Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Let’s talk about Mike Smith for a moment

Ole Miss head coach Mike Smith is well-respected among his peers and well-liked by colleagues, athletes, and other industry professionals alike. Many of those same peers and “industry professionals” were some of the voices in his ear in the summer of 2014 when Smith’s name was rumored to be linked to the then-vacant Rebels head coaching position.
Ole Miss head coach Mike Smith
Photo: Ole Miss Athletics
At the time, Smith was head coach at McNeese State, a budding championship program in the Southland conference that had narrowly missed an NCAA bid the season before and had been left on the outside looking in despite a forty-win, .702 winning percentage season in 2014.
“It’s where good coaches’ careers go to die,” one coach told me at the time, speaking on the Ole Miss position. “Mike’s a great coach, but even he would have a hard time [in Oxford].”
Smith did wind up accepting the job offer from the Rebels and moving to Oxford to begin to rebuild a program that had been at the bottom of the conference for several years. The Rebels had not posted a winning record since 2010, even then finishing just two games above the .500 mark. They had never appeared in the NCAA tournament.
The squad showed immediate improvement in 2015, finishing the year five games above .500 with a 30-25 overall record, advancing to the conference tournament despite going just 6-18 in conference play. An 11-0 shellacking at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs ended the Rebels' postseason swiftly, but also showed some of the naysayers that Smith meant business.
Impressive for a new head coach at a usually-floundering program? Sure, but Smith was just getting started. The groundwork was only just being laid.
The 2016 season saw the Rebels reach the forty-win plateau, the first time in program history that the team had reached the mark and eventually tallying forty-one victories by year’s end. Freshman Hailey Lunderman put together a stellar rookie campaign, hitting .371 and immediately developing into one of the team's offensive leaders. Senior Madi Osias turned in a sub-3.00 ERA in the circle, limiting opponents to just a .213 batting average against her in nearly 200 innings of work and turning into a true, bonafide SEC ace in the process.
The Rebels earned their first-ever postseason berth in the NCAA tournament last season, still even sooner than the positive-thinkers had predicted at the time of Smith’s hiring. Placed in the Oklahoma-hosted regional, the Rebels took the Sooners down to the wire before ultimately falling short of advancing.
Coming in to 2017, many thought the Rebels could be a “one-hit wonder”. Osias had graduated. Lunderman elected to end her career prematurely to concentrate on educational avenues. One of the toughest schedules in the nation awaited them at season’s start.
If the cards didn’t seem to have much success in them, Smith ordered a new deck. Despite playing the toughest conference schedule and a rematch against Oklahoma in the early season, the Rebels amassed thirty-six victories during the regular season.
The success did not come easily, however. Smith’s team started conference play with six straight losses, straight sweeps against Texas A&M and Tennessee. As the season stretched on, though, the Rebels improved by leaps and bounds. Sweeping LSU and taking the final two conference series’ against Alabama and Missouri, only another sweep at the hands of #1 seed Florida produced a mark on the negative side for the Rebels.
With a sub-.500 record in conference play, the Rebels earned the #8 seed in the conference tournament. Matched up against Mississippi State to kick off the postseason, the eventual 2-1 against their in-state rivals held special meaning for the Rebels and Smith in particular.
In an emotional postgame interview, Smith paid tribute to his late grandfather, who passed away earlier in the day at the age of 102. Smith dedicated the win to his grandfather, and did the same after his team’s shutout victory over #1 overall seed Florida in the tournament quarterfinals.

A victory over Alabama, behind budding ace Kaitlin Lee and her energetic, masterful work in the circle, vaulted the Rebels to the tournament championship game. In earning their spot in the game, the squad became the lowest-ever tournament seed to reach the championship matchup.

We all know the story of said championship game by now: 5’6” Lee took the circle once again for the Rebels and lead her team to a victory over LSU for the program’s first SEC championship and, ultimately, the #12 seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll host North Carolina, Arizona State, and Southern Illinois in Oxford this weekend.
"We proved to ourselves that we belong in the SEC. We belong in this conference." Those were Smith's words earlier this year. Indeed the Rebels do, and so does their coach.

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