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June 18, 2012OXFORD, Miss. -- Mike Bianco said he didn't realize it as much during the season, but the 2012 campaign was the most tiresome and draining to date.
Other coaches and players have mentioned the same to Ole Miss' head coach in recent days. After missing the postseason in 2011 and breaking a streak of nine straight seasons ending in the postseason, Bianco said 2012 was a grind from start to finish - the requirement to get back in a regional after a one-year absence.
"This was one of the hardest seasons as far as the grind of 60-something games," Bianco said. It was exhausting at the end. And it's not just me, coaches, players, everybody. And why was it? We were so guarded the entire season. I think the internal pressures and external pressures were so great to succeed that we didn't realize it when we went through it, but it was a season of trying to stay alive. We had some good things, but they were short-lived. When bad things happened, we went into the mode of not letting last year happen again.
"You use 2011 as motivation, and it hurt this team so much because this team had nothing to really reflect back on except that Saturday afternoon at Arkansas (when Ole Miss lost a doubleheader to miss the postseason). Bobby Wahl and the guys you were counting on hadn't been to the postseason. I don't mean we were inexperienced. It's just that the experience was bad experience. They are winners, and they fought like hell, but it was always about turning it around and not letting last year happen again. It's a reason we couldn't enjoy any success. We beat Florida and Arkansas, but it was a constant look ahead to what's next and how anything can happen in the SEC. We didn't have the inner-confidence that Florida had when they left here.
"I think for the first time this year when we beat A&M on that Saturday night, the team thought they could really do something special and put their guard down for the first time. Maybe it was just getting to a regional, but I think especially after that A&M game was when it happened. The goal is always Omaha, but to cut you open and ask if you really believe you can get there, that was it. Not that the team's expectation was to be mediocre, but there was this thing on their back about last year. We did everything to get back to the postseason, and that took so much out of the team. Let me be clear, I'm not blaming the fans. The program did that. The program did it to the fans, the media to me, the program did it to the coaches and administrators and everybody - that said 2011 can't happen. We have to get back and fight. When you look at the almosts and being one pitch away, man we played in a regional final. That's not too bad."
When discussing the pressure and grind, Bianco made an interesting comment about expectations and goals. Ole Miss baseball has used the two interchangeably on most occasions, but Bianco think that's inaccurate.
"I don't know if sometimes we confuse expectations and goals," Bianco said. "They are different. The goal is to get to Omaha. I don't know if one can expect to get there every year. The goal is Omaha. We understand the expectations are very high to win championships and put a team on the field that we are very proud of. Ultimately the goal is to get to Omaha."
The one-pitch-away losses to Auburn and Alabama and the extra-inning inabilities that Friday against LSU shaped the 2012 season from a possible host situation to a ninth-place conference finish. On the other side, Sikes Orvis' two-run ninth-inning home run to escape against Tennessee may have put Ole Miss definitely in the postseason.
Bianco sees similarities to a previous Ole Miss team and hopes the next few seasons mirror that example.
"It felt a lot like 2003 when you missed the postseason the year before and fought to get back," Bianco said. "Then, after that, we hosted in 2004 through 2007. I think the regional this year gave us confidence where next year you start to win some close games we lost this year - Auburn or Alabama or LSU. LSU won the SEC by winning 10 its first 12 league games by one run. A guy didn't tag up for Florida against them. Stuff just happened. Alex Yarbrough had three at-bats to win the game with a runner in scoring position and couldn't do it. LSU's .500 hitter won it with an infield single.
"And, don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about luck. I'm talking about willing it to happen and having confidence. That was hard for our team this team because they'd never done it before."
FINDING AN IDENTITY: In addition to the points already mentioned, Bianco thought this team struggled due to a lack of identity.
It was hard to specifically say what the Rebels relied on to be successful. A lot of that had to do with flaws, which led to inconsistency.
"Last year's team didn't have an identity," Bianco said. "They started as a team that looked focused on offense, but instead of being a great offense we were a good offense that had flaws. The huge question marks were on the mound. There were no returning SEC starters. Those guys turned out to be pretty good, but we were a good pitching staff with flaws. At the end we didn't have an identity, and that was part of our inconsistency. We were good but had flaws in our game. There were games where the flaws really showed up, and it was hard for us to go on that run and win six or eight in a row or 10 or 12 because we had issues.
"Next year's team will be different because there will be a different identity. We will pitch. There's no question about that. With Wahl and (Mike) Mayers back, and there are freshmen that will have experience.
"At the end of the day, who are you? What makes you go? To a man, that would be a hard thing to answer for us this past year. You could talk very generally. If you mentioned Arkansas, you could talk about how they really pitch. South Carolina could really pitch. Florida is such a complete team that hits with power and can really pitch. We didn't have an identity. It's not that we did anything bad We did some things pretty well But for someone that sees us everyday, there wasn't an identity. Next year will be easier to define who we are."
OPTIMISM FOR NEXT YEAR: I asked Bianco to explain his reasons for optimism after what I described as a "three-season lull," referring to the years since Ole Miss last went to a super regional in 2009.
"I think this year we were a much better club than last year in every phase, and that's part of the optimism," Bianco said. "Statistically we weren't better in runs per game. We hit fewer home runs and stole a few less bases, but it wasn't a big statistical difference. This was a better team that played in a regional championship game. Last year's team didn't make it to the SEC Tournament. You go back to the conference record, and it was 14-16 and not very good, but we also finished in a regional final and were pretty close to playing one weekend to try to get to Omaha. This year's team was better, and I have a feeling next year's team will be even better.
"Look at the three teams in Omaha this year, and they are three of the top four pitching teams in the SEC. They are two at the top and fourth in runs allowed per game. Offensively they do it different ways. Florida is more physical, but the other two aren't offensive juggernauts. Carolina we haven't seen, but they've bunted a lot. Arkansas struggled to score all year. With the new bats, you have to not let the other team score. Successful teams really pitch and defend.
"Next year we'll have one of the best - if not the best - pitching staffs since we got here. In 2005 they were all juniors and it was easier to predict. But we've got Wahl, Mayers, a healthy Brett Huber and then all the freshmen and new guys. Defensively this was the best defensive team we've ever had. No one has mentioned that. We return the outfield. With (Stuart) Turner behind the plate and maybe (Lance) Wilson at shortstop, I believe we'll field really well next season. Next year's team will have the identity that most successful teams have."
BIANCO PLEASED WITH BJORK MEETING: Bianco has closed each season with a meeting with the athletics director, and his first one with Ross Bjork wrapped up last Thursday.
Being "one pitcher short" and having a solid overall batting average but struggling with runners in scoring position were two main topics during the meeting.
Ole Miss hit .285 in conference games, good for second in the SEC, but only .264 with runners on base (10th in SEC), .232 with runners in scoring position (11th), .148 with bases loaded (12th) and .262 with two outs (sixth).
"It has to do with toughness and confidence and something that I think will come with time - another year under Coach (Cliff) Godwin," Bianco said. "The good news is we are better offensively than we were a year ago. There are teams that struggle to score runs, and that's college baseball now. It's hard to score, but we certainly have to score more than we did. The good news for the offense is at least we could hit in the sense that there are other teams that don't score with a .260 batting average. We have to take the same swings and mental approach to our hitting with runners on base. We talked about that. We talked about the future
"We talked about the expectations of the program. I thought Ross was really prepared and very knowledgeable. It was a discussion, not just me telling him. He gave his opinion, and I think he understands the expectation of the program and understands how important baseball is to Ole Miss."
QUICK HITS: Chase Reeves has left the program for East Mississippi Community College. Casey Mulholland has transferred to State College of Florida.
Bianco on Senquez Golson's role with the team moving forward: "He's still got some work to do academically this summer. Nothing has been said that he's not coming from his side or our side. Let's worry for now about getting eligible and playing football."
Preston Overbey could see time on the mound in the future. He'll pitch some this summer while in the Coastal Plain League.
Blair Wright has another UCL injury, so he has chosen to end his college career.
Ole Miss NEWS