OXFORD — There is much I don’t understand about women’s softball, including how so many of the batters manage to hit the ball as they are sprinting out of the batter’s box. That cannot be easy. It’s hard enough standing still.
But one thing I do understand about fast pitch softball: You recruit a really proficient pitcher, you are ready to roll.
Ole Miss softball, with feisty Kaitlin Lee of Gulfport pitching and fist-pumping, is on an unprecedented roll. The Rebels defeated Southern Illinois 8-0 in five innings Friday night for their fifth straight victory and ninth in their last 10 games.
The standard joke in Oxford these days: Who knew we were a softball school?
Ole Miss fans are like any others in one respect: They love to win. The Lady Rebel softballers, who had won only one game in SEC Tournament history, won four straight last week to claim the championship. Lee, giving the word “workhorse” a new meaning, threw every pitch of the four games, allowing just three runs to win MVP honors.
So it is that Ole Miss, which had been to only one NCAA Tournament in its 21-year history, serves as host for this NCAA Regional at the Ole Miss Softball Complex, a neat, if cozy facility that normally seats about 1,000. It accommodated a record 1,677 fans for the first round Friday night.
Bleachers were moved in down the foul lines and in the outfield. A stand of bleachers was even erected across Hathorn Road from the stadium for people who couldn’t get a ticket for the game, which was a hard sellout, something Ole Miss softball has never had before.
It’s hard to have a sellout when you don’t sell tickets and Ole Miss didn’t until this NCAA Regional. Lynnette Johnson, executive associate athletic director now in her 23rd year at Ole Miss, called the atmosphere “surreal.”
“If you have been here since Day One of this program and I have been, this scene is just really unbelievable,” Johnson said. “What Mike has done here and how quickly he has done it, really is unbelievable.”
“Mike” is Mike Smith, who in three seasons at Ole Miss has turned a life-less program into a powerhouse. Get this: In the 18 years before Smith, Ole Miss softball had won 410 games and lost 614. How bad is that?
In Smith’s three seasons, the Rebels are 112-65. Has there ever been a bigger turn-around?
Says Johnson, “ I haven’t seen one.”
Smith obviously was pumped by Friday night’s crowd. He recalled his first year at Ole Miss when he could count the crowd from the dugout. “Seriously, we had crowds of like 21,” he said.
“How electric was this crowd tonight?” he said, and he really wasn’t asking. “Man, that was exciting. It was just an unbelievable crowd.”
It made a difference, said right fielder Kylan Becker, who had two hits, including an inside-the-park home run and five RBIs. When asked about the crowd, she responded, “It just hit me: All these people came here for us.”
Lee, all 5 feet, 6 inches of her, is a huge reason for the 41-18 Lady Rebels’ success this season and Friday night. The Gulf Coast Community College transfer won her 21st victory of the season Friday night. It was her 24th complete game.
She is not an overpowering pitcher. No, she is softball’s version of Greg Maddux. She changes speeds, moves the ball in and out, keeps the hitters off balance and really, really competes.
She did not have her best stuff Friday night, she said, struggling with command of her change-up early. “But my curve ball was on and I had what I needed to have for us to win.”
Lee likely will be handed the ball again today when No. 1 seed Ole Miss plays second-seeded Arizona State, which defeated North Carolina 9-3 earlier Friday. Game time is 1:30 p.m., weather permitting. A first inning rainstorm delayed the first game Friday night by an hour, pushing the Ole Miss start close to 10 p.m. It did not seem to dampen the festivities.
One of those watching the game from the bleachers across the street, beyond the right field fence, was Jeffrey Alexander, a former youth softball coach who loves the sport and has been attending Ole Miss games for years. When he called to purchase a ticket earlier this week, he learned he could not. Demand was so high that athletic officials were selling them on a priority basis. If you aren’t a football season ticket holder and a donor, you couldn’t buy a ticket to the softball regional.
Said Alexander, “This is better than not watching at all.”
The guess here: Ole Miss will sell tickets, including season tickets, next year. At Ole Miss, regardless of what happens today or thereafter, softball has arrived.
• • •
Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out other news at mississippitoday.org and follow us on Twitter @MSTODAYnews.