Early look: Talented freshman class brings optimism to Ole Miss baseball

Posted on Oct 4 2016 - 8:01am by Ethan Wright

With 10 players in Perfect Game’s Top 400 incoming freshmen and five in the top 30, Ole Miss baseball reeled in the second-ranked signing class in the nation.

The Rebels have the college baseball world clamoring about what is undoubtedly Coach Mike Bianco’s best class to date. Despite the pressures that often follow lofty expectations, Bianco and his players are optimistic that the experience of the veterans will create an easy transition for the talented newcomers.

“One of the neat things for me is to watch how they’ve gelled with the other guys on the team,” Bianco said of his freshman class. “It’s been a good month or so.”

Ryan Olenek

Ryan Olenek celebrates with teammates after his game-tying 3 run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against Auburn last season. Ole Miss would go onto win the game with a walk off single by Henri Lartigue. (Courtesy: Josh McCoy | Ole Miss Athletics)

Team chemistry and veteran leadership could prove invaluable for the young Rebels, who boast only two seniors on their roster compared to 17 freshmen. The overwhelming amount of untested talent calls for leadership from all ages. Sophomore Ryan Olenek, a standout true freshman last year who has experienced the fast-paced learning needed to survive SEC baseball, points to his early playing time as a key to gaining real experience against some of the best teams in the country.

“I think when they gave me a chance in the first series as a freshman last year, that is something that I’ll never forget. That has helped me a lot,” Olenek said.

Also returning is senior Colby Bortles, a three-year veteran who has played in more games than any other player on the team. Bortles said he believes he has a presence that younger players can watch and learn from.

“The big thing is that the leadership comes from playing in games and being a part of teams that went to Omaha and played in the postseason,” Bortles said. “I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Colby Bortles

Colby Bortles strides to throw the ball to first base during a game last season. (Photo by: Cameron Brooks)

Bortles’ leadership extends beyond simply playing in the most games, however, and focuses also on his own development. After going through a slump in the early part of his sophomore year because pitchers stopped throwing him so many fastballs, he says he has improved on both recognizing and hitting different pitches. His improvements, though personal, allow him to help grow the underclassmen even more by showing them a veteran who is willing to work to reinvent his game for the betterment of the team.

Bortles’ goals for the season are simple and crucially to the point: “To hit doubles and home runs. I think that’s what the team wants from me. I think that’s what coach wants from me, so that’s what I am trying to do,”  Bortles said.

His determination and experience should both prove to be necessities for the Rebels to return to Omaha and make a run in the postseason.

While Ole Miss Baseball has garnered excitement with its newest signing class, the true test will be to see how these newcomers respond to some of the best teams in the nation. The talented but inexperienced freshman class will need veterans like Olenek and Bortles to lead them and help transition them into SEC play. Bianco must shepherd his young flock cautiously but with enough confidence to allow their talent to thrive and multiply.

The prospects for this upcoming season, though early, look optimistic.

“They can play. They have a lot of really good talents and we are working with them to help them find out what it is like to be an Ole Miss Rebel,” Olenek said.

Only time will tell if new talent will equate to wins, but the buzz surrounding the incoming class has given the team some excitement and momentum as it enters its fall practice schedule.