What the players from Oxford are saying about playing in the Ole Miss, Mississippi State rivalry

Published 1:01 pm Thursday, May 9, 2019

It’s Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State weekend. There’s always heat, always raucous crowds and usually competitive baseball, but this year might bring even a little bit extra.

When the Rebels and Bulldogs presumably kick-off their three-game series on Friday night, all will be square in the SEC standings. Both Ole Miss (32-17) and Mississippi State (38-10) sit tied for second place in the SEC West at 15-9 with just two conference series remaining . The first meeting between the two schools notwithstanding – the Governor’s Cup doesn’t count towards conference records – this weekend’s series will be the first experience in the rivalry for a handful of young Rebel players.

“You just have to take it for what it’s worth,” said Ole Miss junior and Oxford native Thomas Dillard, talking about his advice to the freshman. “There’s a little bit extra there, but just go out there and play, really. It’s going to be fun – the fans will be a little more into it. There will be more State fans here than you’d expect, definitely more than any other opposing team fans. But just don’t let your emotions take a hold of you.”

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For some like Dillard or Grae Kessinger or Houston Roth, they grew up in Oxford – the rivalry essentially runs through their blood like platelets. However, for 29 of the 37 players on the Ole Miss rosters who aren’t from the state, it’s something they’ve had to learn and get accustomed too.

“It’s that pride factor of being from Mississippi. Every SEC series is huge, but there’s always that little extra factor when you’re playing Mississippi State,” Dillard said. “You just have to go out there and compete. It’s a really fun series to be a part of so I’m looking forward to it this weekend.”

One of those guys who isn’t from the state is junior Cole Zabowski. The Georgia native has played in the series a handful of times now and is familiar with the rivalry. What he’s not happy with is the recent success.

Since Zabowski stepped foot on campus in Oxford, Ole Miss has won just one game against the Bulldogs. For the Ole Miss seniors, they’re just 2-11 on their career against the Bulldogs. As if Ole Miss needed to add any stakes, the recent success – or lack thereof – should be near the top of the list.

“Since my class got here, we haven’t had too much success against State. So we want to go out there and make a statement,” Cole Zabowski said. “It’s that inner-state rivalry. If you live in Mississippi, you’re either a State fan or an Ole Miss fan. That kind of carries over into us as players. When we’re in the locker room, you can feel that competitiveness coming out.”

For those Mississippi kids, oftentimes they’re running into some kids in the rivalry that they’ve played before in high school. They’re either friends or at least familiar from afar.

Bulldog Friday starter Ethan Small is someone Ole Miss junior Grae Kessinger said he grew up playing against and with. Regardless of high school rivalries or competitions, it’s a team of Mississippi State players that the rebels are certainly very familiar with.

“It’s always fun. I know a lot of the guys down there and grew up playing against them and want to beat them in anything and everything,” Grae Kessinger said, one of a long list of line of Kessinger’s to compete in the rivalry. “It definitely adds a little more and it’s always fun.”

Despite the Governor’s Cup game a little over two weeks ago, there are a handful of young Rebels that will be counted on quite a bit this weekend that didn’t get that prior experience against State. Saturday starter Doug Nikhazy and likely Sunday starter Gunnar Hoglund are both freshman – they’ll be getting their first rivalry experience over the next few days.

“As we get closer to the weekend we’ll talk about the rivalry and what it’s meant for both schools,” said head coach Mike Bianco. “There’s a lot of kids on your team that aren’t from Mississippi. All three starters aren’t from Mississippi. But the other guys, they know. It’s the era of social media and they’ve seen it from afar and here in football season and basketball season. I don’t think it’ll be a surprise for any of them that we’ll probably have close to 35,000 people here for a three-game series.”

The weekend schedule seems to be in flux due to rain, but game one for the series is slated for Friday night at 6:30 p.m. Game two is scheduled for Saturday night and game three Sunday at noon. Games one and two can be streamed on SEC Network, while Sunday’s game will be televised on ESPN2.