When the season ended at the UCLA regional, it might have been tempting for the casual softball fan, who had been interested in the team for a week or so, to assume the Rebels were losing a lot in the offseason. As many of you know though, that’s not at all the case.
The Rebels lose two starting position players (CF Miranda Strother and C Courtney Syrett), one rotational player (1B Dakota Matiko), a pinch runner (Raven Campos), and no pitchers. Yeah, that means LF Elantra Cox, RF Kylan Becker, and everyone’s favorite P Kaitlin Lee all return, along with a host of other good players.
If you’re like me and have become a permanent Ole Miss softball fan, there’s plenty to pay attention to this summer. The Rebels have a great class coming in, so it will be interesting to see how they adjust in practices. Head coach Mike Smith and pitching coach Taryne Mowatt will both be hot names in coaching searches around the country. And will the Rebels see any transfers in or out of the program? With only four players graduating and five freshmen coming in, there’s already a scholarship issue. Can Mike Smith find another Brittany Finney (the staff’s #2 pitcher who transferred to Ole Miss after a freshman season with Oklahoma)?
The #18 class in the country is inbound
The top rated player in the class is SS Alyssa Martinez, who is the #16 player in the country. After her are P Ava Tillmann (#88), C Abbey Latham (#102), SS Ally Mena (#159), and P/UT Jensen Howell (#194).
Martinez had just three errors this season, while hitting .475 for her high school in Cali. She’ll be the only signee representing the Rebels in the PGF All-American game on July 28th.
Tillman is a control pitcher who relies heavily on her screwball. Sound familiar? Much like Brittany Finney, who many of you know from her gem of a pitching performance in the second loss to UCLA, Tillman is a force at the plate too. She hit .410 as a junior (I can’t find her senior stats). With Courntey Syrett having graduated, it’s good that a strong catcher is incoming.
While Sarah Van Schaik will be the favorite to start, having hit .250 in 33 starts this year (only a couple at catcher), competition is good. [EDIT: Van Schaik transferred to Southern Miss last week.] There’s also a chance Kennedy Legg, who was the Rebels’ highest rated signee last year, steps into that starting job, but she didn’t see the field much as a freshman.
The Rebels need to sign Mike Smith and Taryne Mowatt to long-term extensions
While the entire coaching staff deserves a raise, head coach Mike Smith and pitching coach Tarne Mowatt really need one quick. I’m sure Smith’s name is circulating for any established openings, but Mowatt likely has her ears burning too. Smith has coached the writing of the record books, and the administration can’t afford to lose him, especially since viewership of the sport is actually growing (as opposed to almost every other collegiate sport).
But Mowatt is a huge priority as well. Make no mistake: this team didn’t succeed this year because of hitting. Sure, timely hitting came around during the run to the supers, but this team’s bread and butter was in quality pitching. In each of Mowatt’s second and third seasons at Ole Miss, she has dropped the team ERA by an entire run or more; that’s.... pretty tough. And she’s a tremendous name in softball, having pitched in back-to-back national championships and winning them. Other schools are going to come for her, and Ole Miss needs to make it as tough as possible to leave.
Projecting the Lineup
While this can be an exercise in futility, here’s how I could see things shaping up next season. These are in order of hitting.
LF Elantra Cox
RF Kylan Becker
CF Paige McKinney
DP Alyssa Gonzalez
1B Brittany Finney (when she’s not pitching)
3B Ashton Lampton
2B Kaylee Horton
SS Dylinn Stancil
Sarah Van Schaik [EDIT: Up for grabs with news that Van Schaik is transferring.]
Obviously, there will be freshmen who crack the lineup, but this is how I see it right now. All of these players were on the field a ton this year, so there shouldn’t be a tremendous learning curve. Still, Mike Smith has a way of bringing in immediate contributors in each signing class, so it’s not going to be easy goings for anyone (other than Kaitlin Lee and Brittany Finney, who have things on lockdown).