May 10, 2016 11:06:58 AM
Television personalities Beth Mowins, Michele Smith, and Kayla Braud held a spirited debate Sunday about the merits of Florida's Tim Walton and Kentucky's Rachel Lawson being named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year during the SEC Network's coverage of softball.
Both should earn legitimate consideration for the award.
In her nine seasons, Lawson has made Kentucky a national contender. The Wildcats have played in four of the past five super regionals, and in 2014 advanced to the Women's College World Series for the first time with a school-record 50 victories.
Kentucky (43-11, 17-7 SEC) enters this week's SEC tournament at Mississippi State as the league's No. 2 seed for the first time. In 2015, Kentucky won five league games but caught fire at the end of the season and advanced to the Gainesville Super Regional.
Walton led Florida to its sixth SEC regular-season championship. The Gators enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed with a 52-4 record. Florida won the nation's best league by three games.
In 10 seasons as head coach, Walton has led Florida to the WCWS seven times. This season, the Gators should return as the two-time reigning national champion.
However, the correct answer to the question actually coaches in the Magnolia State. To say Mike Smith has led Ole Miss to new heights would be a huge understatement.
Ole Miss (38-19, 11-13) will enter the conference tournament as the No. 9 seed. It will face Georgia at 4 p.m. Wednesday in a first-round game at Nusz Park.
The win total is a school record, as is the conference win total (matches 11-17 in 2007). Ole Miss enters the tournament with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 27, which means it is a lock to play in an NCAA regional for the first time.
The success started a year ago in Smith's first season, when Ole Miss finished 30-25 and 6-18 in the league. Learning how to win games was a process. It took time.
One only needs to thumb through the Ole Miss media guide to see how special this season has been.
In 18 seasons before Smith's arrival, Ole Miss had two winning seasons -- a 30-28 finish in 2005 and a 29-27 finish in 2010. Neither of those teams had any success in the SEC and had no postseason pulse.
Still, Smith left McNeese State for a chance to coach in what has become the nation's best softball league.
"I think it's grossly unfair to say this team can win or this team can't win," Smith said. "If you compete in the Southeastern Conference, you can win. You have so many advantages. You are recruiting players to play in the best conference. Players want that challenge. They want that opportunity."
Ole Miss pumped extra revenue into the softball facilities to host the 2011 SEC tournament for the first time. The Rebels didn't quality for the event. Prior to the 2012 season, Windy Thees was hired after a successful run at Memphis. Under Thees, Ole Miss lost 21 conference games three-straight seasons. Ole Miss then turned to Smith, who won 30 or more games in each of his three seasons at McNeese State. Prior to that, Smith coached eight seasons at California Baptist and won a 2009 NAIA national championship.
To his credit, Smith has embraced his program's lack of history.
"We talk all of the time about being the first to do this or do that," Smith said. "The conference is loaded. There are no weak links. You can be intimidated if you want. You can be intimidated even more when you don't have any history. When you don't have a belief or a mind-set, it can be hard.
"We talk every day about writing a new chapter. We talk about blazing a new path. We want Ole Miss respected on the national level."
In 2015, Ole Miss returned to the SEC tournament for the first time since 2008. The Rebels won a series against a nationally ranked opponent for the first time since 2009. Ole Miss set new team records in batting average, runs scored, RBIs, home runs, triples, walks, steals, and on-base percentage.
All of that was a backdrop for what has happened this season.
Pitcher Madi Osias said the challenge this season was to go from winning one game in a conference series to winning a series. It has been a slow process, but the confidence level has grown a little bit each week.
"Winning games is still new to us," Osias said. "It takes a little while for you to feel like you belong. Now we have some confidence. We aren't surprised when we win that big game anymore."
With fast-pitch softball growing in this state, in-state recruiting battles are intense. Ole Miss is making inroads and bringing in talented in-state players. On the field, Ole Miss has won the conference series from Mississippi State in back-to-back seasons.
While those things are nice, the biggest challenge has been turning heads on a national level. This season, Ole Miss will make a regional. At the moment, 10 other SEC teams are projected to join them.
As extra revenue from the SEC Network will pump into the softball programs at MSU and Ole Miss, both teams will continue to get better and the rivalry will continue to be intense.
While Florida and Kentucky will enter this week's tournament as the favorites, one need not lose sight of Ole Miss. The best coaching in the league helped them make history.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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