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OXFORD, Miss. – Ole Miss, fresh off a 32-25 campaign in 2017, is ranked No. 9 in the D1baseball.com preseason poll heading into the season. The Rebels are one of eight SEC teams in the top 25, which lends credence to the SEC being the top conference in America.
Hopes are high in Oxford that this talented group of guys can reach their potential, make a deep postseason run and possibly return to Omaha to compete for the College World Series, as they did in 2014.
Head coach Mike Bianco was able to assemble the No. 20 recruiting class in the country this year in Oxford, just a year removed from signing the No. 1 class. Some will argue that the team’s record last season wasn’t a true reflection of the talent on the roster; however, this group has now had another year to mature and experience the triumph and turmoil of a full season, which will certainly be beneficial down the line.
Some notable players, such as Tate Blackman, Colby Bortles and David Parkinson, are gone after successful collegiate careers, having now moved on to major league organizations. Although their impact and leadership will certainly be missed on this year’s team, Ole Miss has some studs on the roster who are sure to take on the load and make 2018 a memorable baseball season.
Pitching shouldn’t be a problem at all for the Rebels in 2018; in fact, it will probably be a strength for Bianco’s club. Ole Miss has one of the best pitching prospects in the country in Ryan Rolison who is returning for his sophomore year in the red and blue. Pair that with a bullpen that includes Dallas Woolfolk and Will Stokes, and Rebels fans have a lot to look forward to at Swayze.
Rolison and Woolfolk have already received numerous national accolades, each being named preseason All-Americans by three different outlets thus far.
Rolison will be a major headache for opposing batters this year. The 6-foot-3-inch lefty was selected First Team Preseason All-American Team by Perfect Game and was the sole sophomore named to the team. He is currently ranked by D1Baseball.com as the second best prospect heading into the 2018 MLB Draft. Rolison has also been named preseason All-American by Baseball America (Second Team) and D1Baseball.com (Second Team).
In 2017, the Jackson, Tenn. native ranked third in the SEC in fewest runs allowed with 23 (among pitchers who averaged at least one inning per game), and 13th in the conference in ERA (3.06). He finished with a record of 6-3 in 19 appearances (10 starts), which earned him SEC All-Freshman team honors from the league’s coaches. Rolison will likely be the opening day starter and Bianco’s ace come spring, so expect him to have a big year on the mound.
Woolfolk, a member of USA Baseball this summer, returns from a dominating 2017 season that saw him notch 12 saves for the Rebels (second most in school history). Last season, he posted a 2.15 ERA and gave up only 9 ER in 26 relief appearances. The junior righty has been named preseason (third team) All-American by Collegiate Baseball.
Woolfolk, who has also been named preseason All-American (second team) by Baseball America and preseason All-American (third team) by D1Baseball.com held opposing hitters to a .200 batting average and tallied a 41-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 37.2 innings pitched in 2017. He is one of only three relievers on Baseball America’s preseason teams.
Woolfolk and senior Will Stokes have a good shot at becoming one of the best relief tandems in the conference, if they aren’t already. The pair of righties recorded a combined 16 saves and 76 strikeouts, while only walking 15 batters last season. Stokes had a very solid year, compiling an ERA of 2.67 while shutting-out opponents in 17 of his 24 relief appearances, only allowing 10 ER.
At the plate, the Rebels hit a total of 47 home runs last year, with Blackman and Bortles combining for 19 of those. Bianco will need to find production from somewhere else on the roster to account for the loss of runs. Although the two biggest hitters are now gone, there are some returning veterans, along with some talented newcomers, who are expected to step up and pick up where their predecessors left off.
A player that Rebel fans should keep an eye on heading into 2018 is junior C/1B Nick Fortes. The 6-foot, 210 pound Deland, Florida native led the team in BA last year (.319) and hit .337 in conference play, which was 13th best in the league.
In addition to his average, Fortes also finished the year with 32 RBI and an on-base percentage of .382, both good for second on the team. Fortes’ numbers were impressive without question, however, it is imperative that he take a step and surpass his home run total of five from a year ago.
Don’t be surprised if senior Will Golsan is the most consistent and efficient hitter on this team in 2018. Golsan led the team in total hits with 69 a year ago and also lead the team with 20 multi-hit games. On top of that, he finished second on the team in overall BA (.312), which is even more impressive when you consider he had the most at-bats on the squad, along with runs scored (41) and doubles (12).
Golsan was the only player to start all 57 games a year ago, with all but four of those starts coming at right field. Mike Bianco will undoubtedly need that consistency and durability out of him again this year if they want to make it to the College World Series in June.
Look for 6-foot-5-inch CF Ryan Olenek to have a breakout year in 2018. The junior has a cannon of an arm in the outfield and was very solid at the plate last year, hitting .272 and recording 25 RBI, fourth-highest on the team, along with three homers.
Olenek led the team with 17 doubles, which was good for the most extra-base hits as well, and 10 stolen bases in only 13 attempts. Keep an eye on him, as Olenek will arguably be one of the best players on this squad.
Even with all of the veteran talent present, there are some freshman who could make huge impacts early on. Tim Elko, the No. 69 overall player in the 2017 class, is one of those players. The 6-foot-4-inch, 225 pound Elko was a prolific hitter in high-school, finishing his career with an average of .394 and 115 hits in only 98 games. If he can put up numbers anywhere close to that, he will be a stud in Oxford sooner than later.
Another young player who may see early playing time is LHP Jordan Fowler. Fowler was the No. 27 ranked LHP in the 2017 recruiting class and was also drafted in the 26th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers. He went 10-1 in his final year of high-school, a year that included two no-hitters.
The 2018 Rebels have the talent to compete for an SEC Championship this season, and with a proven coach like Mike Bianco at the helm, compete for a College World Series title. This team is expected to live up to and perhaps even surpass its No. 11 preseason rank, which reflects the winning culture that Bianco has created in the Ole Miss baseball program.
Opening Series: Ole Miss will open its season with a three-game series in Oxford against Winthrop on Friday, Feb. 16.
(All rankings and stats were gathered by: d1baseball.com, perfectgame.org, baseballnews.com, olemisssports.com)
Justin Dial is a junior at Ole Miss pursuing a Journalism degree. He is from Olive Branch, MS and is an avid fan of college and
professional football, basketball and baseball. Justin covered Ole Miss
Sports for the Daily Mississippian for one year, and he also works in the
University of Mississippi Writing Center helping students with their
writing assignments. He spent his childhood going to Ole Miss football
games with his grandfather and grandmother (an Ole Miss graduate).
Currently, his favorite favorite athletes are LeBron James and Marc Gasol. In Justin’s free time he likes to play video games and listen to sports podcasts.