OXFORD – Sometimes the most difficult part of the performance is the encore.
Ole Miss, in its second softball season under coach Mike Smith, reached the NCAA tournament last year for the first time.
The Rebels this season were faced with the challenge of continuing and building on that success, a 2016 season that including 41 wins and a second-place finish in a road regional at eventual national champion Oklahoma.
The encore would have to come without last year’s top pitcher, senior Madi Osias, and the sudden decision of infielder Hailey Lunderman to give up softball. Lunderman set an Ole Miss record with 76 hits and led the team 25 multi-hit games as a freshman last year.
“It was a drastic change, but we picked up the pieces from the get-go,” junior outfielder Elantra Cox said. “It’s definitely harder to keep (momentum) going. We made it to a regional last year. Now the bigger task is to win a regional and keep going.”
Cox leads the team in hitting at .424 – fourth in the SEC – and in on-base percentage at .462.
Junior college transfer Kaitlin Lee has settled in as the No. 1 pitcher at 15-9 with a 2.02 ERA in 176 1/3 innings. A junior right-hander, Lee played two seasons from Gulfport, Lee played two seasons at Gulf Coast Community College.
The No. 21-ranked Rebels are 34-17 overall, 8-13 in SEC play and with a No. 20 RPI rating are in the conversation to host a regional. The last four games will be big in that regard. Ole Miss is at home tonight at 6 against Southern Miss then at Missouri.
Smith says the SEC, with a rich softball history, is as good as it’s ever been and could land all 13 teams in the NCAA tournament.
The Rebels right now are tied for eighth in the league with series wins against top-20 ranked teams Kentucky, LSU and Alabama.
Improving depth is the next big challenge for the Rebels to climb into the upper tier of the conference.
“We don’t have the strength off the bench that the other teams have. I think that’s really important as we move on from here,” Smith said. “We have to be able to recruit top of the line No. 1 type infielders and outfielders, pitchers that can come in and compete on a daily basis and make the other ones better.”
While the encore to a record season plays out Smith looks less at numbers, records and the like and more at trying to maintain that upward trajectory.
“As we get better so is everybody else. Now everybody is expecting us to win. We want to play our best softball and let the numbers take care of themselves. That’s important in maintaining what we’re trying to do here.”