Ole Miss softball returns in eight days for an encore to their magical Cinderella run from last season that saw them earn SEC glory and win the first regional they had ever hosted.
Since taking over for the 2015 season, Mike Smith has elevated Ole Miss softball from perennial afterthought to a national contender and fan-favorite.
I talked to Coach Mike Smith to preview the coming season and reflect on the insanity, euphoria and heartbreak of last year. We preview what to expect this season, discuss Kylan Becker making Team USA, what it would take to make it to Oklahoma City and just how crazy last year’s Cinderella post season was.
Me: We’ll start with the fun stuff before diving into next season. Kylan Becker recently made the Team USA Softball Japan All-Star series roster. Do you envision her incredible honor helping the program in recruiting, or any other areas down the line, seeing as Team USA Softball is one of the highest honors a softball player can earn?
Mike Smith: Yes, when a recruit knows that they have an opportunity to come to Ole Miss and have the opportunity to be seen and recommended for the USA National teams, its makes us a selling point with the top recruits in the country. For women’s softball it’s the TOP.
Last season, your team crashed barriers that had been up around the program for forever. How do you come back from the heartbreak at UCLA to take things to the next level and win a championship?
One game at a time. Not discuss last year and what we didn’t do in the end. We have talked about the things that put us on the patch for the lose, how can we change it and get better, but its over and we move on.
Is it just added focus?
Not focus just be a “detail orientated” team
Is luck a large factor, because watching the Super Regional last year, it just seemed that if the ball bounced a different way a time or two then your team would have been triumphant.
Luck is part of winning big games and championships… you need that. But we need to make sure that we control what happens, do the things we need to do to win and the rest will take care of itself.
Kaitlin Lee took the Ole Miss fanbase by storm in the postseason last year after pitching 7 consecutive complete game wins in the postseason (SEC Tournament and Regional). She was relied on heavily last season. Should we expect to see her relied on as much this coming season, or would you prefer other pitchers like Brittany Finney to help shoulder the load to save Lee for the postseason run, or because others in the conference have already faced her on multiple occasions?
If Lee pitches as much as she did last year we are not successful in the end. We need the entire pitching staff to be successful. If the rest of our pitchers are consistent all year, in the end we are sitting in a good place.
Last season’s offense was built around speed, speed and more speed, with a left-side-of-the-plate flavor. Should we expect an attempt to find more production from the right side of the plate to have a more balanced, diverse offense?
We are still speed, from the left side… but we do have some speed from the right once they get on base. We also have more power to add to this group this year. We “should” increase our power numbers from last year and maybe double HR numbers. More balanced lineup
You won the SEC Tournament last season. Is winning the SEC Regular Season crown a major goal in 2018?
Absolutely, always your goal every season. But our conference is so tough that as long as we are playing our best softball during SEC play and towards the end of the season, we are in a good place.
Back to off-field stuff. How crazy was the postseason run last season? You went from winning the SEC Tournament after beating MSU, Florida, LSU and Alabama, to winning the first Regional Ole Miss Softball has ever hosted, to losing a classic series at UCLA.
Really crazy, but so much fun. You dream of being in that situation with you controlling your own destiny. We became the Cinderella Story, the nation rallied around us and people wanted us to be “that” team, which feel good story. Very humbling but so proud of the players, the program, the university and Rebel national for all of it. Our players became “rock star” really quickly. When you see young players at your games wearing shirts they have made with our players names and numbers on the back with ole miss on the front, you know there is something special in the air. Maybe we can get some custom shirts made with names and numbers so fans and supporters can wear.
Taryne Mowatt was an instrumental piece in your success last season. How difficult was it finding a replacement, Ashley Chastain, for her once she left for her alma mater Arizona?
Taryne was a big part of the success we have had the last few years, but we feel we have been fortunate to have now in our program a great pitching coach in Ashley. She is really, really good. She is a dynamic, innovative teacher/coach. The players love her and love the changes she has brought to our pitching staff and within our program. She is a special person, which Rebel Nation will be excited about.
What would it mean for you to be able to take this Ole Miss team to Oklahoma City, since you return the bulk of the group who was oh-so-close last season?
This has been “my” and “our” goal from day one when I took over this program. It’s been a dream of mine when I first began coaching to play in the ultimate arena… I think I want it more for my players, want to see their emotions and watch them play this great game on the biggest stage in college softball. I have been to OKC one time and that was with my daughter four years ago, I took her for her Senior Trip, just her and I. This is what she wanted… I told myself that I didn’t want to go till I was there as a coach participating, but you know how it is, when your daughter wants to do this, I succumbed and was the best trip, best time I’ve spent with my daughter. We were able to experience so many great things, I got to sit and watch from a distance the pageantry and the talent level. I wanted that for my team here at Ole Miss. I told my daughter then that I would not go back till I was there coaching Ole Miss. So, very special moment for me, my family, my team, our program, the university, the community of Oxford and for Rebel nation. Knowing the Ole Miss fan base, if and when we do get to OKC, I’m sure we will pack the place out. That will be the cherry on top! HOTTY TODDY!