Momentum, whatever it might be worth in baseball, doesn’t really carry over from one season to the next. The fact that Ole Miss finished the 2020 season on a 16-game winning streak is cool but will mean nothing on the field to start 2021. However, the cred the Rebs established has carried over. UM is ranked fifth in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason poll after finishing third, with a 16-1 record, in the final poll of 2020 last March. The Rebels earned the lofty ranking despite the loss of two star players, Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo, to the MLB draft. UM returns pitchers Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund, both high draft prospects, and hitters Hayden Leatherwood (.361), Tim Elko (.354) and Payton Chatagnier (.311, four homers). The Rebels’ ranking is also a nod to coach Mike Bianco, who was Collegiate Baseball’s 2020 coach of the year. Though some Ole Miss fans might argue that he hasn’t won enough big games, Bianco has certainly won a lot of games. He ranks 16th on the list of winningest active coaches in NCAA Division I, according to a recent Baseball America chart. In 19 seasons in Oxford plus three at McNeese State, Bianco has 867 victories. He has led the Rebels to 767 wins, six Super Regional berths and one College World Series, where they made a serious run at the national title. It’s interesting to note that during Bianco’s tenure at UM, Mississippi State has had six different coaches. … MSU is ninth in CB’s new poll, and Southern Miss is 29th. The Division I season is tentatively set to start on Feb. 19.
At Oxford-University Stadium, Ole Miss plays Georgia in a three-game SEC set Friday-Sunday. At Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, Mississippi State gets Arkansas. At Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, it’s Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee State in C-USA. At Braddy Field in Jackson, Jackson State hosts Alabama State in a SWAC East showdown. Here’s some quick takes on the big weekend upcoming for the state’s Big 4 Division I schools: Even after last weekend’s breakdowns at Vanderbilt, Ole Miss has to feel pretty good about the bullpen troika of Will Ethridge (16 appearances, 4.10 ERA, two saves), Parker Caracci (15, 1.73, six) and Dallas Woolfolk (14, 2.77, six). … Jake Mangum is having another standout year at State (.345, 31 runs, 12 steals), but the Bulldogs’ overall lack of punch (SEC-lows of 189 runs and 18 homers) is wasting some very good pitching. … The meat of USM’s order is pretty imposing: Luke Reynolds (.370, seven homers, 36 RBIs), Matt Wallner (.362, 10, 45) and Hunter Slater (.329, seven, 32). The 3-4-5 hitters combined for seven hits and six RBIs vs. Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday. … JSU’s Raul Hernandez is making a strong bid for SWAC player of the year, batting a league-best .406 with six homers, 14 doubles and 36 RBIs. The junior from Puerto Rico is first in the league in total bases (90) and second in slugging (.629). P.S. Division II Delta State also faces a big series this weekend, going on the road to play North Alabama in a battle of the top two teams in the Gulf South Conference standings. As crazy as Zack Shannon’s individual numbers (.453, 25 homers, 76 RBIs) are, the team’s offensive output is equally as jaw-dropping: 21 games with 10 or more runs, including slow-pitch softball sounding totals of 26, 25, 21, 19, 16 (twice), 15 and 13 (thrice).
The recently released ESPN-produced documentary “Thunder and Lightning” shines a well-deserved spotlight on Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, heroes of Mississippi State’s 1985 College World Series team. They are generally regarded as two of the best college players the state has ever produced. Both are in the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, and both were All-Stars in the big leagues. Clark lit up opposing pitchers for a .420 mark at State in 1985, when he won the Golden Spikes award. Palmeiro’s best year in Starkville was 1984, when he batted .415 (with 29 homers and 94 RBIs to win the SEC Triple Crown). He “slumped” to .300 in ’85. Just for the record, the record for highest average by a Division I player in Mississippi belongs to Greg Daniels, a one-man storm who batted .545 in 1983 for Alcorn State. Daniels was 55-for-101. He played only 32 games, but .545 is still quite a feat. That’s the second-highest average ever recorded by a D-I player, according to the NCAA record book. New Mexico’s Keith Hagman hit .551 in 63 games in 1980. The fifth-highest average belongs to Dave Magadan, who hit .525 at Alabama in 1983, two years before he starred for the Jackson Mets. P.S. Today is the great James “Cool Papa” Bell’s birthday. The late Hall of Famer, a Negro Leagues star known for his blazing speed, was born in Starkville in 1903. He died in 1991.