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Denham Springs, La., native, Mississippian since 1989 with a stop in Meridian before arriving in Tupelo. Daily Journal beat writer since 1996, covering Ole Miss since 2002. Proud Northeast Louisiana alum. Follow me on Twitter @parrishalford and listen to Kory Keys and myself daily with The Ole Miss Beat on Rebel Sports Radio.

Stories Written by Parrish Alford

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze signs autographs during the Rebel Road Trip on Thursday.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze signs autographs during the Rebel Road Trip on Thursday.

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Any expense incurred by Ole Miss athletics by loading the bus and driving here Thursday was offset in a big way.

As Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork addressed a mid-day gathering of fans and alumni at the BancorpSouth Arena meeting rooms – the Tupelo stop on the “Rebel Road Trip” – he let them in on a little secret.

Minutes before he started talking Bjork got the word that athletics had received a commitment for a $2 million gift.

That’s what you call winning the day.

The donation was marked for no specific expense but was given to the school’s “Forward Together” campaign, the centerpiece of which is the new basketball arena. Dirt work has already begun.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork announced the commitment of a $2 million gift at the Rebels Road Trip at the BancorpSouth Arena.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork announced the commitment of a $2 million gift at the Rebels Road Trip at the BancorpSouth Arena.

“To have people step up pretty much every day toward our campaign, to receive a gift like this today is big for our program to keep that momentum moving ahead,” Bjork said.

The donor’s name has not been released.

The gift brings the capital campaign to $110 million – $10 million short of what Bjork believes he needs to remove the bleachers and begin bowling in the north end zone of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

“Hopefully by the summer we can have a lot more momentum to define a timeline and maybe do some things after this football season. If not, then after the 2015 season,” he said.

Women’s basketball coach Matt Insell and football coach Hugh Freeze also addressed the crowd. Freeze, 15-11 entering his third season as coach, before and after he spoke.

On previous visits to Tupelo, Freeze has spoken about the journey of a rebuilding football program and the challenge of guiding it through the “wilderness.”

The message Thursday was more directed to what fans can do to help the program move forward.

“I don’t know what your strengths are, but I know you have something that is of value to us and to the place you love, something you can give,” Freeze said. “Here would be my challenge to you: Do what you have been doing and one extra thing.”

Something extra could include a monetary donation, but it could also include writing encouraging notes to players and coaches or perhaps praying for people in the program.

Seemingly small contributions are meaningful, Freeze said.

He also challenged the group to remain focused on moving the program forward and to not been thrown off track by criticism.

“We’ve had some good times, we’ve had some disappointing times, but I think everyone would say we much farther along than we thought we’d be at this point,” Freeze said.

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

OleMissLogoBy Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is back working out with his Ole Miss football teammates for the first time since his suspension was announced by Rebels coach Hugh Freeze prior to the start of spring drills in early March.

Linebacker Serderius Bryant was also suspended then but was allowed to go through spring drills. The “suspension” tag still applies to both, Freeze said Thursday when the Rebel Road Trip made its Tupelo stop.

“Both are doing exactly what we’ve put in place, so I’m pleased. The minute I jump out there and become very optimistic, we could have a setback. I just know to this point they’re doing everything,” Freeze said.

Both were involved in misdemeanor arrests in January and were given tasks to complete before regaining their good standing with the team.

Nkemdiche’s list was longer, and he’s been suspended for the Aug. 28 opener against Boise State in Atlanta.

Prior to this week, Nkemdiche had been allowed to work out in the football weight room but only on an individual basis.

“I met with him this morning before we left. His grades look good. He seems to be making better decisions and is more responsible with the platform he has,” Freeze said.

Ole Miss vs. Memphis

Ole Miss will play half of a scheduled four-game football contract with Memphis before it plays its first basketball game with the Tigers.

The regional rivals last played football in 2009, a 45-14 Ole Miss win at Memphis.

A football renewal was contingent upon the basketball series also renewing, Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said.

Ole Miss will play Memphis in football this season in Oxford and next season in Memphis.

The first basketball game will be played in for the 2015-2016 season in Memphis. Bjork described it as a “December type” game.

The Tigers will play in Oxford in 2016. The new Ole Miss arena is expected to be open by then.

The basketball dates aren’t in place sooner because basketball scheduling is done more “real time,” as opposed to football, which is done several years out, Bjork said.

The teams last played basketball as part of the 2010 NIT in Oxford.

“Our deal was a package deal … football and basketball. It helps both our programs. For us, the city of Memphis is huge from a market standpoint,” Bjork said.

Hot topics

The health of defensive end C.J. Johnson and quarterback Bo Wallace, plus uniforms and the Egg Bowl are the most asked-about topics during the Rebel Road Trip, Freeze says.

Johnson, called the Rebels’ best defensive player by coordinator Dave Wommack, was limited to four games last year because of injury.

He is healthy going into spring, and so is Wallace, who will be a third-year starter and is now one year removed from shoulder surgery.

“When we open up for questions they want to know if CJ Johnson is healthy. They want to know about Bo’s arm. We’re always going to get a uniform question. Then, are we going to get the Egg Bowl back. Those are probably the four things. There are others too, but those are pretty frequent,” Freeze said.

Ole Miss lost possession of the Golden Egg trophy when it dropped a 17-10 overtime decision at rival Mississippi State last November.

Freeze is 1-1 against the Bulldogs.

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

Aaron Nola will take the mound for LSU tonight against Ole Miss. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Aaron Nola will take the mound for LSU tonight against Ole Miss. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Ole Miss didn’t face LSU right-hander Aaron Nola in Baton Rouge last year, but the Rebels will get a first-hand look at the Tigers’ dominant ace tonight.

SEC play starts a night early as the No. 13-ranked Rebels and No. 12-ranked Tigers begin their conference series at Swayze Field.

First pitch is 6:30 p.m., and the game will be televised by ESPNU. The series resumes Friday at 6:30 and concludes Saturday at 1:30.

Ole Miss (29-9, 9-6 SEC) is a half game ahead of LSU (28-9-1, 8-6-1) in the Western Division standings. The Tigers tied Georgia earlier this season when the two teams couldn’t finish before the Bulldogs had to leave Baton Rouge.

Ole Miss could again be without its top reliever, Aaron Greenwood, who missed last weekend’s Mississippi State series with an abdominal strain. Greenwood hasn’t allowed an earned run in 19 1/3 consecutive innings, a streak that dates back to Feb. 28 against Central Florida.

Ole Miss and LSU met on the final SEC weekend last year. The Tigers were locked into their spot in the standings, and coach Paul Maineri decided to rest Nola prior to the SEC tournament.

“We just have to continue to do what we do, get on base, put pressure on guys, and not really think of that as a huge step up,” Ole Miss catcher Will Allen said. “We face great arms, week-in and week-out.”

Through the first half of the SEC season, the Rebels have had success against those great arms.

Ole Miss is hitting a collective .296 in conference games, second to Kentucky’s .299.

Rebels’ left fielder Braxton Lee has scored an SEC-high 16 runs against league competition. Austin Anderson and Sikes Orvis have each hit four home runs. Only Kentucky’s A.J. Reed, with six, has hit more.

“We faced (Spencer) Turnbull at Alabama a couple of weeks ago. He hasn’t had the hype that maybe Nola has, but we all know he’s a dominant pitcher and will probably go high in the draft,” Anderson said.

Florida was able to beat Nola 2-1 in a March 29 game in Gainesville on the strength of a couple of home runs and its own good pitching.

Nola (7-1, 0.70) set a career-high last Friday night with 13 strikeouts against Arkansas. He scattered four hits, two walks and gave up two runs over seven innings in a 5-3 LSU win.

He leads the SEC in strikeouts and earned run average and ranks in the NCAA’s top five in both categories.

He’s been especially difficult the first time through a batting order. Opponents are just 9 for 88 against him over the first three innings this season.

“We’re just going to stick to our approach. Our offense has been swinging it well. We’ll come out aggressive and be ready to go,” Anderson said.

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

–––––

SCHEDULED PITCHERS

Tonight: Ole Miss RHP Chris Ellis (5-0, 1.81) vs. LSU RHP Aaron Nola (7-1, 0.70)

Friday: Ole Miss LHP ChristianTrent (4-0, 2.44) vs. LSU LHP Jared Poche (6-2, 2.54)

Saturday: Ole Miss RHP Sam Smith (5-2, 2.30) vs. LSU TBA

ZUPPARDO

ZUPPARDO

By Parrish Alford and Logan Lowery

Daily Journal

Rick Ray added one final piece to his 2014 class at Mississippi State on Wednesday by signing Jones County Junior College forward Johnny Zuppardo.

The 6-foot-9, 240-pounder took an official visit to Starkville over the weekend and committed to the Bulldogs on Tuesday. Zuppardo also had offers from Washington, Wichita State, St. Bonaventure, Iona and Kent State.

The former St. Stanislaus standout began his career at Arkansas State where he appeared in 24 games as a true freshman averaging 1.3 points and one rebound. From there Zuppardo transferred to Southern Miss where he was forced to sit out the 2012-13 season due to transfer rules.

Zuppardo helped lead the Bobcats to the NJCAA National Championship this past season averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He earned was selected to the NJCAA All-Tournament team.

Zuppardo is the fourth member of the MSU signing class joining fellow forwards Demetrius Houston and Oliver Black along with guard Maurice Dunlap, who all signed in the fall.

Smith chooses Rebels

Ole Miss basketball has signed Terrence Smith, a 6-foot-4 guard from Tennessee-Martin, to a postgraduate scholarship, Rebels coach Andy Kennedy announced on Wednedsay.

Smith, a native of Russellville, Ala., is scheduled to graduate from UTM in May.

Smith averaged 14.6 points and 2.8 assists on a Skyhawks team that wen 8-23. He shot 42.9 percent from the floor, 43.8 percent from 3-point range.

Wednesday was the first day of the spring signing period for basketball.

The Rebels also signed Rod Lawrence, a 6-4 wing from South Plains (Texas) Community College.

Lawrence averaged 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in 31 minutes a game last year while shooting 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Thomas commits to Bulldogs

Mississippi State football added another playmaker to its 2015 fold as three-star athlete Deddrick Thomas became the Bulldogs 10th commitment.

The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder from Memphis is rated as the No. 16 prospect in Tennessee and the nation’s 52nd-best at the “athlete” position according to 247Sports.com. The latest commitment has the Bulldogs’ class ranking 10th nationally.

Thomas also had offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Marshall, Memphis, Middle Tennessee, Ohio, Ole Miss, South Alabama, Southern Miss and Troy.

Thomas is expected to be a slot receiver in college.

Last season, Thomas helped lead Central High School to an 8-4 record and into the quarterfinals of the Class 6A state playoffs.

SMITH

SMITH

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Ole Miss basketball has signed Terrence Smith, a 6-foot-4 guard from Tennessee Martin, to a post-graduate scholarship, Rebels coach Andy Kennedy said.

Smith, a native of Russellville, Ala., is scheduled to graduate from UTM in May.

Smith averaged 14.6 points and 2.8 assists on a Skyhawks team that went 8-23. He shot 42.9 percent from the floor, including 43.8 percent from 3-point range.

Today is the first day of the spring signing period for basketball.

The Rebels are also expected to sign Rod Lawrence, a 6-4 wing from South Plains (Texas) Community College.

Lawrence averaged 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in 31 minutes a game last year while shooting 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Christian Trent left LSU for Ole Miss to maximize his potential.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Christian Trent left LSU for Ole Miss to maximize his potential.

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

OXFORD – There may be many Ole Miss fans at Swayze Field on Thursday night who wouldn’t immediately get the meaning of “lagniappe.”

That’s not true for the Rebels’ Louisiana-heavy pitching rotation as No. 12 LSU visits No. 13 Ole Miss this week.

Born and bred across the border, Christian Trent and Sam Smith have both provided the “something extra” that defines lagniappe, and they’ve done it in different ways.

Trent has immediately excelled as an SEC starter, as Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco has had to replace two underclassman draft picks – Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers – from the 2013 roster.

Smith has grown into a solid third starter in conference games, a luxury not seen on many SEC teams.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Sam Smith wasn't recruited by LSU when he signed with Ole Miss out of Lake Charles, La., prior to the 2012 season.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Sam Smith wasn’t recruited by LSU when he signed with Ole Miss out of Lake Charles, La., prior to the 2012 season.

“Sometimes (Sam) gets overlooked, pitching on Sundays, but he’s still one of the best pitchers in this conference and in the country,” Ole Miss catcher Will Allen said.

Smith pitched into the seventh at Mississippi State on Sunday and left with a 10-0 lead. Two runs were later charged to his line in the Rebels’ 12-2 win.

A Lake Charles, La., native, Smith, a right-hander, wasn’t recruited by LSU. When he arrived at Ole Miss for the 2012 season Bianco described him early on as the most “game ready” of the freshmen. He went on to make 13 appearances, nine of them starts.

He’s currently sporting the best earned run average his career at 2.30 over 54.2 innings. Smith doesn’t “wow” you with strikeout numbers but keeps walks to a minimum and relies on his defense.

“I think I’ve grown in a lot of ways from a maturity standpoint. I think my stuff’s gotten a little better every year,” he said. “I’m throwing a little harder than I was when I first got here.”

A different path

It’s been a different path for Trent. A left-hander from Madisonville, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, he was recruited by LSU and became a part of the Tigers’ program. At the end of his first semester, however, he gained a strong sense that he could maximize his opportunity someplace else after LSU coach Paul Maineri discussed the future with him.

“He just told me I was going to be a redshirt. From that point on I wasn’t going to play a huge role there. At the time I was like a lefty-lefty matchup guy. I wasn’t using my potential to the fullest,” Trent said. “We kind of just parted ways. It just didn’t work out.”

After a junior college season that included six complete games – two of them shutouts – Trent has been an eager and successful answer to Bianco’s help wanted ad.

He posted his first college complete game with a 6-0 shutout of Auburn on April 5. He has flooded the zone with strikes and allowed only eight walks while striking out 49 in 59 innings.

Back in fall ball, Allen didn’t predict such quick success for Trent.

“I knew he was going to be a great pitcher for us. I didn’t know he was going to be pitching on the weekends and doing as good as he’s been doing. He just gets after it,” Allen said.

Trent downplays the significance of his LSU time and the Tigers’ visit and expects to get after it like it was any other weekend.

Smith admits to being a little more amped up against his home-state school, which is also Bianco’s alma mater.

“Being a Louisiana guy, I’m always looking forward to playing LSU. I have my parents coming up, and a lot of friends are going to be here. I’m really excited,” he said.

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

Ole Miss third baseman Austin Anderson is fourth in the SEC with his .356 batting average.

Ole Miss third baseman Austin Anderson is fourth in the SEC with his .356 batting average. (Ole Miss)

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

OXFORD – After dropping two of its first three SEC series, Ole Miss has responded with back-to-back series victories due in large part to relentless offense.

Since getting swept at Alabama in Week 3, the Rebels have won eight of their last nine.

As LSU visits later this week, Ole Miss is a game behind the SEC West-leading Crimson Tide and a half game ahead of LSU.

The Rebels punctuated a 4-1 week with a 2-1 series win at Mississippi State in which they knocked around MSU ace Ross Mitchell on Friday then proceeded to hit .362 for the weekend. Ole Miss had at least 13 hits in each game.

The Rebels haven’t been sitting idle once on base. They lead the SEC with 66 steals, six of them this past week from leadoff hitter Braxton Lee.

“Offensively we were really good this weekend,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “One of the things Keith (Kessinger, team broadcaster) was saying on the air, and it’s true … how well we run, and with Braxton really swinging it well.

“Remember, a couple of weeks ago he was hitting about .215. He got off to a great start, then fell into a slump.”

Ole Miss had a season-high 20 hits in Sunday’s 12-2 series clinching win. The Rebels begin the week second in the SEC in hitting with a .310 team average.

Ripple effect

Lee’s improvement at the plate has had a positive impact throughout the lineup.

“It’s hard to quantify how that helps the other guys, because the other team has to really defend against the steal. That’s a big deal for us.”

Lee hit .500 for the week (12-for-24) and scored four runs.

There were plenty of offensive heroes in Starkville, including first baseman Sikes Orvis, whose two-run home run to the deepest part of Dudy Noble Field on Saturday seemingly propelled Ole Miss to a win in Game 2, and third baseman Austin Anderson, who hit .400 for the three games.

Anderson is fourth in the SEC in hitting at .356, while Orvis is second in home runs with eight.

Aggressive play in the wake of Saturday’s disappointing loss was the key to winning the series, Anderson said.

“It would have been easy to say, ‘Oh we should have won that game,’ everyone get down at the start, getting bitter around each other. It’s hard to forget about it, hard to flush it, but you have to. It’s the SEC. That kind of stuff happens. We could have come out flat and ended up losing the series. Instead we came out being aggressive, and we took the series.”

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

OleMissLogoLooking back: The Rebels were 4-1 last week. They defeated Memphis 9-1, Murray State 8-5 then won at Mississippi State 6-1 on Friday, 12-2 on Sunday. They lost Game 2 in Starkville 6-5 in 10 innings.

Looking ahead: The Rebels have no midweek games but start SEC play early, Thursday night at 6:30 at home against LSU in an ESPNU TV game. The series continues Friday at 6:30 and Saturday at 1:30.

Rankings: The Rebels climbed six spots to No. 13 in this week’s release of the Baseball America Top 25.

In the SEC: The Rebels are a game behind Alabama in second place in the SEC West, a half game ahead of LSU.

MVP: Left fielder Braxton Lee hit .500 for the week with three doubles, five RBIs and was 6-for-6 on stolen bases.

Parrish Alford

PARRISH ALFORD

PARRISH ALFORD

STARKVILLE

The buzzword that Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco used before the season began – toughness – was put to the test on Sunday.

After its 10th-inning meltdown Saturday, when rival Mississippi State scored four times in the bottom of the 10th to win 6-5, Ole Miss had every chance to let the devastation linger.

Late heroics by MSU’s Wes Rea and Gavin Collins could have triggered a two-for-the-price-of-one weekend for the Bulldogs.

It required toughness on the part of the Rebels to keep that from happening and win 12-2 to take the series.

“We preach it all the time. Y’all may think it’s just a catch word, just something to say, but this team is really tough,” said Sam Smith, who pitched into the seventh and upped his record to 5-2.

That fight showed itself early with a two-run first on Sunday and with the efficiency in getting runners around the bases in a four-run fourth.

Sunday’s win wasn’t about base-clearing doubles and home runs. It was about intense focus on offense and pounding out a season-high 20 hits.

There was toughness from Sam Smith too. He did what he usually does. He doesn’t dominate with strikeouts but keeps the ball in the park, no small feat with strong wind blowing out to left field. Smith absorbed six hits and walked two.

At times it was the Bulldogs who looked unfocused – such as when Rebels were at first and third in the fifth. Errol Robinson stole second, and Preston Overbey scored without a throw.

In the same inning, Will Jamison beat out an infield hit that smashed off MSU pitcher Brandon Woodruff, because second baseman Brett Pirtle was slow trying to make the play.

Locked in

Ole Miss was the more locked-in team, the tougher team.

Missing a key component of its bullpen in Aaron Greenwood, the Rebels were still a whisker away from sweeping the Bulldogs. Maybe Greenwood would have made a difference Saturday.

For toughness to matter it has to extend to all phases of play, and right now Ole Miss needs it most when closing games.

The Rebels have had issues on the road doing that and have left wins on the table at South Carolina, at Alabama and at MSU.

Relentless offense can cover up some things, but you don’t write 12 runs and 20 hits into your game plan.

There’s a lot to like about this team as it sits 9-6 in conference play, a game behind Alabama in the SEC West.

But there’s room to improve with LSU in town this Thursday and a trip to Kentucky the following week.

It will take toughness across the board to play postseason baseball at Swayze Field.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.

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By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – With the shadows falling on Saturday afternoon Gavin Collins and Wes Rea put the “super” back into Super Bulldog Weekend.

Rea’s bloop double tied the game, and Collins’ walk-off hit through the left side won it as No. 17 Mississippi State, which had scored just three runs in the first 18 innings of its SEC series with rival Ole Miss, scored four times in the bottom of the 10th to beat the No. 19-ranked Rebels 6-5 before an NCAA campus-record crowd of 15,586 at Dudy Noble Field.

The decisive third game of the series is at 1:30 p.m. today.

Many in that record crowd left before the bottom of the 10th as Ole Miss first baseman Sikes Orvis had given the Rebels (28-9, 8-6 SEC) a 4-2 lead with a two-run home run to center field.

Ole Miss added another run on a sacrifice fly to make it 5-2 going to the bottom of the 10th.

It was a daunting task ahead for an MSU (22-14, 7-7) team that had struggled to score and stranded 15 runners in the game.

“I’m proud of our kids who kept competing, kept working, kept grinding and found a way to get it done on a day when we’d had three or four opportunities and just didn’t get it done,” MSU coach John Cohen said.

One of those opportunities was in the bottom of the eighth with a runner at third and one out, but Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco turned to reliever Josh Laxer who responded with two-straight called strikeouts to end the threat. Laxer gave up two hits and a walk in the ninth but escaped unscathed.

Problems begin

He began the 10th with a fly out before the wheels fell off. The rally started with back-to-back doubles, included a throwing error by Ole Miss second baseman Preston Overbey, and by the time Rea stepped to the plate it was a 5-4 Ole Miss lead with Alex Detz at second and two outs.

Rea’s fly ball was shallow enough that Ole Miss right fielder Will Jamison had to run a long way. He dived to try and make a play, didn’t, and Alex Detz, who had reached on the error, scored easily.

Then Collins singled off Preston Tarkington, and as pinch-runner Matthew Britton crossed the plate a wild celebration ensued.

“(Rea’s) hit gave us the momentum, and we knew from that point something good was going to happen. Something was going to go our way,” Collins said.

Ole Miss players insist the Bulldogs haven’t taken momentum in the series for good.

“We’ve been through this before. We’re a mature team,” Orvis said.

Maturity aside there’s no denying the shock of what happened to the Rebels on Saturday.

“It’s a disappointing one to lose. We had it. We had it, and we blew it,” Bianco said.

parrish.alford@journalinc.com