REBELS HOPE TO BE SURPRISE SEC TEAM THIS SEASON

CATEGORY: Basketball

AUTHOR: BURROW

REBELS HOPE TO BE SURPRISE SEC TEAM THIS SEASON

By Chris Burrows

Daily Journal

OXFORD – After a record-shattering 1995 season, capped by an appearance in the Atlanta I Regional Tournament finals, what can the Ole Miss Rebels do for an encore?

Can eight top performers, who signed professional contracts, be replaced? What about the pitching staff? What about the new assistant coach?

Rebel coach Don Kessinger answers those questions with one of his own, “Who knows?” Then he smiles.

On paper, it looks like a rebuilding year and the preseason coaches poll projects the Rebels as the last place team in the six-team Western Division.

Kessinger smiles again.

“I understand that. I’d look at it that way if I was voting for us, too. But I think they’re wrong.”

Kessinger has good reason to believe the Rebels could be the surprise team of the league. For starters, Kessinger has never had a losing season in his five years as head coach.

Attendance is at an all-time high and Oxford-University Stadium and 31 games are scheduled there. Ole Miss has moved up to No. 14 nationally in home attendance.

As for the personnel, six of the eight positions return players that have at least 43 games of experience apiece. The pitching and coaching staff have been bolstered by junior college additions, including assistant coach Steve Abney, who works with the pitchers.

“It’s different here. It’s a different kind of Ole Miss team,” Kessinger said. “But we’re excited to get it going and see what happens.”

Expect this Rebels edition to play to the stengths of defense, speed and intensity. The pitchers will throw strikes and the offense will put pressure on defenses.

Third baseman Richy Harrelson of Iuka (.330), first baseman Todd Mensik (.346), second baseman Keith Lewis (.267 career), outfielder Joe Ignatius (.257 career) and pitcher Mickey Callaway (7-7, 3.47 ERA) are two-year starters with proven track records of success.

Shortstop Jason Huisman (.295), outfielder John Knight (.241) and Dan DeYoung (3-2, 3 saves) played key roles for last year’s team and figure to be better this time.

“We’ve got some guys that know what it takes to be good in this league,” said Harrelson, who serves with Ignatius as co-captains. “The key is how the new guys come in and do the job.”

Jucos Anthony Felston of Delta and Itawamba’s Casey Stokes figure in the outfield. Page Echols is a new face at catcher. Pitchers Vince Fiore, Mike Rodgers and Matthew Duff could be major contributors.

“I really like the way two freshmen have looked: (corner infielder) Brad Henderson of Tupelo and (middle infielder) Chris Lotterhos of Germantown,” Kessinger said. “We’ve had a hard time getting those guys out in the scrimmages.”

The Rebels open Friday with Eastern Kentucky, setting up a 30-game SEC slate. The top three teams in each division, along with the two teams featuring the best records among the survivors, advance to the SEC Tournament in Birmingham on May 15-19.

“I don’t like that arrangement or the new tournament format (four teams play an elimination game to remain in the tournament),” Kessinger said. “It’s the toughest division in America.

“We had five teams in our division that made it to the finals of the regional tournaments last year,” Kessinger said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.

“We’ll need to do as well or better than last year (14-12 SEC) to make sure we’re in Birmingham.”

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