OXFORD – Ole Miss softball is back in the NCAA Tournament.

The second-seed Rebels learned Sunday night they will be returning to Arizona, the site of their 2019 super regional loss, to face 3 seed Villanova on Friday in the first round of the Tucson Regional.

The winner will face host Arizona, the No. 11 overall tournament seed.

While most of the SEC excelled for years, Ole Miss didn’t reach its first NCAA Tournament until 2016. Now the Rebels have played in every tournament since.

There’s an asterisk, however. Spring sports seasons were cut off mid-stride by COVID-19 last year.

The Rebels, playing under an interim coach, were 12-13 then and had just been swept by No. 23 Missouri by a total run count of 18-3.

Getting back to the NCAA Tournament would have required a turnaround.

Former coach Mike Smith, before an abrupt parting of ways with the school in late 2019, had led Ole Miss to four tournament bids and two regional championships.

Just getting back in the Big Dance is a big step for this Ole Miss team which was picked last in the preseason poll by SEC coaches.

“It means the world to me and my teammates and the girls in the senior class. We made it a goal to make postseason every year, and we were able to accomplish that,” senior catcher Autumn Gillespie said.

New coach Jamie Trachsel, no stranger to the NCAA Tournament in stops at North Dakota State and Minnesota prior to Ole Miss, has the Rebels at 34-20 after a 12-12 SEC regular season.

The Rebels had won four out of five SEC weekends plus a non-conference sweep of No. 25 UCF before getting swept at No. 3 Alabama.

Add a one-and-done SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State, and the Rebels head to Tuscon on a four-game losing streak.

That hasn’t dampened Trachsel’s enthusiasm for this team.

“It takes a village to go out and do what we’ve done, and it’s not easy, especially with the coaching change, so many different variables behind the scene that people don’t really understand until you’ve had to live through it. I’m proud of our players, and we’ve said this all year long, the best is yet to come.”

The Rebels enter postseason hitting .283 and pitching with a 2.34 ERA.

Villanova (36-13) won the Big East Conference tournament and is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

The Wildcats won four-straight games after losing their tournament opener.

Ole Miss and Villanova have met only two times previously. Both games were in a 2013 neutral-site event with the Rebels winning each time.

“We still feel like there’s another chapter in our story to be written, and we have everything to say about it,” Trachsel said. “There’s something to be said for proving people right and proving people wrong. It feels good, but that’s certainly not our motivation right now.”

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