Oxford High baseball quartet back together again at Ole Miss

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, February 15, 2017

There was some uncertainty as to whether it would happen, but here they are.

Back together again.

Grae Kessinger, Thomas Dillard, Jason Barber and Houston Roth, the four former Oxford High baseball standouts who led the Chargers to their first back-to-back state titles in program history, are once again teammates as freshmen at Ole Miss. The fact the childhood friends are all on the same team for just the third time ever shows how rare it is.

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Roth and Barber often played on the same youth teams growing up together in Oxford, but they didn’t play with Kessinger in high school until he moved in from Center Hill before his junior season. The four, whose only other previous time as teammates came with the Dulins Dodgers three summers ago, reunited for their senior season at Oxford when Dillard transferred in from Tennessee’s Briarcrest Christian School after the school made a coaching change.

“Every year moving up, (Barber) has been there with me, and then to have Thomas and Grae come with us, be on the same team again and already have the bondage we had last year and moving into this year, it’s really exciting having all of us here,” Roth said.

Yet the older you get, the harder it’s supposed to be to stick together. For that to happen from high school to college, it means the same coaching staff has to believe everybody is good enough to be offered a scholarship. I don’t know how many times that’s happened, but it can’t be many.

Then there was the draft. Kessinger’s slick glove along with a projectable 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame and Dillard’s switch-hitting power stroke (he led the nation with 16 home runs last year) were hot commodities for Major League teams last summer, but it might be an understatement to say Kessinger and Dillard are crazy about Ole Miss.

Teams were going to have to pay up in signing bonuses if they wanted to buy them out of their college experience, but nobody came close to meeting the asking prices. Kessinger, who by now you know is carrying on a family baseball legacy at Ole Miss that started with his grandfather, Don, wasn’t taken until the 26th round by the San Diego Padres because of signability.

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be, and I’ve loved every second of being here,” Kessinger said.

Dillard, projected to go in the top 10 rounds before the draft started, wasn’t taken at all.

“The draft situation was just a stressful time, but I wouldn’t rather be anywhere but here,” said Dillard, whose grandfather, Wilson, played football at Ole Miss.

Now that they’ve all made it to Ole Miss, some are preparing for the same roles they had in high school. Others are preparing for something different.

Sporting the same No. 15 his father, Kevin, wore for the Rebels, Kessinger will be the Rebels’ opening-day shortstop, following in the footsteps of Don and his uncle, Keith, at the position. But the youngest Kessinger wants to go ahead and let you know he doesn’t feel any pressure.

“More of the name stuff is outside of the field,” he said. “I’m honored to be a part of it, but I don’t feel the pressure in the game because I’m just out there playing the game I love.”

Dillard will be behind him in left field. He’s starting there because he’s athletic enough to play the position after catching most of last season at Oxford but mostly because his bat is too good not to be in the lineup somewhere, though Dillard can’t help but get a kick out of his proximity in the field to his high school teammate.

“If we have popups over there, there’s a connection,” Dillard said.

The Rebels’ No. 1-ranked recruiting class also brought in a bevy of quality arms, and Roth and Barber may have to wait for their shot. Their innings will come out of the bullpen if they come at all this season. Redshirting isn’t out of the question.

“If (head coach Mike Bianco) doesn’t think I’m ready, that’s his decision to make,” Roth said. “I’m here and trusting the process. Any way I can help this team whether it’s redshirt this year or pitch this year, it’s what I want to do to help this team.”

At some point, the four of them will play together again. Once enrolled, players at four-year schools aren’t eligible for the draft until after their junior season or until they turn 21. They may all have decisions to make at that point, and going their separate ways will eventually be inevitable.

For now, they’re enjoying being back together.

“It’s awesome,” Kessinger said. “Our friendship is continuing to grow. All the guys here are just great, but especially the kids from Oxford, just having the past with them and now getting to do all of this is really special.”

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer and college sports editor of The EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.