College sports have a special place in the hearts of all Rebel fans. The Grove on a football Saturday... Swayze Field on a baseball Friday... they work a magic in the hearts of the Ole Miss faithful that is truly indescribable. And now, after 30+ years of wandering in the wilderness, Ole Miss basketball has brought home an SEC Championship. And after 11 years of an NIT ceiling, the Rebels went dancing, dispatching the 5th seeded Wisconsin Badgers in the Round of 64. With a nationally acclaimed football recruiting class, additions to Vaught-Hemingway stadium forthcoming, and a brand new basketball arena on the horizon, there's a lot to be excited about in Oxford, Mississippi. Yet quietly, just outside of the searchlight the "Big 3" sports cast, there lies, in the shadows, another world, entirely: the "other" sports of Ole Miss athletics. Even factoring in the enormous roster of the football team, the majority of athletes that suit up for the Red and Blue don't play football, men's basketball, or baseball. There's women's basketball. There's men's and women's tennis, men's and women's golf, and men's and women's track and field. There's women's rifle, women's soccer, and women's volleyball. Through their respective histories, all have had periods of success. Except one: women's softball.
Along with women's rifle, it's the youngest sport on campus. But unlike women's rifle, and every other sport on campus, it's had no success to speak of. There are no national championships and no conference championships to boast. Out of the 13 SEC schools Ole Miss competes against, there's only one series winning record: Kentucky. Out of its 16 years of existence, Ole Miss has never finished better than 4th in its division; rather, it's finished last in 6 seasons and next to last in 9 seasons. In 16 years, it's had two winning seasons (2005 and 2010), and they came on a 30-28 and 29-27 record, respectively. In 16 years, there have been no NCAA Tournament appearances, and only 3 SEC Tournament appearances. On average, the Ole Miss softball team notches just 23 wins per year, and just 8 conference wins per year. Truly, for its entire existence, Ole Miss softball has been stuck in neutral.
Around the league, things couldn't be better. Since its inception in 1996, SEC softball has rocketed into the limelight. Last year, 9 of 12 SEC teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament. 3 of those teams advanced to the College World Series (Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee), and for the first time in conference history, one of its own took the national championship when Alabama downed Oklahoma by a score of 5-4 on June 7, 2012. Since 1996, 10 of the original 12 teams have qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and half of the original conference (6 of 12) has made a trip to the College World Series. Now, with the additions of Missouri (currently 23-4) and Texas A&M (currently 33-7), the league has only gotten stronger. Ole Miss finds itself at the bottom of a very large mountain, with a very long and difficult hike to make to relevancy.
Under the leadership of Coach Missy Dickerson, the team endured 4 straight losing seasons (2006-2009) before notching one of its only two winning records in the history of the program in 2010. However, this small step in the right direction was met with a massive step in the wrong direction; in 2011, the program won 14 games, its worst performance ever. Exit Missy Dickerson, enter Windy Thees, the Rebels' current coach. Thees, renowned for building Memphis softball from scratch and making an NCAA Tournament team out of it, gave Ole Miss softball a glimmer of hope in her first year at the helm. The Rebels went from 14 wins to 22 wins, scored 73 more runs than they had the previous year, and showed marked improvements in committed errors and batting average. Once again, it was a small step for a team that needs a marathon of steps.
Today, Ole Miss is 21-23 with 14 games remaining, the first of which airs tonight on ESPNU against the cross-state rival Bulldogs. With a strong close to the season, the Rebels are poised to take yet another small step in the right direction: to make winning seasons commonplace, to be competitive in one of the nation's strongest conferences, and to give itself a chance at a championship by making it to the NCAA Tournament. Considering its history, that journey will not happen quickly. But with one small step after the other, proper guidance from a proven winner, and most importantly, the support of the Ole Miss faithful, Ole Miss Softball can become what it has never been before: a force to be reckoned with.
From The Cup, the best of luck this weekend to Coach Thees and our Softball Rebs.