By Jeff Roberson
Cooper Osteen was intrigued by what he was hearing. As a junior college player, he was learning about the positives of a University of Mississippi education and baseball career.
The Fort Pierce, Fla., native spent two seasons at Indian River Community College in Florida. That’s the alma mater of Ole Miss head baseball coach Mike Bianco – before Bianco spent two years playing Southeastern Conference baseball at LSU.
A fellow South Floridian, a player Osteen knew from their high school days, was already playing at Ole Miss. Barry Gunther, a catcher from Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale, had joined the Rebels out of high school in the fall of 2001.
Ole Miss assistant coach Dan McDonnell had seen Osteen play in summer or fall games in Florida. When Osteen was invited to Oxford for a visit by Bianco and McDonnell, it was Gunther they paired Osteen with to show him around. Their gameplan worked.
“When it came time to make a decision, I just thought Ole Miss was the right place to be,” Osteen said, mentioning South Florida was likely the other top choice for him. “I knew (USF) wasn’t the caliber baseball program, but it was in Tampa. That was the other one I was really considering.”
For two seasons, 2004 and 2005, Osteen was the Rebels’ starter at second base. After playing two seasons plus another spring training of pro baseball with the Phillies organization, he retired from the sport.
“That was when I decided I wanted to hang ‘em up,” he said. “I was burned out. I really didn’t feel like I was progressing all that much. I was actually talking to my brother (Jared) not long ago about it. You can always kind of see the bright and optimistic side of things, that I could catch a break or this might happen and then I’d be right where I needed to be. But I just felt realistically that wasn’t going to happen.”
Osteen returned home to work in the family business.
“I told my dad I was coming home, that I was done with baseball, and I was going to work for him. I had always known I wanted to be in the real estate business, and he ran a real estate appraisal company.”
So back to Fort Pierce he went, this time to help his dad, Tom, known to many by his nickname and variations thereof, Bumpy, or Bump, and also his mother, Mary. He worked there for more than three years.
“Since then I’ve transitioned into the brokerage business, and I’m with a company out of Stuart, Florida, that does a lot of commercial, industrial, multi-family brokerage type stuff. I travel the state of Florida and spend probably 80 percent of my time looking for new projects.
“In 2010 I met my now wife,” he said, “but my brother met her first. She is from Mississippi, and I was actually in Oxford with Barry Gunther for a football game the weekend Jared met her down here. I knew some of her family. (Former UM teammate) Peyton Farr had dated her cousin.
“My brother told me her name, Carrie Nasif, and told me she was from Mississippi. I thought, ‘I’m sure I know her family.’ So we got in touch, and obviously we had a lot in common. A lot of her family went to Ole Miss, but she had actually gone to Mississippi State. I have since converted her to an Ole Miss fan though.”
Carrie is from Vicksburg, had moved to Fort Lauderdale, and was a flight attendant. The weekend Carrie was in Fort Pierce with a friend, who happened to know Cooper, he was in Oxford for football.
“It was funny because I had spent time in the Grove with her grandparents (in previous years),” Cooper said. “I’d hung out with some of her family. I never knew (Carrie) until my brother ran into her down here.”
They married on a Friday night in October 2014, in Vicksburg, and later that night drove to Oxford. The next day Ole Miss hosted Auburn in football, and they were there.
Cooper and Carrie have one daughter, Ayla, born in June 2016, and another child due in December. They also have a real estate sales company, Reef to Ranch Real Estate, in Fort Pierce. The Osteens are all in business together as a family.
According to Cooper, the bond among the players from those special seasons of ‘04 and ‘05 remains strong.
“I stay in touch with some of my teammates,” he said. “But honestly I talk to them more during Fantasy Football season than Ole Miss baseball season.”
He was fully aware of the success this year’s Rebel team was having and the fast start to the season at 16-1 in February and early March.
“I really enjoyed keeping up with this year’s team,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ And it was over.”
Almost like the two seasons he spent at Ole Miss. As successful as those two teams were and as beloved as they were by fans, it all went by fast.
His first team, in 2004, had a start as this years did. They were 18-1 out of the gates, headed toward hosting Oxford’s first NCAA Regional later that season. Some of Osteen’s memories are of individual performances.
“I remember some big games, and I remember some other times that not everybody else knew about. I remember a game at South Alabama when Alex Presley, a freshman, came up to the plate. South Alabama changed pitchers, and Alex is getting ready to hit. Coach Bianco walks up and goes, ‘Hey Presley, hit a double right here.’ And he turns to go back to the dugout and turns back around to Presley and says, ‘Nevermind, hit a home run.’ And Presley hits a home run,” Cooper said, laughing as he recalled the moment. “And I remember Alex having a big weekend against Tennessee.”
The Rebels wound up sweeping both those series in ‘04. They lost the Regional at home that same June, but it’s the next season that still stings the most for Osteen. That’s when they could almost reach out and touch the College World Series.
“That ‘05 team just had such good pitching, and every single player in that lineup could come up big at any time. Great depth. When I think about it, that (Super Regional) loss against Texas still eats me up. We were an Omaha team, and we would have competed for the national championship. And of course, Texas won it.”
Now, a decade and a half later, Osteen still realizes how good those teams were and the foundation they were continuing to lay for this era of Ole Miss baseball.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long ago,” Osteen said, laughing as he recalled those fun times at Swayze and on the fields of the SEC and beyond. “Those two years were kind of what Bianco and McDonnell had been building to the point of being relevant every single year. That ‘05 team was right up there with anybody in the country.
“It seems, really and truly, like not that long ago. Like I could suit up now and all my teammates would be out there and everybody would look the same and we’d pretty much play the same.”
Ole Miss fans, who followed the program back then, can recall those special baseball seasons as well and likely agree.
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