For some people, baseball season doesn't start until the first pitch of the regular season, for some, it doesn’t start until conference play, and for some, it may not even begin until the postseason or heck, Omaha. For others like me though, college baseball never really ends. We use football, basketball, and a litany of other sports to hold us over until baseball season, not the other way around. Something about waking up early on a near-freezing Friday morning to make the drive to Oxford to see the beautiful new sign reading “2022 National Champions” hung high over the grand entrance of Oxford University Stadium just makes it feel like baseball season is finally back. We are now within three weeks of the first pitch for D1 baseball and on Friday I made the trip up to Oxford to spend some time visiting with Coach Bianco and a few returning players before the first intrasquad scrimmage of the spring.
Coach likes to begin these media day interviews with a short monologue that normally details the sour end to the previous season, a story of growth in the fall, and what he expects of both new and returning players for the spring and beyond. This year was both much the same while also being very different. Coach began by answering the question that every reporter in the room had on their mind “How do you turn the page” which he quickly nipped in the bud. He told us that two key factors kept him from worrying about these players dwelling on the past; first, half of the new team (yes half, he estimated 20/40 players) weren’t even on the team for the CWS, and second, these kids are professionals, they know that their job is to forget the last season, the last game, the last AB, the last pitch and simply move on to the next because if you don’t… the SEC and college baseball, in general, will chew you up and spit you out.
Coach then moved on, talking about the changes in this new squad, as well as the lack thereof. He mentioned that while the team did lose some serious star power, it also returned a whole lot while filling in some key gaps. Bianco noted that 50% of CWS innings return this year on the mound and that 53 ABs return in the lineup. He mentioned that while this does indicate that the team will look much different than the one we saw on the field last year (and boy did it, I learned that the hard way needing to ask my notes “who is that” several times). Coach Bianco stated that this mix of new talent paired with the experience gained from the roller coaster 2022 season will be an invaluable combination.
After taking some time to reflect and give a general lead-in, Coach gave us some insight as to what he expects the team to look like this year. He did caution to take this information with a grain of salt of course, as this team is young and lots will change throughout the fall and season.
Jacob Gonzalez- SS, One of the most highly touted players in college baseball returns for another year at Swayze. Jacob suffered a knee injury in the fall but recovered quickly and is at full speed per Coach Bianco.
Kemp Alderman- OF/C, Kemp will likely play most of his time in the corner outfield but Coach did mention that if there were to be a “depth chart” he would be second (at least as of now) behind the plate for the Rebs. Perhaps most exciting is Kemp's big bat to anchor the middle of the lineup; he was certainly fun to watch during BP.
Peyton Chatagnier- 2B, The other part of one of the most exciting middle infields to watch in the country returns in his fourth year. One of the leaders on the team looks to carry the hot streak he ended the year on into 2023.
TJ McCants- OF, TJ will split time mostly in the outfield, but Bianco mentioned that he is more than capable of playing any position on the field. McCants has put on some weight, up to about 200 per Coach Bianco’s notes while still being a leading steal threat for the team moving into the spring.
Calvin Harris- C, Harris would have started behind the dish on almost every roster in the country last year but he sat patiently, waiting for his chance to take the starting role and he will do so this year. Calvin will look to continue a long, rich tradition of outstanding catchers at Ole Miss.
Garret Wood- IF, Garret was voted captain of the team by his peers this year, he certainly has big shoes to fill as Tim Elko leaves statue sized (foreshadowing??) in that role. G Wood will bounce around the infield for the Rebs, adding depth and talent to the defense and in the lineup.
Ethan Groff (Tulane)- CF, Groff will most likely be the starting centerfielder on opening day. Coach also mentioned that Ethan will probably be a top-of-the-lineup type bat and is expected to hit the ground running and be an early contributor to this team.
Ethan Lege (Nichols State/Delgado CC)- 3B, Lege will most likely start at third, but Coach was clear that he thinks that Ethan can move around the infield and may split time especially early.
Anthony Calarco (Northwestern)- 1B, This all-B10 player is another that is expected to make an impact early and often with a talented bat. He will split time at first and probably DH some.
Offense/ Defense, Freshmen
Will Furniss- 1B, Will is another competitor for time at first this year and will battle with both Calarco and perhaps Ty Malone. Will is the son of former LSU great Eddy Furniss so he definitely has some hype to live up to.
Mason Morris- P/D, Do not be surprised if you see Mason Morris trade in his fielding glove in the middle of a game to run to the pen and get loose. This talented young man will be something of a Swiss Army Knife this year.
Jack Dougherty- SP/RP, Coach Bianco called Jack a “wild card” for the Rebels this year. He will likely start some, but will also be used as a reliever so do not be shocked to see him in the pen one night and then listed as a starter the next weekend.
Hunter Elliot- SP, A mainstay from the pitching staff the majority of last season and certainly during the CWS. Elliot will be the Friday night guy for the foreseeable future.
Mason Nichols, Jackson Kimbrel, Mitch Murrell- All guys that we did not see much from last year, but Coach B and staff will certainly look to for some productive outings this season.
Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis) SP/RP- Any time you can get a talented left-hander you get excited about it. Do not be surprised to see him get some starts this year as he had a great fall and plans to take that into the spring.
Tommy Henninger- RP, Tommy’s unique arm slot will likely be a challenge for hitters out of the pen. Development of his stuff will likely determine how long he can stretch his outings this year.
Grayson Saunier- SP, Grayson had a fantastic fall according to Coach Bianco, if the fall goes as well as the fall did look for him to take the mound as a weekend starter this season.
JT Quinn- SP/RP, Quinn is a big power arm that is vying for a starting role but is more than capable of coming in and working meaningful innings later in games as well.
After this valuable insight into what the new roster might look like this spring and beyond, Coach Bianco took some time to answer our questions. One of the main takeaways was to be patient with the team, some young guys will have to mold to the team as well as some older guys that will have to learn to step up and be leaders amongst the talented roster. He was asked what his thoughts are on the talent from top to bottom of the league this year and while he did recognize the annual talent that coats the conference, he mentioned that his focus was on the first series against Delaware. He told us that one of the things he was most focused on is to figure out the roles of pitchers and trying to maximize a talented roster of arms. Another struggle that Coach spoke about for the coaching staff is trying to balance offense and defense in the lineup. It’s no secret that just because a player is your number one hitter at a position, it doesn't necessarily mean that they should start if another player is more well-rounded between the field and at the plate. One of the last Questions that Coach was asked may have brought about one of the most interesting answers of the day. Bianco was asked if he had changed his stance on shifting the defense and his answer was about as direct as it gets, “We’re gonna shift.” He went on to explain that this will be situational and that the hardest part for the coaching staff isn’t necessarily who to shift against or how to implement the shift but deciding who covers what on a play where players are not playing their normal position and then teaching that to the players.
After the interview with Coach Bianco I had the pleasure of speaking to a few of the leaders of the 2023 team and one question I asked them all was about celebrating the national championship. I didn’t ask them about the on-field celebration or the parade, I wanted to know if they had a special moment upon returning home with family; I was not shocked to hear that most of the players did have a special memory with their families, Kemp had a small cookout with his immediate family and Chatagnier shared with me the frustration of all his buddies from the team being old enough to go out to bars and celebrate while he, his mom, and sister took a trip to sonic for a treat. It’s easy to forget that these young men are just that, young men, and I wanted to hear about what happens away from their professional day job. Though I didn't get any super crazy story, it was cool to watch them sit and think about “what did I do with my family?”; I have no doubt those small celebratory moments are among the most special.
I also asked the players about the transition from playing in Omaha to coming back home and being in front of smaller, more intimate crowds back at Swayze. They mostly shared similar answers with me. Elliot, who definitely shines brightest on the big stage, said that while he cannot wait to be back on his home mound, he definitely misses the massive crowd of Ole Miss fans in Omaha as that is truly hard to replicate. Peyton Chatagnier said that they are both incredibly fun and while he is ready to get back to work at home, he of course wants to make a repeat appearance at the CWS to get another taste of the rush you get from hearing the roar of 25,000 plus.
I was lucky enough to stick around for the first half or so of the scrimmage. My biggest takeaways were that the offense looks REALLY good. Elliot took the mound in the bottom of the first inning and was roughed up pretty badly by the bats; he didn't look bad, but sometimes the guys are just seeing it really well. Jack Dougherty started opposite Elliot and looked really good, only allowing a few hits and minimizing damage. Tommy Henninger allowed the only homerun that I got to see, but aside from that looked mostly in control. Ethan Groff stood out the most to me at the plate, he struck out his first time around against Jack Dougherty but fought off several tough pitches. His second at-bat was against Henninger where he took him deep to left field. Ty Malone started on one side of the roster at 1st base and knocked down both balls that came his way. Finally, pointing back to Coach’s comment about the shift in the presser, the defense definitely implemented the shift, one rather extreme example shown below while TJ McCants was at the plate. In the two ABs, I got to see McCants, both times the defense shifted hard to his pull side and both times he reached on a bloop single (one that almost certainly is caught if played straight up and one that at least would have been closer) so that will be something interesting to watch throughout the spring.
In Mississippi you cannot trust the weather to tell you when spring has arrived, it may be below freezing when you wake up and in the mid-eighties at lunchtime. It could snow on February first or be muggy with bright sunshine. The only real way to know is to head to Swayze and listen for that beautiful sound of the pinging bat, that is how you know it is spring in Mississippi.