literally teach our guys a breathing routine and a routine of how they get on the mound or they get in the box so they can tune out everything else and calm down. That’s why we talk about how we look for performers. It’s not easy. The cool thing about our kids is they want the expectation. They want to stand on the stage. Some people don’t want to stand out on national television in front of 10,000 people because it may not go their way.”
Coach Carl Lafferty
Coach Bianco discusses rules
Coach Bianco spoke to the ladies at the end of the morning session and answered questions submitted online. He also discussed rules that will be enforced this season, especially those designed to make the game move more quickly.
“There’s a thrust in baseball to try to play the game faster,” Bianco began. “They are trying really hard to keep the game under three hours, but we play this game that doesn’t have a clock. So, it’s hard to do. There’s a lot of wasted time. So, the question is how do we clean up the dead time? It’s not that the plays of the game take long; it’s in between.”
Coach Bianco says he feels the 120-second rule between innings will be enforced more consistently this season. “Now you’ll start getting penalties,” he said. “If your catcher was the last out or your pitcher was the DH, they’d give you more time. If that’s not the case, you’re supposed to be ready in 120 seconds. That’s really not a different rule, but I think it will be enforced more this year.”
Bianco also explained that the NCAA has a new rule of 20 seconds per pitch.
“Regardless if someone is on base or not, the pitcher has to deliver the ball within 20 seconds….If you step off, you either have to pick off or fake a throw; that’s in the rulebook. You get a warning. After the warning, if it happens again the batter gets a ball. They are going to be really stringent about this. Coming set doesn’t stop the clock. It’s delivering the ball to the plate, not the throw, but the actual commitment to the plate stops the clock.”
Coach Bianco on new rules
Another new SEC rule deals with quickening the game by limiting the relief pitcher’s time to warm up.
“From the bullpen, once the relief pitcher hits the warning track, he’s got two minutes and thirty seconds to get his eight warm-up pitches in. It’s plenty of time. He’s just got to get the ball and pitch. He can’t just mess around. There are thirty seconds between batters, twenty seconds between pitches. The batter has to be in the box by ten seconds left on the clock so that he doesn’t slow down the pitcher.”
Coach Bianco on rules designed to speed up the game
Coach Bianco says practicing the new rule implementation is something his team consistently works on. “Our job as players and coaches is to be better at this than the other team,” Bianco told the audience. “You can have an opinion, but it’s not that the other team is cheating. We know what the rules are. Our job is to be more efficient than the other team.”
Bianco talks Coral Gables Regional and Omaha
Coach Bianco related a long story very deserving of retelling. A rain delay had caused the Rebels to have extra time on their hands at the Regional in Coral Gables. The Ole Miss head coach reached out to his former LSU teammate, Luis Garcia, to arrange a meal for the team at Garcia’s restaurant, Garcia’s Seafood Grille and Fish Market, in downtown Miami. Garcia was a member of the 1991 LSU team who won the national championship that year.
Bianco explained to the group why he asked Garcia to speak to the team.
“Not only was it someone speaking to them who wore the uniform and who has had success, but hearing from one of your counterparts from one of the most respected programs in the country who won a national championship. So, there’s instant credibility. His message was ‘You can win here. You can win here at Miami, and they know you can win here. They know what conference you play in and how that’s prepared you, but you’ve got to go win it. You can’t just come here. You’ve got to play with a lot of confidence.’”
Coach Bianco on what Luis Garcia told the Rebs
Bianco then described how the Coral Gable series meant more than some fans may realize.
“A couple of days later, obviously, we beat the University of Miami, 2-1. If I look back at it, you say, ‘Hey, that was the game that won the national championship.’ Why? We played so well at Southern Mississippi; they didn’t have a chance. There (Coral Gables), we won on a rain delay game at 1:00 in the morning against Arizona coming from behind. Then we played the national seed. We’re losing 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh with two outs. We are literally seven outs from losing, and then Bench gets a base it. Jacob Gonzalez gets a base hit, and ‘don’t let the Rebs get hot guy’ (Tim Elko), and we win 2-1. That was the game.”
When speaking about Omaha, Bianco’s emotion could be felt by all in attendance. “There was a flood of emotion and so many things,” he told the crowd.
“You can imagine when you reach the pinnacle of your profession, at least at that moment, some of the emotions and things that happened I saw and dreamed about and hoped for and expected.”
Coach Bianco on the College World Series title
Spring workouts continue
Ole Miss Rebel baseball continues its preseason preparation with workouts and scrimmages. The Rebels begin the 2023 campaign at Swayze Field on February 17 versus the Delaware Blue Hens at 4:00 p.m.
Best of luck to the Rebels this season as they seek to return to Omaha to defend their title. Let’s watch and see if the Rebs remain hot!
(Feature image credit: Josh McCoy)
Donna Sprabery is a former teacher, graduation coach, and academic coach for boys basketball. She graduated from the University of West Alabama with a major in business education and from Arkansas State University with a MA in Educational Leadership. A native of Meridian, MS, Donna enjoys traveling, gardening, writing, volunteer work, and cheering on the Rebels.