Mike Bianco didn’t mince words when it came time to talk about his starting catcher and the role he’s played on the Ole Miss baseball team this year.
The first part of the season didn’t produce the best moments for Austin Knight. Then, once he started to catch better, his hitting shot up.
Knight, who enters the three-game series with Mississippi State hitting third best on the team for regulars at .281, was praised by Bianco for the job he has done most recently.
“I really believe at the beginning of the season he didn’t play as well in any phase, defensively and offensively, and I’m really proud of him because like anything, it’s easy to get down on yourself,” Bianco said. “With him being a senior, we needed him. He’s played really well. It’s easy to look at the offense because of the home runs and the extra base hits and multiple-hit games, but he’s caught terrific. He’s thrown people out. He’s really defended well and been a terrific leader for us.”
This week’s series is a little more special for Knight because he is set to walk across the stage at graduation. Knight, who played his high school ball at Sumrall, is earning a degree in business management and his entire family will be in attendance for Saturday’s ceremony. When Knight left Sumrall, he envisioned his college career going a little differently than it has here at Ole Miss.
“Like most kids coming out, having a dream of playing Major League Baseball, I was like ‘I’m going to play college baseball for three years and get drafted,’” Knight said. “Obviously that doesn’t happen for everyone and I’m the key example for that. I wouldn’t trade anything, any of the experiences I’ve had here for anything the other way though. This has been pretty much the exact experience that you would want in college as far as the atmosphere, the sport, the education in general. It’s just been amazing.”
And to think that Knight, who grew up a fan of Southern Miss, was set on attending Meridian Community College right out of high school if he hadn’t gotten the late offer from Bianco.
“I was going to go there, play and then see what happened,” Knight recalled. “I had talked to other schools, but at the time, before Ole Miss offered, Meridian seemed like the best option for me. I’m definitely glad I’m in red and blue now.”
Having a chance to play every day has been a big key for Knight and the jump in his numbers.
“It’s about strapping it on and knowing that I have to play my best so that we can give ourselves a chance to win,” Knight added. “I think that’s what it comes down to more than anything else. I’ve always thought I was a good hitter, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to me, or to any of my teammates, but I can see where it is a surprise to fans or people in the community in general.”
Knight entered the 2015 season with 16 starts under his belt. He currently has started 34 games, and appeared in 37. He had 10 RBIs collected in three seasons, while he currently has 16. And he never had any home runs in the 87 at bats he had before 2015. So far he has two, and six doubles, which is also a career high.
“Even self perceived, I’ve always been more of a defensive catcher. My better skill set is playing defense behind the plate,” Knight said. “That’s still my No. 1 thing going into a game, that I’m going to be good for my pitcher and give us a chance to win there first back there. I think the offense as a secondary thing for me has been good. And I think I’ve been pretty good at the plate this year.”
Ole Miss has already played Mississippi State once this season, earning an 11-1 win in the annual Governor’s Cup on April 28. Still, the three-game series is always the one that decides bragging rights more than anything else. Knight said the “Viva Starkvegas” shirts did nothing for him, meaning he ignored them pretty easily.
“It didn’t mean anything to us and playing them, it’s always a big series, the biggest in-state rivalry,” Knight said. “Most of the time, it’s later in the year and it’s always a key series. It’s one that we need to win in order to achieve the goals that we want to. For both teams, it means a lot to come out and play well and for us to be here at Swayze, I think it gives us a huge advantage. It’s graduation weekend so there will be a ton of people here. We’re all looking forward to it.”