The Ole Miss baseball team made history last season by winning the school’s first College World Series championship.

So this year’s team also is unique as it becomes the first Rebels team to defend a national championship.

Repeating certainly won’t be easy, but it’s reasonable to think Ole Miss can again be among the best teams in the country.

The Rebels are ranked in the Top 10 of most preseason polls – No. 4 by D1 Baseball, No. 6 by Perfect Game, No. 7 by USA Today and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association as well as No. 10 by Baseball America. They were selected No. 24 by Collegiate Baseball.

But those rankings don’t stand out much within the SEC. For example, in the Baseball America poll, 6 of the 9 teams ranked ahead of Ole Miss are conference rivals – No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Tennessee, No. 4 Texas A&M, No. 5 Florida, No. 6 Arkansas and No. 9 Vanderbilt.

The Rebels, who open the season Friday at home against Delaware in the first game of a three-game series, lost several important players from the championship team, but in the context of college athletics nowadays it didn’t fare all that badly.

Coach Mike Bianco said it hasn’t been difficult for this year’s team to “flip that page” and move on from the championship to focus on the present.

“It has been pretty easy when you walk into the first team meeting and you have 40 players and 20 of them weren’t here last year,” Bianco said. “It is a quick reminder of how college athletics work.

“We lost some really great players, but we also returned some really great players. I think it is a great mix of returners, transfers, and first-year guys, freshmen.”

Seven players from last year’s College World Series title team departed via the Major League Baseball Draft, including 3 of the top 4 hitters (infielder/outfielders Kevin Graham, who also was the top power hitter, Justin Bench and Tim Elko), the starting catcher (Hayden Dunhurst), the leader in wins (RHP Dylan DeLucia), another weekend starter (RHP Derek Diamond) and the closer (RHP Brandon Johnson).

But returning players pitched half of the innings in the CWS last season and had 53 percent of the at-bats in Omaha.

“So not a super old team,” Bianco said, “but certainly not a team that the postseason is foreign to them, guys who have been in Omaha, guys that have been in the postseason, and guys that have had success.”

The returning position players are led by preseason All-America shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, who Bianco said “is a full go” after his fall season was cut short by a sprained PCL.

Kemp Alderman will play one of the corner outfield positions and bat somewhere in the middle of the lineup.

Infielder Peyton Chatagnier, whom Bianco called “maybe one of the unsung heroes of the postseason, especially early on,” returns for his 4th season.

Center fielder TJ McCants, the team’s best base stealer, can also play right field and infield.

Calvin Harris, one of the top performers in the CWS, returns to his natural position at catcher after playing mostly in the outfield last season.

Garrett Wood can play all four infield positions and infielder Reagan Burford could have a bigger role as a junior.

Bianco said he added three “impact” position players as transfers – outfielder Ethan Groff (Tulane), who will bat high in the order and provide speed on the bases; infielder Ethan Lege (Delgado Community College/Nicholls State); and infielder Anthony Calarco (Northwestern), an All-Big Ten left-handed hitter who will bat in the middle of the lineup.

Returning pitchers include right-hander Jack Dougherty, who started and relieved last season, as well as left-hander Hunter Elliott and right-hander Mason Nichols, who were significant contributors as freshmen last season,

Bianco said right-hander Mitch Murrell and left-hander Jackson Kimbrell “are ready to take that next step” out of the bullpen after having “really good falls.” He’s also looking for right-hander Brayden Jones to take on a bigger role.

Transfer pitchers of note are left-hander Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis), who Bianco said is “one of those candidates to be a weekend starter,” and right-handed reliever Tommy Henninger (John A. Logan College).

Some of the top players in a freshman class rated No. 2 in the country by Baseball America are power-hitting first baseman Will Furniss, infielder/right-handed Mason Morris, and infielder Judd Utermark, who is recovering from surgery of his non-throwing shoulder.

Furniss is the son of LSU legend Eddy Furniss, the SEC’s all-time home run king (80) and a College Baseball Hall of Famer.

Bianco said right-hander Grayson Saunier “probably had as good a fall as any freshman I remember” and is a “possible weekend starter.”

The coach added that three freshmen that will have yet-to-be-determined roles on the staff are JT Quinn, a 6-6 right-hander who can “run the ball up in the mid to upper 90s,” 6-5 right-hander Sam Tookoian and right-hander Cole Ketchum.

Bottom line: The names have changed, but the goal remains the same. Get back to Omaha.