By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – The leap might not be as far as it seems from a family picnic activity to the winning mental make-up on an SEC baseball weekend.
Will Allen believes the two are pretty close.
Renewed toughness is a buzzword around Ole Miss baseball this season as the Rebels try to find a way to turn close games in their direction.
The Rebels were 7-11 in one-run games last season, 6-17 when trailing after six innings.
Those numbers added up to a 17-21 finish after a 21-3 start, and Ole Miss ended its season in the Raleigh Regional without ever facing top seed North Carolina State.
Ole Miss opens the 2014 season on Friday at 5:30 at Stetson in Deland, Fla.
“The difference for the great teams is they make that one play, they make that one pitch,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “They win that game that matters. That puts you hosting a regional rather than playing on the road, puts you in the upper echelon of your conference. One game out of 30 means a lot. It’s a big deal.”
The Rebels finished 15-15 in the SEC standings, one game behind Mississippi State, which eventually played for the national championship.
One of those one-run Ole Miss losses was 7-6 at home against MSU when the Rebels led 6-0 after five innings. A win would have given Ole Miss a sweep of the Bulldogs – and perhaps more.
The Rebels were also swept at home by No. 2 Vanderbilt losing twice by a run, once by two and once in extras.
“It seemed like last year that if it didn’t go our way we would want to fold. Like if the other team would score three runs in the first two innings we were like, ‘Today’s not our day,’” said junior Austin Anderson, who moves form short to third this season.
New strength coach Ben Fleming has pushed Ole Miss players harder than they’ve been pushed before in weight and conditioning training.
Fleming has also appealed to players’ manhood through various competitions, tug-of-war among them.
If that brings thoughts of sunshine, families and spring warmth, think instead of fall competition under the watchful eyes of coaches as they make lineup decisions.
“All of our coaches throughout the fall were at our workouts watching us do every rep, seeing who was winning those races in conditioning runs,” said Allen, who returns to catcher this season as a senior.
He describes the near-misses of 2013 this way: “We had a ton of awesome players. We were close as a team, but obviously there was something missing.”
Bianco says depth is improved, and off-season workouts have been spirited.
Playing-time decisions won’t all be made by who let go of the rope and who held on, but there will be a tug-of-war factor.
“The message was sent early on that we wanted tough-minded kids. We want kids that are able to handle the adversity,” he said.