What a difference 126 days make. Barely four months ago, the head coaches of the 13 SEC softball teams voted in the league’s annual preseason poll, selecting the Florida Gators as the favorite to win the SEC in 2017.
The Gators, who returned 14 letter winners from last season’s team that finished 56-7 overall and 20-4 in the SEC, garnered the most amount of votes from league coaches, while Auburn (winner of the last two SEC tournaments) was a close second. Alabama and LSU were not far behind, tied for third place in this year’s poll.
Don’t doubt the Rebels
So where were the Ole Miss Rebels–the SEC Tournament Champion Rebels, and now NCAA Regional Champion Rebels– in the league’s preseason rankings?
Well, they were firmly ensconced in 10th place—out of 13 SEC softball teams. (Vanderbilt does not field a softball team.)
Now, a scant 18 weeks later, head coach Mike Smith’s Rebels are the darlings of the NCAA softball world–and with good reason. Their enthusiasm, intensity and sheer love of the game have captured the hearts of those not only in Oxford, MS, but around the country.
For the first time in school history, No. 12 Ole Miss (43-18) is an NCAA Regional Champion, following the Rebels’ 7-2 victory over North Carolina Sunday. The Rebels (43-18) defeated SIU and Arizona State before going on to defeat the Tar Heels in the championship game.
Now, Coach Smith and his team are in the City of Angels, Los Angeles, to face No. 5 UCLA (45-13) in Super Regional action.
Scouting the Bruins
The Bruins are the No. 5 national seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and are making their fifth-straight NCAA Super Regional appearance. UCLA, led by 11-year head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, swept its regional last weekend with wins over Lehigh, San Jose State and Cal State Fullerton. The Bruins finished 16-8 in the Pac-12, including wins in their last four series of the season.
UCLA familiar with SEC foes
UCLA is no stranger to Southeastern Conference opponents, having played six times against five SEC teams this year, going 4-2.
The Bruins defeated South Carolina, LSU and Georgia in single games earlier this season and also split a doubleheader with Kentucky at the beginning of the season. They lost to Florida in the Judi Garman Classic.
Bruins boast one of nation’s top offenses
UCLA ranks as one of the best in the nation offensively, as the Bruins are 11th in average (.324) and sixth in slugging (.534). Kylee Perez leads UCLA with a .418 average and 82 hits—ninth most in the country. Delaney Spaulding has recorded a team-high 55 runs scored, batting .382. Madeline Jelenicki (.337) ranks top-10 in the NCAA with 66 RBI, and is second on the team in slugging (.663) behind only Spaulding’s .737 clip. Brianna Tautalafua is also one of the team’s leading home run hitters with 16, and has 50 RBI for a .665 slugging mark.
Bruins’ have experienced pitching staff
The UCLA pitching staff owns a 2.54 ERA coming into the matchup with the Rebels. Two Bruins have pitched 100 innings, with another just one shot of 100.
Rachel Garcia boasts a 20-7 record and a team-best ERA of 1.84 in 21 starts, notching 11 complete games and five solo shutouts. Garcia has recorded 179 strikeouts this year, holding opponents to a .203 average.
Pitcher Selina Ta’amilo has yet to suffer a loss (14-0) and possesses a 2.87 ERA in 13 starts and 100 innings pitched. Johanna Grauer has 17 starts and is 11-4 with a 2.88 ERA in 99.2 innings pitched.
Scouting the Rebels
For the second-straight year, Ole Miss has surpassed the 40-win mark, breaking last year’s school record wins mark of 41. Ole Miss has scored first in 10 of its last 11 games, and scored in the first or second inning in seven of those contests. In these last 11 games, the Rebels have outscored their opponents, 20-5, in the first two frames.
Last weekend, Ole Miss charged through its three games in the NCAA Oxford Regional, outscoring opponents 17-2. It was the team’s first-ever home NCAA Regional, one that saw the nation’s No. 12 seeded Rebels face the third-toughest regional. Oxford was one of only two regional host sites to welcome three Power Five schools for regional action.
Rebels on fire at the plate
Since the first round of the SEC Tournament, the Rebels have hit .335 as a team, notching 11 extra-base hits and 30 runs scored. (They’ve committed only three errors defensively, and have allowed only five runs behind the dominant arm of junior RHP Kaitlin Lee.)
Thus far in the NCAA tourney, the Rebels are batting at a .368 pace and slugging at a .566 mark. They’ve notched eight extra-base hits and 16 RBI.
Ole Miss is led by Elantra Cox who leads both the SEC and the nation this season with 91 hits. She also owns an overall .438 batting average—second in the SEC.
Kylan Becker has recorded 73 hits this season, fifth best in the conference, and is hitting at a .378 clip, tenth in the league.
Miranda Strother owns career records in 11 different offensive categories for the Rebels. She needs just one stolen base to break the career mark (76), and has already broken the runs record. She is currently second in the SEC with five triples, while Elantra Cox and Kylan Becker are tied for third in the league with four triples each.
Ole Miss pitching
Pitcher Kaitlin Lee, who’s thrown every pitch of the postseason (47 innings pitched), is 7-0 with a 0.74 ERA and .182 BAA dating back to the start of the SEC Tournament.
Last weekend, Lee allowed only two runs and 12 hits, en route to striking out 11 with two complete game shutouts. Lee has already broken three single-season school records (shutouts, innings pitched, starts), and is close to breaking two more. Lee needs just one win to break Madi Osias’ wins record from last year.
The skinny on the Rebels in the LA Super Regional
Ole Miss heads into Super Regional action on a seven-game win streak, the second-longest streak of the season for the Rebels—and the longest current active streak in the SEC. The Rebels are 11-2 in their last 13 games, with six of those victories coming against top-25 competition.
The hopes and dreams of the softball team—as well as those of Rebel Nation—may rest, in part, on the strong arm of pitcher Kaitlin Lee. Last weekend, she was once again up to the challenge, throwing her school-record 12th-straight complete game.
The Rebels found themselves behind North Carolina in the Regional Championship game, but that did not dampen the spirits of Lee or her team. Hopefully the Rebels will continue to be a hot-starting team—but even if they are not out of the gate quickly against the Bruins, there is no cause for concern.
“We enjoy that,” Lee said.
“We are experienced in that. If there is anything I love more, it is being behind. Us being like that, in that dugout, was one of the most fun games I have had in the last twelve. We love that.”
Ole Miss pitcher Kaitlin Lee
(Video credit: Mario Parham, The Rebel Walk)
Ole Miss and UCLA are set for an 8:00 pm (CT) start Thursday. The game will be nationally televised by ESPN.
(Feature image credit: Mario Parham, The Rebel Walk)