May 18, 2017
By Dylan Edwards, OleMissSports.com
In a week that was three years in the making under the current head coach, Ole Miss ran through the SEC Tournament in a magical week to capture the SEC Tournament Championship. Ole Miss softball’s culture shift under head coach Mike Smith is nothing short of remarkable.
When Smith inherited the softball program three short years ago, he took over a program that was more in need of a foundation than a rebuild. In the program’s 18-year history prior to Smith, the accolades and accomplishments were few and far between. Ole Miss softball had never made an NCAA Tournament, never won an SEC Tournament game, and held an all-time win percentage of 40 percent.
“It’s the SEC, so I was interested,” Smith said. “A few people said that it was a potential career-ending job. It’s not a great job. They’re at the bottom of the SEC. That just fueled my fire even more. When people tell me that I can’t do something, that’s good. It’s just going to make me work harder.”
From the start, Smith established the ground rules for the Ole Miss program, and what to expect. The players obviously embraced it.
“He really focused on having a set of rules,” junior Paige McKinney said. “For the past three years, those rules haven’t changed. We’ve stayed set on those. From there, it went to softball.”
Smith’s first season in 2014 saw the Rebels take an obvious step forward, posting just the third winning season in program history and securing Ole Miss’ fourth-ever SEC Tournament bid. In 2015 in his second season, Ole Miss took an even larger step. The Rebels won a school-record 41 games, won a game in the SEC Tournament for the first time ever, and earned the program’s first regional appearance.
“There were kids here that had only scratched the surface of what they were going to be able to do,” Smith said. “I felt like I could take this program and make it an impact program in the SEC.”
That impact was definitely felt this season in the SEC. However, after a poor start to open the conference slate, the season was in danger of slipping away from the Rebels. Ole Miss was swept in back-to-back series to begin SEC play at 0-6.
“Our players really bought into the process,” Smith said. “We didn’t panic. We went backwards and went back to being a more detail-oriented team after those six loses. They believed in their coaching staff and we believed in them, but they had to believe in themselves. We got humbled a little bit, but we got ourselves back on track.”
The Rebels ended the season winning four of their final six conference series to play their way onto the fringe of the regional hosting picture. From there, pitcher Kaitlin Lee saw to it that the Rebels would move off of the fringe in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the SEC Tournament.
“I’ve never coached another player like her,” Smith said. “I’m not sure if I ever will coach another player like her ever again. God has blessed her in so many ways. I’m just thankful we have her on our team, and she’s wearing red and blue.”
The Ole Miss junior threw every single pitch in the tournament. Pitch counts aren’t an issue in softball, but still, she threw more than 400 pitches over the four games. The constant pressure of chasing a championship could have worn down many people. Not Lee, though.
“I never asked for the pitch count,” Smith said. “I really didn’t want to know. I just would ask Kaitlin every inning how she was doing. ‘Coach, I got this. I’m good.’ When you have a pitcher that stares you in the eye and says ‘Coach, I got you. I’m good,’ you feel really confident as a coach.”
That was the important thing. Ole Miss was riding the hot hand, but more importantly, Lee wanted to be the one in the circle when it mattered.
“I’ve always been ready and the go-to when pressure is on,” Lee said. “I felt great (at the end). After about game three you get numb to it all. After the third game against Alabama, it was about keep going and flowing with it. I could have kept going if I needed to.”
After wins against Mississippi State, No. 1 Florida, No. 15 Alabama, and No. 21 LSU, Ole Miss and Mike Smith had accomplished what many thought couldn’t be done. Ole Miss softball claimed the championship of a conference that just placed every-single team in the NCAA Tournament. Smith won a championship at the very program some had told him would damage his career just three years prior.
“Recruiting is going to change for us,” Smith said. “The programs where they were sending their best players to the Florida’s, the Alabama’s, or the Auburn’s, they’re probably going to send them to us now. The country fell in love with Ole Miss softball.”
Ole Miss’ focus will definitely shift this weekend from the historic week in Knoxville to starting the path to Oklahoma City. Their season isn’t finished yet, but what a year it has been.
“We’re embracing the moment and what we’ve worked for,” Smith said. “We’ve put the hard work in, and these girls deserve everything that’s going on right now. Being able to be a No. 12 seed far exceeds any expectation that I’ve had in three short years.”