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Softball Hits the Desert for NCAA Tucson Regional

Softball Hits the Desert for NCAA Tucson Regional

Rebels to Open at 5 p.m. CT Friday Against Villanova

(Courtesy of Ole Miss Media Relations)

OLE MISS
(34-20, 12-12 SEC)
ARIZONA
(36-13, 12-10 PAC-12)
VILLANOVA
(36-13, 15-2 Big East)
UMBC
(25-11, 11-5 America East)
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Game Notes (PDF)
@OleMissSoftball
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LEADING OFF

• Ole Miss is making its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the only five NCAA Tournament bids in program-history.
• The Rebels earned the No. 2 seed in the Tucson Regional, making a second-consecutive postseason trip to Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium after competing in the 2019 NCAA Tucson Super Regional.
• It is also the third-straight season travelling to the state of Arizona during the NCAA Tournament, with the Rebels advancing to the championship game of the 2018 NCAA Tempe Regional.
• Ole Miss garnered a 12-12 record in SEC play in 2021, with the 12 wins ranking as the second most ever in a season for the Rebels.
• Ole Miss will be joined in the Tucson Regional by host and No. 11 national seed Arizona, Villanova and UMBC.
• The Rebels are 0-3 all-time against Arizona and 2-0 all-time against Villanova. Ole Miss and UMBC have never met.
• Ole Miss had four players receive SEC postseason honors, with Paige Smith, Blaise Biringer, Aynslie Furbushand Autumn Gillespie being recognized by the league’s coaches. The four honorees is tied for the most in a single season in program history.
Sydney Gutierrez finished the SEC slate with a .366 batting average in conference play, ranking 11th in the league. The average is the fourth-highest in a conference season for a Rebel in the last decade.
• Ole Miss finished its home slate with a 24-3 record in Oxford, including a perfect 15-0 against non-conference opponents.
• In non-conference play, the Rebels have won 42 consecutive regular season games played outside of the SEC, dating all the way back to 2018.
• Ole Miss continues to be ranked in the D1Softball and USA Softball Polls, ranking No. 23 in the D1Softball Poll and No. 25 in the USA Softball Poll.
• The Rebels also received votes in the NFCA Coaches Poll.
• The Rebels came in at No. 27 in the most recent NCAA RPI report.

SCOUTING REPORT

Arizona

Regional host Arizona earned the No. 11 national seed in this year’s tournament. The selection marks the 34th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance for Arizona, the longest active streak in the country. the Wildcat’s streak of 34 consecutive NCAA Regional appearances dates back to 1987, head coach Mike Candrea’s second year in Tucson. Under Candrea, the Wildcats have won 30 NCAA Regional titles and eight national championships.

Arizona concluded the regular season with a 36-13 overall record and placed nine Wildcats on the All-Pac-12 team, including four on the first team. Led by Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Batting Champion Janelle Meoño with an average of .441. Redshirt senior catcher Dejah Mulipola ranks first on the Arizona squad with 55 RBIs and 17 dingers. In the circle, Alyssa Denham has looked dominant, posting an 18-7 record and a 1.72 ERA in 126.0 innings of work.

UMBC

The Retrievers claimed their second straight America East Conference championship to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they received the No. 4 seed in the Tucson Regional. Head coach Chris Kuhlmeyer has been with the Retrievers for three seasons, guiding them to a pair of postseason appearances.

UMBC is 25-11 on the year after winning its last five games to close out the 2021 campaign. Senior outfielder Julia Keffler leads the Retrievers with a .350 average, followed closely by senior shortstop Maddie Daigneau who is batting .348 in the leadoff spot. Junior Courtney Coppersmith owns the fourth-best ERA in the nation with a 0.65 mark. She’s been lights out for the Retrievers, racking up 233 strikeouts in 140.0 innings pitched.

Villanova

Fresh off their first-ever Big East title, the Wildcats are set to make their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance as the No. 3 seed in the Tucson Regional. Villanova is led by Bridget Orchard, coaching in her second season after returning to her alma mater after 17 seasons at Fordham.

There is plenty of star power throughout the Wildcats roster, beginning with senior pitcher/utility Paige Rauch, who is one of the nation’s top performers, both at the plate and in the circle. She became the first person to be named both the BIG EAST Player of the Year and the BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year in the same season. Rauch is batting .420 on the season with a team-high 60 hits and 43 RBIs while posting a 1.97 ERA through 163.2 innings pitched this season. The Wildcats have won 36 of their last 43 games and boast a .735 winning percentage on the season. Ole Miss and Villanova are set to play Friday at 5 p.m. CT.

POSTSEASON HONORS

Four Rebels were honored when the Southeastern Conference released its postseason honors, tied for the most athletes recognized in a single season in program history. Slugger Paige Smith was tabbed to the newly minted SEC All-Newcomer Team following a standout sophomore season. Two Rebel rookies were selected to the all-freshman squad, with infielder Blaise Biringer and utility/pitcher Aynslie Furbush earning a spot. Rounding things out, Autumn Gillespie was recognized for her presence behind the plate, earning the catchers spot on the SEC All-Defense Team.

SHUT DOWN STUFF

The Ole Miss pitching staff has been giving opposing hitters fits all season long. The Rebels have tallied 16 shutouts on the season, second most in the SEC, 11th most in the nation and just one shy of the program record set in 2017. Of the 16 shutouts, 10 have come in complete game efforts from the starting pitcher, with Anna Borgen pacing the team with five and Savannah Diederich close behind with three.

RISING TO THE OCCASION

Ranking as one of the Rebels’ top offensive players all season long, senior Sydney Gutierrez has kicked things up a notch even further in conference play. Sitting at a .312 average for the season, Gutierrez ranked 11th in the SEC with a .366 average in league play, the fourth highest average in SEC play for a Rebel in the last decade. Additionally, five of the Rebel first baseman’s seven extra base hits have come against SEC opposition, while 12 of her 24 RBIs have been against conference foes.

PITCHING PROWESS

Nearing the end of their fourth seasons in a Rebel uniform, senior hurlers Anna Borgen and Ava Tillmann have established themselves as two fo the most accomplished pitchers in Ole Miss history. Borgen ranks fifth all-time with a career ERA of 2.29, with Tillmann not far behind in 7th at 2.45. When it comes to opponent batting average, the roles reverse, with Tillmann ranking 4th with a career .237 average and Borgen close in 6th at .242.

POWER PACK

The current Rebel lineup boasts some of the top power hitters ever seen in Oxford, with three players ranked in the top-10 in career dingers. Abbey Latham leads the group with 27 bombs in her career, third most in program history. Meanwhile, Autumn Gillespie and Jessica Puk have also been known to pack a powerful punch, sitting in sixth and tied for seventh in the record books with 20 and 18 career big flies, respectively.

AIN’T IT GRAND?

When Ole Miss has utilized the long ball this season, plenty of times they’ve done so in an extremely damaging way. Jessica Puk’s third-inning grand slam against Memphis was the third of the season for the Rebels, tied with the 2019 squad for the most in a single season in the history of Ole Miss softball. The first two bases juiced big flies came off the bat of freshman Aynslie Furbush, who became the first Rebel ever to register a grand slam with her first hit and needed just three career at-bats to become the fifth player in program history with multiple grand slams in a career.

BEST ABILITY? DEPENDABILITY

Over the past few seasons, no two players have been as rock solid dependable as Jessica Puk and Paige Smith. The duo are the only Rebels to start all 79 games the past two seasons, with Puk serving as the ultimate Swiss Army Knife and Smith splitting time between second and third base.

In fact, Puk has taken it a step further, starting every game of the last three seasons, a total of 140 games, after making just eight starts as a true freshman in 2018. Again, the Iowa native has shown flexibility too, making starts at six different positions during her career (catcher, second base, third base, left field, right field, designated player).

SOPHOMORE SURGE

Playing in her first full collegiate season, Paige Smith has added some much welcome punch to the Rebel lineup. The former Softball America Travel Ball Player of the Year leads the Rebels with 11 home runs on the season, becoming just the ninth Rebel ever to record double digit big flies in a single season.

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT

Ole Miss has resorted to a “by any means necessary” policy when it comes to getting on base, leading the nation with 78 HBPs on the season, 12 ahead of second best Southern Utah. The Rebels have been plunked at least once in all but 10 games in 2021, tallying multiple HBPs 25 times. Mikayla Allee and Paige Smith have been particularly adept, with Allee ranking third in the nation with 23 HBPs and Smith not far behind in a tie for 15th with 16. Allee has been wearing pitches her entire Rebel career, ranking second in school history with 44 HBPs despite only playing in 133 total games.

RUN AT YOUR OWN RISK

Since joining Ole Miss ahead of the 2018 season, senior catcher Autumn Gillespie has struck fear in the eyes of opposing base stealers. Over the past three seasons Gillespie’s 34 runners caught stealing is tied for the most in the SEC with Missouri’s Hatti Moore and Mississippi State’s Mia Davidson. However, Gillespie has been more efficient with controlling the run game than the two aforementioned players, with the California native throwing out 38.2 percent of would be base stealers, compared to 30.9 percent for Moore and 27.6 percent for Davidson. In fact, since Gillespie entered the league in 2018, no catcher with at least 25 runners caught stealing has gunned down a higher percentage of runners. Even when runners don’t take the risk of attempting to swipe a base, Gillespie has flashed her arm with three pickoffs in 2021.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The Ole Miss Softball Complex has been an absolute fortress for the Rebels over the last few years. After going a perfect 8-0 at home in 2020, Ole Miss won each of its first 13 home games in 2021 to set the program record for a streak within the same season, finishing off the streak with 24 straight home victories overall. Finishing the season 24-3 at the Ole Miss Softball Complex, the Rebels have won 57-of-65 games in Oxford dating back to the start of the 2019 season.

Outside of SEC play, the Rebels have been nothing short of dominant when playing in front of its home crowd. Ole Miss has won 42-straight non-conference regular season home games in a row, having not fallen to a non-SEC team in Oxford during the regular season since a 5-0 defeat to Boston College in 2018.

ROOKIE RECOGNITION

Following an exceptional week at the plate, Ole Miss’ Blaise Biringer was named the SEC Freshman of the Week for Week 9. The Arizona native recorded a .545 average during the week, driving in and scoring three runs apiece. Biringer’s biggest knock of the week came in the midweek tilt against Central Arkansas, becoming the first Rebel with an inside-the-park home run since Kylan Becker during the 2017 NCAA Oxford Regional.

SUCCESSFUL SENIOR SEND OFF

It would be hard to imagine a better way for Ole Miss to celebrate Senior Weekend than with what it accomplished against No. 25 UCF. The Rebels claimed all three games over the Knights, including a walk off thriller in 10 innings and a 10-0 five inning drubbing on Saturday, to record their first sweep over a ranked opponent since 2017. Autumn Gillespie was in excellent form against her former team, posting a .500 average with five runs scored and five more driven in, while Ava Tillmann posted 10.0 innings without an earned run allowed in a pair of relief appearances.

TIGERS TAMED

Ole Miss locked up its third consecutive SEC series win last weekend, taking two of three games from Auburn in Oxford. Not only was it the first-ever home series win over the Tigers for the Rebels, but also extended Ole Miss’ home SEC series winning streak to nine series, dating back to 2018. Blaise Biringer and the Rebel pitching staff were the stars of the show during the series, with Biringer providing the walk-off hit in the eighth inning of game one and the pitching staff holding the Tigers to just a single earned run over the three games. The Rebels improve to 12-9 in SEC play, the second most wins in a season in program history.

CAME AND TOOK IT

Winning its first SEC road series of the season, Ole Miss took two of three games from Texas A&M over the weekend in Bryan-College Station, Texas. Entering the series with just a 2-15 record all-time against the Aggies, Friday’s win was the first over Texas A&M for Ole Miss since 2013, while Saturday’s victory marked the first-ever series win against the Aggies for the Rebels.

STATEMENT SWEEP

For the first time in the 25-year history of the rivalry, Ole Miss swept a three game series over Mississippi State, outscoring the Bulldogs 18-1 at the Ole Miss Softball Complex. It was the first sweep of an SEC of any kind for the Rebels since 2017, when Ole Miss took all three against No. 11 LSU in Oxford. The Rebel pitchers were nothing short of dominant against the formidable Bulldog lineup, holding MSU to a single run for a collective 0.37 ERA. The Ole Miss staff held Mississippi State to a meager .162 average over the weekend, compared to a .302 average at the plate for the Rebels. With the sweep, Ole Miss begins SEC play at 3-0 for the first time in program history. Ole Miss has won seven of the last eight and 13 of the last 17 matchups with Mississippi State.

ROOKIES IN THE RANKINGS

In addition to having nearly the entire 2020 roster returning, Ole Miss bolstered its lineup with a talented group of six true freshmen. Included in that crew are a pair of rookies who were ranked in FloSoftball’s Hot 100 Rankings in infielder Blaise Biringer and Aynslie Furbush, who plays both in the field and in the circle.

A middle infielder from Nogales, Arizona, Biringer was tabbed as the No. 59 incoming freshman in the nation by FloSoftball. Biringer helped lead Cienega High School to a pair of state championships, earning all-state laurels three times, including back-to-back first team nods in 2018 and 2019.

In addition to being ranked No. 85 in FloSoftball’s class of 2020 Hot 100, Furbush was also slotted as the No. 16 rookie in the nation in Softball America’s Top-25 Freshmen list. A 2018-19 Florida State Champion with Winter Springs High School, Furbush garnered Junior All-American laurels from MaxPreps and was also tabbed as the FACA 8A Player of the Year in 2019.

SWITCHED HITTER

When Kelsha Loftin first arrived at Ole Miss in 2019, she had been a right handed hitter her entire career. In fact, the Jones College transfer was an extremely accomplished hitter from the right side of the plate, garnering the 2018 NJCAA Division II Player of the Year Award. However, as a consummate team player, when asked to switch to the left side and become a slapper the Mississippi native relished the challenge. In Loftin’s first two seasons at Ole Miss she took just three at-bats, primarily serving as a pinch runner and doing so with a smile on her face, scoring 33 times in 57 appearances. This season, Loftin has been rewarded for her patience and team spirit with more opportunities at the dish and has taken full advantage. Entering the year without a single hit at the Division I level, the senior has made eight starts and taken 24 at-bats, tallying eight base knocks for a .333 average.

About The Author

Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn has covered sports for over a decade, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn's love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship--and continued as she watched Katie receive three degrees from Ole Miss, culminating with her Pharm D. in 2012. Evelyn, a member of the FWAA, USBWA and the NCBWA, has covered Rebel sports for numerous outlets. In addition to working for The Rebel Walk, Evelyn is a sports writer for a newspaper in Texas.

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