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Oxford, Miss. • For its Pac-12 championship series, Utah baseball enjoyed the biggest crowds it has seen at Smith's Ballpark. For Sunday's 21-7 win over Washington, more than 6,000 fans were in the stands.
It was incredible to witness, coach Bill Kinneberg said, and yet only a taste of what's to come. Ole Miss, Utah's NCAA Regional host, averaged 8,500 fans per home game.
The stands at Swayze Field capacity 10,323 are expected to be packed for this weekend's NCAA regional. And starting Friday, the Utes (25-27) will feel the full force of what makes SEC baseball so tough: home-field advantage.
"Our team, we haven't experienced anything like that going on the road with 11,000 people," Kinneberg said. "It should be an unbelievable experience for our guys."
An unbelievable experience, and potentially a monumental challenge. After winning 43 games, Ole Miss is looking to return to the College World Series after finishing third in 2014. The team boasts three of Baseball America's top 300 prospects in its lineup: outfielder J.B. Woodman (14 home runs), shortstop Errol Robinson and catcher Henri Lartigue (Johnny Bench Award finalist).
The Rebels are 26-6 at Swayze field and haven't lost to an unranked opponent at home this year. Since 2005, Ole Miss is 15-1 in NCAA regional games it hosts.
In the double-elimination weekend, Utah is also facing a second game against either Tulane, the American Athletic Conference champion, or Boston College, an ACC contender that won a series against No. 2 Louisville. The Utes are seeded fourth in the regional bracket the last team anyone expects to make it out.
"We're all pretty fired up about it," junior pitcher Dalton Carroll said. "I know it's gonna be a packed house. We got our hands full."
Utah's season is built on defying odds. Since starting out 3-11, the Utes have won 22 of their last 38, including eight Pac-12 series wins. Picked last and lacking any of Baseball America's ranked prospects, Utah has won with consistent pitching and aggressiveness on offense.
The pitching part is somewhat self-explanitory: Utah's starters and bullpen has been solid, led by sophomore ace Jayson Rose. With 102 strikeouts and a 2.62 ERA, he's been untouchable when his mid-90s fastball and wicked changeup are in full force. He'll start against Ole Miss on Friday.
Utah's lineup doesn't have a clear-cut power hitter, but what it lacks in big swings, it makes up for with aggression. Assistant coach Jason Hawkins helped refine Utah's approach at the plate and the basepaths over the past two seasons.
The key word is pressure. Utah is always looking for opportunities to extend at-bats, to take extra bases on contact, and tweaking the offensive plan every inning if necessary. And they only seem to get better as games and weekends wear on.
The Washington series epitomized Utah's endurance this season: four runs in Game 1, 12 runs in Game 2, 21 runs in Game 3. By series' end, the Huskies had no one left to throw at the Utes.
"You throw a lot of jabs against starting pitching," Hawkins said. "We're going to throw a lot of jabs in the early innings, whether it's just putting balls into play on 0-2 counts, or fouling balls off, or getting a fourth batter if we get two early outs. We make teams work early."
Winning games this weekend wouldn't only validate the Utes it might also help the perception of the Pac-12. Kinneberg said he was disappointed to see Oregon State didn't make the field as an at-large, calling it "the biggest mistake the committee made."
Utah itself has helped national pundits decry Western baseball: How else would a team with an overall losing record win the league?
Against a tough team and a tough road crowd, the Utes hope to serve up some crow.
"Yeah, it's kinda getting to me," Kinneberg said. "But the one thing those 11 teams from out West can do now is we have to win. We have to do well and hopefully advance to Super Regionals. That would quiet some things."
Oxford Regional at a glance
No. 1 Ole Miss (43-17)
Overview • SEC power boasts a strong roster of hitters and plays extremely well at home.
Player to watch • Junior outfielder J.B. Woodman (.327 avg., 14 home runs, All-SEC first team, All-SEC defensive team)
Impressive stat • Don't get behind: The Rebels are 38-1 when leading after the sixth inning.
No. 2 Tulane (39-19)
Overview • AAC champions won with top-notch staff and power-hitting lineup.
Player to watch • Senior pitcher Emerson Gibbs (2.44 ERA, .215 opposing avg., All-AAC first team)
Impressive stat • With a 3.20 staff ERA and 1.24 staff WHIP, the Green Wave ranks top 30 nationally in both categories.
No. 3 Boston College (31-20)
Overview • Sneaky-good ACC team won series against regional hosts Louisville, NC State and Virginia.
Player to watch • Junior pitcher Justin Dunn (1.35 ERA, .210 opponent avg., All-ACC third team)
Impressive stat • The Eagles have given good teams problems this year, going 4-3 against top-10 opponents and 8-9 against top 25 teams.
No. 4 Utah (25-27)
Overview • Surprise Pac-12 champion played with grit and hopes Cinderella journey carries into next weekend.
Player to watch • Sophomore pitcher Jayson Rose (102 strikeouts, .206 opponent avg., All Pac-12 team)
Impressive stat • The Utes closed out weekends well in Pac-12 play, going 9-1 in Game 3 of league series.
Utah at No. 10 Mississippi
P NCAA regional at Oxford, Miss., Friday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • SEC Network