“Is Ole Miss a softball school now?”
It’s a wry Twitter crack these days for Rebels fans but one thing is certain: the Rebels are winning like never before, and have a chance to make more history this weekend with a College World Series spot on the line against No.6 Arizona.
Ole Miss won its home regional in dramatic fashion on Sunday, beating No.7 Louisiana twice to clinch the school’s second Super Regional birth and touch off a raucous celebration around the complex.
It hasn’t always been this way in Oxford. In fact, the team was struggling to even compete in the SEC with two winning seasons in eighteen years before coach Mike Smith came along in 2015.
Smith, a San Diego native and two-time Southland Conference coach of the year at McNeese State (2013-14), had one mandate: build the Rebels into a competitive SEC program. The rest would follow.
“When I came in here 5 years ago I had a plan, but it has happened pretty fast. We developed something good, we laid a foundation early, but every year we’ve gotten better and better,” Smith told Bash Brothers in April.
In his first year, the Rebels tied a school record with 30 wins, and made it back to the SEC tournament for the first time in seven years. His second team shattered the mark with 41 wins and made their first ever NCAA Tournament. 2017 was the breakthrough. The Rebels won their first ever SEC Tournament. Then they made their first Super Regional appearance.
Last season saw the Rebels make a third straight NCAA appearance, but they were knocked out in the regional round. Suddenly, for a school that had barely tasted success in its history, routinely making the postseason wasn’t good enough.
“It’s now something common in our program to make the SEC tournament and to get to a regional,” Smith said. “That’s just common talk with us now; before it used to be, “Hey that’s where we want to get to.” Now we just can’t settle for that.”
“I think everyone inside the program kind of knew that this is where we were going to take this team,” said junior catcher Autumn Gillespie. “Maybe people outside the program are a little bit surprised about it, but none of us are really shocked because we trained this whole year for this.”
INSIDE THE PROCESS
It’s a crisp, sunny afternoon in Oxford as the Rebels take the field for practice before a home series against Missouri, one of the last days to appreciate being outside before the sweltering summer hits. The Rebels are loose and at ease as the start of practice takes shape.
They gather around Smith for a quick talk. Not surprisingly, the message is about standards — and how every part of the next 90 minutes is the preparation to attain them:
“To get to the SEC tournament, the NCAA tournament, that’s not good enough for this program anymore. Our job is to be one of the final eight, right? So every day that we do something, we need to prepare. Every day we do it, we need to think about those things.”
It’s about much more than motivational speeches and standards with Smith. He’s widely regarded as one of the great professionals in the game, “the process” of detail, scouting, and film. In the prep talk, Smith and his staff remind the ladies of what they will face this week, and how they can attack their opponent based on the scouting reports.
Which hitters like certain pitches. Who throws what breaking ball when. This player drag bunts to this side, that fielder’s average arm means an extra base opportunity. The attention and focus from the twenty or so players and staff encircling Smith is absolute.
This glimpse into a five minute pre-practice talk showed the full picture of commitment for Ole Miss softball.
“It’s a stressful, dog-eat-dog world man, if you’re not on your game,” Smith told us plainly. “If you’re not studying video, if you’re not looking at the analytics and finding percentages and doing the little things you need to do to gain an edge in this conference, you’re going to get left behind.”
What Ole Miss has done, rising from the bottom of the SEC to a national contender in five short years, takes more than belief and preparation. You need top-flight talent.
Enter senior Kylan Becker, the Rebels’ All-American outfielder and first Ole Miss player ever selected for the U.S. National team. Becker led the SEC in hits this season, was second in batting (.426) and hit .600 over the regional series. Junior college transfer Molly Jacobson (14-7, 1.92 ERA) teamed with senior Brittany Finney (18-9, 2.67 ERA) to put the pitching staff over the top.
But what stands out over the course of the practice, amidst the dogma and detail and quick-tempo drills, what’s obviously special about this particular team, is the attitude. The Rebels are good and have fun knowing it.
“I think we are having a lot of fun. We’re really focused, we have a lot of grit and I think we are definitely just confident in ourselves and our ability,” said Becker. “This group is really loose. We never get too tense. I think when we’re in a tough spot we tend to try and lighten the situation and it kind of just hypes us up.”
“It’s kind of cool knowing that we are being the hunted and I think it just gives the team good vibes all around.” Gillespie says. “This team draws their momentum from having those good relationships.”
Smith, the consummate grinder who jokingly refers to his star seniors as “The Diva Group,” admits he’s evolved over his time in Oxford.
“I was always such a worrier but I’ve loosened up a little. Sometimes I feel like if they are not cheering or joking having a good time…then I need to worry,” he said. “But they’re resilient. This is a special group, probably one of the best team chemistry (teams) I’ve ever had.”
AHEAD IN ARIZONA
The resilience of the Rebels was no more evident than last Sunday in Oxford. Needing to win two games against the 7th ranked team in the country to keep their season alive, Ole Miss did just that. They won the opener 5-1 and scored two runs in their final at bat to win the second 5-4 and clinch the Super Regional spot.
Now what was once an impossibility, then a dream, and soon a lofty goal, is but a weekend away. Win two out of three against Arizona and the Lady Rebels are in the College World Series.
“All four years have been adding up to this moment, so I’m kind of just trying to tell myself that I’ve worked so hard and that it is kind of just paying off right now, so hopefully it keeps going,” Becker said.
It won’t be easy. The Rebels will be on the road in Arizona for a reason: The Wildcats are the No.6 national seed and went 19-5 in the Pac-12. The program has reached six consecutive Super Regionals and won eight total national championships with 22 CWS appearances under legendary coach Mike Candrea.
They are as blue-blooded as it gets in college softball. But nothing about the climb has been easy — or unexpected — for Ole Miss, so don’t expect them to shy away now.
“I think we take it one game at a time…but I don’t think this team expects anything less than being at the World Series,” Gillespie said. “There are probably a lot of people outside the program that aren’t sure if we can do it, but I don’t think there is a single doubt in anyone’s mind that we are going to end up in Oklahoma City.”
Article: Joe Simeone and Jon Wiener
Video story: Joshua Klegg, Troy Poling, Henry Wiener
Credit: Ole Miss Athletics