STARKVILLE — New coaches normally don’t dwell on the past and aren’t pessimistic when they take over a program.
This season, the Ole Miss softball team is taking the opposite approach.
Under second-year coach Mike Smith, the Rebels are focused on earning their first trip to a NCAA regional. Ole Miss took a huge step to accomplishing that goal Monday night with a 9-5 victory against Mississippi State in a Southeastern Conference game at Nusz Park.
“We want to make a regional,” Ole Miss freshman shortstop Hailey Lunderman said. “We know that has never been done at Ole Miss. We talk every day about making a regional. Coaches and players will always say that it’s one game at a time. This year’s team is a little different. We want to write history at Ole Miss. We know we have a team that can do that.”
Ole Miss took the season series from MSU for the second-straight season. When the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) figures were released Monday, Ole Miss was at No. 33, while MSU was at No. 35.
While both teams have strong resumes, which will only be bolstered by a killer stretch of conference games down the stretch, Ole Miss (28-10, 4-5 SEC) has seven more wins than MSU (21-15, 2-7).
To qualify for a regional, a team must finish with a winning record. Ole Miss can reach that status for the fourth time in program history with one more win.
Meanwhile, MSU has work to do to reach a fifth-straight regional. The Bulldogs have four non-conference games left (starting with South Alabama at 6 p.m. Wednesday at home). MSU will have to win those four games and win at least four of its final 15 league games to reach 29 wins.
In his first season, Smith led the Rebels to a school-record tying 30 wins. The Rebels then took to the recruiting trail to bring in a higher-caliber athlete.
Lunderman and sophomore left fielder Elantra Cox combined for eight of the team’s 15 hits Monday night. Each had a career-high four hits in the win.
“From day one, it was make a regional,” Cox said. “That was the No. 1 goal. That is all everyone talked about. It was time for Ole Miss softball to be taken seriously. We set a goal out there we knew we could reach. It’s really exciting to see how we get better each day.”
Ole Miss built a fast start with a home friendly non-conference schedule. As the wins mounted, so did the team’s confidence. That carried over to league play, where the Rebels took one game in the weekend series against top-15 foes Missouri and Kentucky.
“That was all leading to this moment,” Smith said. “We have been nipping at taking that big series. To win a conference series on the road is huge. Doing it against your main rival makes it that much better as well. We fought all three games. We had a chance to win all three games.”
Ole Miss used a three-run pinch-hit home run by Sarah Van Schaik to take a 4-3 win in the series opener Saturday night. On Sunday, Ole Miss saw a bevy of scoring changes go awry in a 1-0, eight-inning loss. The Rebels had to feel like they were going down the same road Monday night after loading the bases with one out but not scoring in the first inning.
Kayla Winkfield began her career-high four-hit night with a leadoff single in the bottom of the first for MSU. Caroline Seitz followed with a sacrifice and Katie Anne Bailey followed with an RBI single. A bases-loaded hit batsman forced in a run and made it 2-0.
Ole Miss answered with three runs in the second and didn’t trail the rest of the way.
“The second inning was really big,” Cox said. “We had such a hard loss Sunday night. Coaches told us to forget about that and come out and play our game. We knew how important winning this series would be.”
Ole Miss had 15 hits and received contributions up and down the lineup. On the other hand, MSU had seven hits — all in the top three spots in the lineup. The bottom six spots of the lineup were 0-for-15 Monday and 2-for-45 in the series.
“Fifteen hits are absolutely too many to give up in a seven-inning ballgame,” MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. “We threw five different pitchers and at some point, somebody has got to step up and get some outs. That was not the case tonight.”
Seitz hit a two-run home run to bring the Bulldogs within 7-4 in the fifth. However, such offensive excitement was a rarity for the Bulldogs in the series.
“What can you say about (pitcher) Madi (Osias)?” Smith asked. “She was incredible in the circle throughout the whole series. We just knew we had to make some plays.”
Osias (15-3) threw the final 6 1/3 innings in relief, allowing five hits and three runs. For the series, she threw 17 2/3 innings and allowed allowing 11 hits and four runs (all earned). She earned two wins and a no-decision in the extra-inning loss.
“This team really grew up this weekend,” Lunderman said. “We have been close. We are not lacking confidence. You have to be that way in this league because it can humble you. We believe in ourselves and what we are trying to do.”
Lunderman and Cox said they were aware of the latest RPI numbers. They also don’t need a media guide to know the history of Ole Miss softball. Changing it is exciting and hasn’t brought any unwanted pressure.
“The goal is step out and be different,” Cox said. “When the rankings come out, we look them up. We talk about wanting to be the first team to do this or the first team to do that. I think everybody on the team has embraced that mentality.”
Conference play will continue to be a grind for Ole Miss and MSU. Ole Miss will play host to No. 1 Florida this weekend, while MSU will play at No. 6 Alabama. Last weekend, Alabama took two of three from Florida in Gainesville, Florida.
“Our confidence level is high,” Lunderman said. “Even though this is just one series, it tells us we can do whatever we put our mind to. Florida is where everybody else wants to be. We won’t let that intimidate us, though. We will just go out and give it our best.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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