Ole Miss Says Goodbye to 2019 But It's Only The Beginning
Kylan Becker stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning on Saturday evening in Tucson with Ole Miss trailing 9-1 to Arizona.
The senior got set in the box and everyone in the Ole Miss section of Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium took their phones out and hit record.
Strike one. Strike two. Ball one. Ball two. Crack.
Becker sent the pitch back up the middle for a single. She reached first base, got a pat on the helmet from associate head coach Ruben Felix and the tears welled up in her eyes. She knew it was her last at-bat in an Ole Miss uniform. She mouthed the words, “Thank you, Jesus” and took a deep breath.
That moment encapsulated what it now means to be an Ole Miss Rebel and nobody wanted to miss it.
When Becker arrived in Oxford for the 2016 season, the program was coming off its third winning season in program history and first year under current head coach Mike Smith.
Smith took a chance on a kid from Miami who was previously committed to Florida International and didn’t get a sniff of Power 5 recruiting until late in her high school career.
“I de-committed from FIU and committed to Coach Smith before he even coached a season at Ole Miss,” said Becker as she fought back tears. “I believed in him when he told me we were going to turn this program around and that we would be up there in the SEC.
Smith kept his word and Becker helped lead the way. In her four-year career, the Rebels have finished 41-22, 43-20, 32-25 and 41-21. They won their first SEC Tournament title, hosted their first two Regionals and competed in their first two Super Regionals.
Becker is the only First Team All-SEC selection in program history and she holds career records for triples and fielding percentage. Her career numbers in stolen bases, hits, games started and games played are good for second.
As for single-season records, Becker holds the lead for triples, runs scored and stolen bases. Is second in batting average and hits and is third in on-base percentage, runs scored and at-bats.
To put into perspective, the program started in 1997.
“I remember the first game I coached here and (I think we had) 12 people people in the stands,” Smith said. “Now, we’re hosting Regionals and we’re breaking records with four, five or six thousand on an SEC weekend. It’s been unbelievable.”
To begin the 2019 season, the SEC coaches voted the Rebels to finish 12th of 13 in the preseason polls. Instead, Ole Miss spent most of the season in the top third of the SEC rankings and missed out on being a two-seed in the SEC Tournament by a half game.
There was something different about this year’s Ole Miss squad when it debuted in Softball America’s Top 25 on March 13. From then, the Rebels steadily climbed the ranks and cracked the top 10 on April 2 where they stayed for the remained of the season. It was a new program-high each time they rose within the top 10.
Ole Miss only lost one conference series and entered the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win the regular season title.
In just five short years, the community in Oxford has rallied around a team and a sport that before, was the laughing stock of the SEC. There are fans who attend practices during the week along with games on the weekends.
“We have a group of older gentlemen that come to every practice,” acknowledge Smith. “They sit there and support the girls whether they have a great round of batting practice, whether they field a ground ball great or drop a fly ball or boot a ground ball, those are the guys that are traveling with us.”
Spencer Ritts is one of the older gentlemen who attends practices. He’s a lifelong Rebel, born and raised in the Oxford area. He knew there was something special about this year’s squad and he didn’t want to miss a second of it. He traveled to most of the road trips and for Super Regionals, he drove 1,600 miles one-way because, “This is the best team we’ve ever had at Ole Miss.”
“People ask me which one of the girls are mine and I say all of them,” Ritts said. “I’d fight hell with a water pistol for any of them and Kylan is the best there ever was. She’s the best ball player I’ve ever seen at Ole Miss.”
Brittany Finney and Izzy Werdann are the only other seniors on the 2019. Both of them took their own unique paths that led them to Oxford.
Finney won a national championship with Oklahoma her freshman year in 2016 and decided she had different goals for herself as a player and as a person. She took a chance on an up-and-coming program and by the end of her senior year, she transformed into the role model and the type of person freshman aspire to be.
“I actually got to watch Ole Miss and Kylan play in their first Regional at Oklahoma,” Finney reflected. “I really loved the energy and the fight the team had in that moment. I loved the way Coach Smith would go to bat for anybody on the team no matter what they were doing or what was happening. I decided to take a visit and as soon I stepped foot on campus, I just fell in love… The coaches investment in me as a player, as a woman and my future was something I could not wish to find anywhere else.”
Werdann transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College after watching her best friend pitch Ole Miss into the hearts of America in 2017.
“I got the opportunity to watch Ole Miss on tv because my best friend Kate (Kaitlin Lee) was pitching,” said Werdann. “I just saw how much fun they had and how Coach Smith would fight for the team and how the team fought for each other. I couldn’t have asked for a better two years.”
What Ole Miss was able to accomplish with this senior class is nothing short of incredible.
The Rebels lose three key players on the field but Becker and Finney will be back next season as graduate assistants. The majority of the starting lineup returns and the incoming recruiting class is highly-ranked.
The atmosphere around softball in Oxford is intoxicating. From the pre-game tailgates to the beer showers in the outfield. Mix that up with success on the field and Ole Miss is primed to be an SEC contender for years to come.
“What we’ve been able to do in the five years is beyond amazing,” said Smith while he held on to Becker’s hand after the game. “It’s not what I’ve done, it’s what they’ve done. I’ve had a great staff and great players that have bought in. We went from the outhouse to the penthouse in three years and I’m just excited where this program is at and I know this program is headed in the right direction. You’re going to see Ole Miss in World Series here very soon.”