College baseball regionals were announced Monday and, as usual, will have a strong Magnolia State flavor in the 64-team field. Credit: Ole Miss athletic communications

After a nearly 11-month, pandemic-induced hiatus, Division I college baseball returns this weekend — with a bang that merits an exclamation point! Maybe three!!!

That’s because the 2021 college baseball season promises the highest skill level, most experience and deepest rosters in history of the sport. That’s no exaggeration. Mississippi teams are really loaded, but their respective coaches warn, collectively: So is everybody else.

Nobody lost a year of eligibility in last year’s COVID-shortened season. What’s more, Major League Baseball limited its 2020 draft to just five rounds. So highly talented players, who under normal circumstances would have gone pro last spring, are back in college baseball. So many incoming freshmen who might have gone pro in a normal year will play college baseball instead.

Rick Cleveland

At Mississippi State, Chris Lemonis welcomes back the middle three hitters in his batting order. Any other time, all three probably already would have played their first season of professional baseball. State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss all welcome back at least five experienced standouts who ordinarily would have graduated or turned pro. Little wonder, Ole Miss is ranked No. 5, Mississippi State No. 9, and Southern Miss No. 29 in Collegiate Baseball’s pre-season poll.

“I think what you’re going to see is that everybody else has a whole lot more depth than they normally have had,” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “College baseball is going to be really, really good this season.”

Said Damon Ianelli, a Colorado Rockies scouting executive, “From what I see, the pitching arms are deeper than the bats. Normally, on an SEC weekend, the pitching is pretty much gone by Sunday and you’re just watching the bats. This spring, you’ll be watching some pretty high draft picks throw on Sunday. It’s gonna be tougher on hitters.”

The end of the 2020 season was tough on everybody. Remember? Ole Miss was 16-1 and on a 16-game winning streak when the season was canceled. Mississippi State and Southern Miss were both 12-4 and playing at a high level. The sudden end hit no program harder than it slammed Mike Bianco and his Ole Miss Rebels.

Nearly 11 months later, Bianco can be philosophical about it.

Mike Bianco

“Everybody is going to have painful memories, their story, of this pandemic,” Bianco said. “People have lost graduations, lost proms, delayed weddings, didn’t have funerals. Everybody has sacrificed. Everybody has their story…. For us, our baseball program, it was really difficult.

“In baseball, your season almost always ends with a loss unless you win the national championship,” Bianco continued. “I’ve never won a national championship, so it’s always been with a loss. That team meeting out in right field after that last game is one of the most difficult things. You’re never quite prepared for it. But last year was harder. We had won 16 straight, we were playing our best baseball. It was all in front of us, and then it was gone. That was the hardest talk I’ve ever had, really emotional.”

Bianco says his guys are more than ready to play. Lemonis and Barry say the same. After all, it’s been nearly 48 weeks…

“It’s like preparing for your final exams,” Berry said. “You can only study so much, and then it’s time to take it and see where you are.”

Ole Miss and State will have to wait an extra day to start. Southern Miss might, also. Last season ended with a pandemic just beginning. This season begins with historically frigid Mississippi weather that has baseball fields across the state covered by snow and ice. The highways and bridges that lead to those parks are iced, as well.

Ole Miss and State were scheduled to open Friday in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown at the Texas Rangers Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. The event, which features the two Mississippi teams and Arkansas facing off against Texas, Texas Tech and TCU of the Big 12, will begin Saturday instead of Friday because weather has delayed travel.

State will play Texas at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by Ole Miss and TCU at 3. All six participating teams are ranked among the top 22 teams in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll. Nearly all, if not all, Major League Baseball teams are expected to have scouts in attendance.

Southern Miss is scheduled to open at home with a Friday-Saturday-Sunday series against Northwestern (La.) State, provided the visitors can make the bus trip. The weather forecast makes that dicey, at best, until Friday. The series could move back one day.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to play,” Berry said. “We need to play whether it’s single games or playing a doubleheader on Saturday.”

Meanwhile, all three of the Mississippi coaches keep their fingers crossed about COVID-19 testing within their programs as the season nears.

“It’s nice to talk about all the depth we have with the expanded rosters,” Berry said. “The thing is, you are one positive test and all the contact tracing that comes with it away from a situation where you are really going to need all that depth and maybe more.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.