Coming into last season, the story around the Mississippi Rebels was the arrival of their highly-touted freshman class. You knew the team was going to be talented, but you also knew that they were going to be painfully young. You had to figure this might give them a chance to win some games they might not have been expected to win, but that it also might lead to them losing some games that you figured they would have won.
Sure enough, the youth of the team was on full display early and often.
On opening day against East Carolina, there were four freshman in the starting lineup- Thomas Dillard, Cole Zabowski, Cooper Johnson, and Grae Kessinger. Those four remained relative mainstays throughout the season, with the quartet starting more than 150 games collectively for the Rebels. On the mound, it was a similar story, with freshmen Houston Roth, Ryan Rolison, Will Ethridge, and Greer Holston all throwing important innings over the course of the campaign.
There were some mixed results among that group.
Roth, Rolison, and Ethridge immediately shined and will form a quality nucleus for the Rebels’ pitching staff moving forward, with Rolison quickly emerging as an elite prospect for the 2018 draft as a draft-eligible sophomore. Roth had a 1.57 ERA and a 41/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28.2 innings in relief. Ethridge had a 2.41 ERA and a .213 opponent batting average in 41 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, and Rolison served as a swingman, going 6-3 with a 3.06 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 61.2 innings of work. Holston’s numbers weren’t as impressive at first glance, but there were still certainly upsides to his season. His 5.27 ERA in 54.2 innings wasn’t all that pretty, but he did strikeout 55 batters along the way, showing the ability to dominate when he’s throwing well.
Offensively, it was tougher going, as none of the four aforementioned players who started on opening day hit better than .239 or got on base at a better than .329 clip. It wasn’t all negative for this group, though, as Johnson did establish himself as a top-notch defensive catcher and Kessinger proved that he could handle playing shortstop everyday in the SEC.
Obviously, there was more to the team’s season than just the performance of the freshmen, but the way that group performed was something of a microcosm of the season for the Rebels. The pitching was often good enough to win, but the offensive production wasn’t always there. The team finished 32-25 with a 14-16 mark in SEC play and found themselves out of the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Heading into 2018, those freshmen are now sophomores, and suddenly, a very young team has turned into a relatively veteran club.
There’s little reason to believe the pitching will be worse off. In the weekend rotation, they can choose any three of James McArthur, Ryan Rolison, Brady Feigl, Will Ethridge, or Greer Holston and feel pretty good about things. In the bullpen, the presence of Dallas Woolfolk, Will Stokes, and Houston Roth give them a trio of experienced relievers as good as just about any.
And offensively, despite the struggles of last season and the departure of Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Three of the top four hitters from last year, Nick Fortes, Will Golsan, and Ryan Olenek, return, and it seems safe to assume there will be some improvement from the 2017 freshmen who struggled to get going last season.
According to reports from fall practice, Kessinger stands out as a big candidate for a breakout season, coming off of not only a tough year at the plate, but also an abrupt end to the season due to injury.
“Grae Kessinger has been sensational, he’s really swung it well the last couple weeks,” head coach Mike Bianco told Aaron Fitt of D1Baseball.com for the site’s fall report on the Rebels. “He put some weight on this summer. Of course you hate to say the injury was a good thing because of when it happened, but that meant he didn’t go to the Cape in the summer, he stayed here, was able to work out upper-body wise, so he’s able to put a lot of weight on, he got up to about 200 pounds or so. He’s a different kid physically than he was last year.”
Looking back, 2017 was perhaps about what you expected from a team as young as Mississippi. They had some highs, they had some lows, and in the end, they just didn’t quite have enough to get into the postseason. In 2018, with all of that young talent one year older and more mature, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll miss out this time around.