OXFORD — Just three years ago, the program Mike Smith inherited was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent.
That’s only slightly hyperbolic. Ole Miss hadn’t been to the postseason when Smith arrived in Oxford.
Before last season, the Rebels hadn’t scored a run in Southeastern Conference tournament action. In 18 seasons prior to Smith’s arrival, the Rebels were an absolute non-factor. They represented free wins on opponents’ schedules.
There was a game when Smith first arrived at Ole Miss where he was able to count the crowd himself. Some 21 fans were in attendance that day. Attendance was free.
On Friday night, however, fans waited hours to get into the Ole Miss softball complex to see the Rebels face Southern Illinois in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Temporary seating was installed from behind the left-center field fence stretching past the right field foul pole. Eight tents lined the left field wall, and another section of temporary bleachers was placed down the right field line.
Some 1,677 fans _ obviously an Ole Miss softball record _ packed the softball complex. Admission was not free. Heck, there were rumors of tickets being sold on the secondary market. The game, due to a rain delay in the earlier game between North Carolina and Arizona State, did not begin until almost 10 p.m. Nothing _ not lateness, dampness or leg-weariness from standing in line _ lessened the enthusiasm and excitement of Friday night.
“It’s a great day to be a Rebel,” Smith said. “Wow, how electric was that crowd tonight? We’re excited.”
Ole Miss (41-18) exploded for five runs in the second inning and added three more in the fifth to run-rule the Salukis, 8-0, and advance to Saturday’s winners’ bracket game against Arizona State, but that was hardly the story Friday night. The softball takes focus starting Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Friday night was essentially a program announcing its arrival and a new fan base taking notice.
“In Knoxville (site of last week’s SEC tournament, one the Rebels won to clinch a host site in the NCAA tournament), the crowd was probably just as big, but for some reason, I didn’t feel nervous,” said Ole Miss right fielder Kylan Becker, who was 2-for-3 with a triple, an inside-the-park home run and five RBI. “But here, it hit me. I had, like Kaitlin (Lee) always says, belly bugs. I was kind of like, ‘All these people are here for us.’ It was awesome.”
“It was wonderful for me,” added Lee, who gave up four hits and struck out two in five innings of scoreless work to improve to 21-10 on the season, “because when I have big atmospheres, I tell myself they’re cheering for me. This team they really were cheering for me, so it was awesome. It was easier to play for that.”
Smith was busy coaching his team Friday night, but he couldn’t help but look around some during the game.
“That’s Rebel Nation, true and true right there,” Smith said. “It’s exciting they’ve gotten behind us. …Now 1,600 people? That’s amazing. …Those fans gave us the energy to get going. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”