Ole Miss softball starts back this weekend with five games in three days at the Sand Dollar Classic in Gulf Shores, Ala.. This season is full of intrigue, given what has happened during head coach Mike Smith’s first three years on the job.
Smith has set or broken the school wins record three years in a row and has rewritten the record books, both on offense and the mound. He has consistently recruited top 25 classes, something that never really happened before he came along. His staff earned run average has declined by nearly a run per year. Really, it has been stunning. Remember, we’re talking about a program that had never scored a run in the SEC tournament before he took over.
Of course, Ole Miss hosted a regional last year and progressed to a super at UCLA. The Rebels start this season ranked in both top 25 polls, and expectations are high.
There are a lot of good reasons for optimism.
The three most important pitchers from last season all return in senior Kaitlin Lee (1.82 ERA), junior Brittany Finney (1.80 ERA), and sophomore Morgan Bruce (2.85 ERA). Lee and Finney should be one of the better duos in the conference.
Freshmen Ava Tillman (.185 HS career opponent average) and Anna Borgen (a three-time first team all-state player in Texas) are promising pitchers as well, with both likely to draw a few starts early in the season.
The lineup returns a few impact players, though it might be top-heavy. Senior left fielder Elantra Cox (.429 BA) and junior right fielder Kylan Becker (.375) are back, along with four of the rest of the top eleven hitters. Cox and Becker, however, are the only returning players who hit over .300 last season. The aforementioned Finney will play first when she’s not pitching and provides real power potential, coming into her own in the postseason last year.
The Rebels should also get a spark from several newcomers, with centerfielder Celeste Wood likely the largest contributor. Wood is a junior transfer from Michigan State, where she hit .372 and .387 in her two seasons. The freshmen are relative unknowns, though given Smith’s track record, at least a couple are likely to emerge as viable candidates at the plate.
But they also lost a lot.
Centerfielder Miranda Strother (.312) and catcher Courtney Syrett (.244) graduated, and three of the other top eleven hitters on the team (first baseman Alyssa Gonzalez, second baseman Kaylee Horton, and catcher Sarah Van Schaik) transferred in the off season. It’s tough to replace that type of production for a team that already had trouble hitting.
Another big loss was pitching coach Taryne Mowatt, who accepted the same job at Arizona, her alma mater. Mowatt is respected in softball, having literally singlehandedly pitched the Wildcats to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. Her three seasons in Oxford were prolific, as she had a tremendous impact on the pitching staff overall.
Short stop Alyssa Martinez left the team before her career even began. Martinez was ranked as the No. 16 player in the country and was the crown jewel of the recruiting class. She marks the third top-rated recruit to leave the team within her first year on campus with sophomore catcher Kennedy Legg transferring to Penn State and Haley Lundermann (who led the team in hitting as a freshman) quitting softball.
The number of players departing Smith’s team each off season is definitely something to keep an eye on, as it has the potential to derail things long-term. I don’t have a clear answer as to why it happens, but I’ve been told it’s a mixture of Oxford not being California and Smith’s demanding coaching style. Still, until the results start going down, I’m not going to fret too much.
I think they’ll be pretty strong this year.
Becker and Cox have a good chance of getting on base every time they come to the plate, and the pitching staff has at least two arms capable of competing with any team (all you really need in softball). The team will need to rely on timely hits from the rest of the order as well as a few players taking big steps in consistency.
The Rebels were recently picked to finish 7th in the SEC. As I mentioned before, that’s not unreasonable given the strength of the league. They’re capable of a bit more than that, but don’t go expecting them to tear through the league or anything. There are other teams that are objectively more talented.
The Sand Dollar Classic starts this Friday, February 9th as they Rebels take on the Penn State Nittany Lions.