June 13, 2013 11:22:06 AM
STARKVILLE -- As a 10th-grader, Jonathan Holder stood on the mound and -- in the terms normally applied to some Biblical epic -- sort of "beheld" Wes Rea.
Until that moment, Holder had known Rea only by reputation -- "he was this big-time football recruit and a year ahead of me in high school," Holder recalled Wednesday as the Mississippi State University baseball team met with the media before leaving today for Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
First baseman Rea and closer Holder are now teammates. Five years ago, they were on opposing sides of a fierce rivalry common between neighboring "city" and "county" schools. Although both are from Gulfport, Holder played for Gulfport High School and Rea played for Harrison Central High, the county school north of the city.
Curiously, their paths had never cross in youth league baseball. They didn't meet until they faced each other in a high school game -- Holder on the mound, Rea striding to the plate, all 6-foot-5, 300-pounds of him.
"Intimidating," was Holder's one-word description of that first meeting. "Here I am, a 10th-grader and there he is, just this huge guy. I mean really huge."
It might not be as much a mismatch as might be imagined. As a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore, Holder also was an intimidating figure.
"What I remember about him is that he was pretty good," Rea said.
"What I remember is I learned you can't hang a curve ball to him," Holder said. "I remember he hit one of those out of our park to straight-away center field -- just crushed it."
"But he got me some, too," Rea said.
Although they share a mutual respect, their relationship in high school never would have been considered cordial.
Rea signed with MSU in 2010. When Holder joined the Bulldogs a year later, Rea didn't form a welcoming committee.
Rea chuckles at the thought.
"Harrison Central and Gulfport, that's a pretty serious rivalry," he said. "I'll be honest: When (Holder) got here, it was a little tense at first, but we got over it pretty quick."
Perhaps they realized that, apart from the Harrison Central-Gulfport High thing, they have a lot in common. Both pitched and played first base in high school. As sophomores at MSU (Rea redshirted his first year after suffering a shoulder injury that ended his pitching prospects), they've developed something of a cult following. Rea has trimmed down since his high school days, while Holder has bulked up. They are a now a combined 500 pounds of burliness, accentuated by long, shaggy hair.
Their unkempt appearance is a result of MSU coach John Cohen's decision to relax the rules on personal grooming. Until this year, Cohen, a former MSU player, had ascribed to the standards established by legendary Bulldogs coach Ron Polk, who liked his players' hair short and their faces clean shaven.
The Bulldogs have embraced Cohen's decision to relax his team rules, but few have used that liberty to greater effect than Rea and Holder, for whom the "grizzle'' seems to enhance their already imposing appearances.
If Cohen has any reservation about having two of his standouts look like something you might find on the cover of a truck-driving school brochure, he won't admit it.
"They both have 3.5 grade-point averages and have done everything we've asked them to do and then some," Cohen said. "I have no complaints."
It is difficult to find anything about Rea and Holder to criticize. Holder has saved a school-record 18 games this season, sports a 1.31 ERA, has struck out 83 in 48 innings, and is a finalist for closer of the year honors. His 27 total saves are two short of the team record. Rea is batting .288 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs. His massive homer against No. 6 national seed University of Virginia on Sunday had the stadium buzzing and helped set the stage for the victory that clinched the best-of-three NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional.
Now that their high school rivalry is set aside, the two can openly express their admiration of each other.
"Just look at what he's done," Rea says. "Incredible."
Holder's assessment of Rea is succinct. "You know,'' he laughs. "Even at the college level, he's still pretty intimidating."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.