OXFORD The sudden separation from the most successful coach in Ole Miss softball history gave the program a short-term image hit, athletics director Keith Carter said.

However, he is hopeful that Ole Miss softball can navigate these waters and build on the foundation laid by Mike Smith.

Smith went 146-94 in five seasons, leading the Rebels to four-straight NCAA Tournaments and super regionals in two of the last three years.

He resigned in early December after being placed on administrative leave during an external audit of the program.

Carter says terms of Smith’s departure prohibit him from commenting publicly on the subject.

In the news release announcing the resignation Carter spoke of the school’s commitment to a “healthy culture” for the program.

Carter says an image hit was inevitable, but that interim coach Ruben Felix’s popularity with the players helped ease the transition.

“Any time you make a change like that and it happens that fast close to the season I think it disrupts things a little bit,” Carter said.

In addition to rallying the players amid sudden change, Felix was thrown a curve when senior Kaylee Horton announced she was leaving the program.

The Rebels lost seven of their first eight but have since climbed above the .500 mark at 11-10 with one of those wins against No. 14 Oklahoma State. They take on Central Arkansas tonight at 6 at home, weather permitting.

“We were very competitive in a lot of games and somehow came out of the first weekend 0-5. That wasn’t a good representation of what this team is. I think we’re seeing some signs of what they can be,” Carter said.

Felix likes what he sees in the growth of this team.

“I think the kids are at ease now,” he said. “At the beginning of the year we obviously went through a lot. We were probably trying to do too much with everything that had happened with the ball club.”

Felix will get a strong look and is in good position for a shot at the permanent head coach job by virtue of his season-long interview, Carter said.

Carter himself was an interim for six months before being promoted late last November.

Stay the course

“Coach Smith had gotten the program to a point where they were nationally prominent. We want to stay there. We want to have a softball team that can consistently host regionals get to super regionals and ultimately get to the College World Series,” Carter said. “As we start a search we want to bring somebody in or find that person that can really rejuvenate or just kind of keep going with what’s been happening.”

While looking for the right fit at coach Carter will invest in facility upgrades at the Ole Miss Softball Complex.

“We want to make it more of an SEC-level facility,” he said. “We haven’t done a lot to it over the years, and when you go around our league there have been a lot of renovations and a lot of cool things that other institutions have done for their softball. We want to do that too.”

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

Twitter: @parrishalford

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