Last year, I started watching Ole Miss softball, and I discovered how much fun it is to follow a program that builds upon its success year over year. What head coach Mike Smith has done with this team in two short seasons is utterly remarkable. When he arrived, Ole Miss was a laughing stock in softball, having never even scored a run in the SEC tournament. He immediately brought in good players who could make a difference and set tons and tons of school records in the process.
Heading into opening weekend in season three, the team returns all but two significant players from last season. Unfortunately, those two were the best players on the team, ace pitcher Madi Osias and shortstop Hailey Lunderman.
To get you ready for the season, which begins this weekend at the Easton Invitational in California, lets run through some questions you might have.
What happened to star player Hailey Lunderman?
Lunderman was named among the ten finalists for National Freshman of the Year. As just a freshman, she broke Ole Miss’ single-season record for hits. She stole bases. She finished the season as the leading hitter on the team with a .371 average.
And then this past December, she quit the team. I don’t know her motivation, but she appears to still be a student at Ole Miss. It’s a crushing blow to a program that was counting on her to contribute three more years of awesomeness.
Does her departure mean Ole Miss is screwed?
Not at all. Ole Miss returns nine of its top 11 hitters. It returns every pitcher not named Madi Osias. And knowing Mike Smith, it’s fair to say the team will get some contributions from its freshmen. It’s just that there’s some uncertainty before this weekend.
Last year, we were the 3rd youngest team in the NCAA.— Ole Miss Softball (@OleMissSoftball) February 8, 2017
This year, with just 3️⃣ days until the season opener, we welcome our freshman class! pic.twitter.com/RwY344XHFe
These freshmen finished as the No. 20 recruiting class nationally. The class Smith just signed, which won’t be on campus until August, was ranked No. 18. To put that in perspective, Smith’s first two classes weren’t even in the top 35.
These classes are ranked well nationally, but they still have the Rebels No. 10 and No. 9 in the SEC respectively. To get to being truly special, the recruiting will have to break through to relevance in the conference. Still, it’s good to see so many top 100 players wanting to come to Oxford. Smith has remarked in several interviews that this class has more power potential than his previous groups did.
Who’s going to replace Madi Osias?
Osias was a force on the pitcher’s mound last season, decimating the record for wins in a season. She signed a pro deal with the Pennsylvania Rebellion. Osias was brilliant last season and obviously leaves big shoes to fill.
Junior Elisha Jahnke will get a shot at the primary starting nod after going 10-7 last season and showing promise. Sophomore Alyssa Clayton, who was 4-1 with a 1.6 ERA before ending her season very early with an injury, will certainly get a long look as well.
But it doesn’t stop there. Brittany Finney, a member of last year’s national champion Oklahoma Sooners transferred to Ole Miss and will be immediately eligible to play as a sophomore. She was an incredibly highly touted recruit who finished last season with a 1.12 ERA in 18.2 innings pitched. Obviously, there’s an opportunity for her. Oh, and she also set the career home runs record in Oklahoma high school softball… as a batter.
And JUCO transfer Kaitlin Lee will get a chance as well. Lee finished last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast with a 0.84 ERA and a 22-4 record and was named an All-American. Smith singled out her off-speed stuff as something that could make a difference for her.
The next few weeks will tell us a lot about this team. Who steps into roles? Are these freshmen really good? If just a few step up and make a difference, this team could be very, very good.