(When Coaches Speak is a series of articles where active coaches will give their thoughts on their own teams, as well as current happenings in the game and offer thoughts on their peers, always in their own words.)
|Mike Smith / Photo: Ole Miss Athletics|
Mike Smith enters his third season at the helm of the Ole Miss Rebels in 2017. Since joining the Rebels in the summer of 2014, his squad has already shattered the previous program record for wins in a season; won their first-ever SEC tournament game; and advanced to the school's first-ever NCAA tournament.
After finishing #27 overall in the national RPI rankings in 2016, Smith believes his program can compete for a higher seed in the SEC tournament and continue building toward a perennial national prominence. "We proved to ourselves that we belong in the SEC," Smith said. "We belong in this conference. We pay attention to the details... the girls had a taste of what success is like, what the postseason is like. They also found out what it's like to have an opportunity to win... and to lose."
The Rebels were ousted in the Regional round at the hands of eventual-champions Oklahoma, but Smith believes his squad will continue building toward a position of continued relevance; while not necessarily a groundbreaking plateau, it is the next step on a continued climb up the ladder.
Smith joined Ole Miss from McNeese State, where he barely missed the NCAA postseason with the Cowgirls in 2014. When asked why he chose to join the Rebels in Oxford, Smith credits "the passion, the energy, and the determination from day one" as positive features that endeared him - and still do - to the university.
Though his team is young - the third-youngest in Division 1, according to Smith, with eight freshmen and four sophmores - the Rebels will play the SEC's toughest strength of schedule this season. Smith believes tough matchups, both in conference play and out of it, will help prepare his team to be battle-tested for the postseason.
Ace pitcher Madi Osias is gone to graduation, and Hailey Lunderman, who starred as a freshman infielder, elected to leave the team shortly after Christmas, in order to concentrate on academics. Smith says he likes the look of his pitching staff going in to the season, specifically mentioning the return of former Shelton State transfer Alyssa Clayton as a positive potential catalyst, and though the unexpected absence of Lunderman will shake things up, Smith says he has the bodies and the talent to get done what has to get done.
The Rebels open the 2017 season in Fullerton, California against Loyola Marymount and Cal State Fullerton on February 10th. They'll get a one-game rematch of last year's regional final when they face Oklahoma in Houston, Texas on February 17th.