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OLE MISS SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Rebels poised for another banner year

Coming off arguably one of its best seasons in program history, the Ole Miss softball team enters the 2016 campaign poised for more success under second-year head coach Mike Smith.

The 2015 season saw the Rebels win 30 games, tied for the most in a season in the 19-year history of the program. Ole Miss rewrote the record books, shattering every single-season offensive statistic. The Rebels advanced to the SEC Tournament for the first time in seven seasons and fourth time overall, winning league series versus in-state rival Mississippi State and a huge road sweep at Arkansas.

In 2016, the expectations are even higher for Smith and the fresh faces on the coaching staff.

“I think we have a good shot at having a pretty good RPI and a good season,” Smith said. “Maybe this is the opportunity for Ole Miss to cross that threshold and get through that barrier of getting to a regional. We’ve got a great nucleus of a team and great coaching staff.”

Smith put together his star-studded staff this past summer, making grand slam hires that include All-American pitcher and ESPY winner Taryne Mowatt. Ruben Felix, who spent last season as the volunteer assistant, was promoted to a full-time coaching role. Smith also added Katie Rietkovich to the staff as the Rebels’ new volunteer assistant.

“With Ruben (Felix) as our recruiting coordinator, Taryne Mowatt in what she brings to the table in ESPYs and national championships, and Katie Rietkovich, a young coach who’s vibrant and a superstar. Everybody in our program is new and I’m excited about 2016 and the future of Ole Miss Softball,” Smith said of his staff.

The Rebels return 13 players from the 2015 roster and welcome 11 newcomers to the team. Senior Madi Osias returns as the leading pitcher in the circle, while Kayla Landwehrmier returns as the only other pitcher with experience.

Natalie Martinez and Courtney Syrett return to manage duties behind the plate as two of three catchers on the 2016 roster. On the infield, four of the eight players listed on the roster are returners, led by seniors Haley Culley and Alyssa Invergo, along with Grayce Majam and Alex Schneider.

The outfield sets up as the Rebels’ most experienced position, led by Bri Payne, Miranda Strother, Paige McKinney, Melina Preciado and All-Freshman SEC Elantra Cox.

Fresh faces
Of the 11 newcomers to this year’s squad, nearly half are transfers in three junior college players and two athletes from Smith’s former school, McNeese State. Dakota Matiko and All-Southland Conference honoree Bry Castro join the Rebels from the Cowgirls’ program as infielders. Raven Campos, a third basemen, joins Ole Miss from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where she was an National Junior College All-American.

Elisha Jahnke and Alyssa Clayton join the Ole Miss pitching staff as two transfer pitchers. Jahnke enters the year as a sophomore after helping lead Salt Lake Community College (Utah) to the JUCO World Series. Clayton made the move to Oxford following her two-year stint at Shelton State Community College (Alabama), where she was an all-conference selection.

Krista Jacobs, a Magnolia, Texas native, will suit up as the only true freshman pitcher on the roster. Sarah Van Schaik (Petal), a Mississippi High School Player of the Year and Gatorade Player of the Year nominee, will compete for time behind the plate as a freshman catcher.

To add to the infield talent, Hailey Lunderman (Philadelphia, Miss.) joins the Rebels as a former Mississippi Female Athlete of the Year, and high school All-American.

The outfield will see two freshmen in the mix, including all-state player Kylan Becker (Miami, Fla.) and Kennedy Cline (Lumberton, Texas). Ashton Lampton (Decatur, Miss.), an all-state and All-American performer, rounds out the newcomers as the Rebels’ true utility player.

The 2016 campaign features 29 home matchups at the Ole Miss Softball Complex, including two home tournaments and four SEC series.

Prior to the home tournaments and SEC play, Ole Miss will enjoy a trip to the Aloha State for five games, before continuing tournament play a week later in Troy, Alabama.

“People are probably looking at us going, yeah tough trip week one in Hawaii,” Smith said of the season-opening trip. “It’s a business trip and our players know that. We’ll probably take a day or two to enjoy the sights and sounds of Hawaii, but towards the end of the week we’re going to get down to business playing in the Paradise Classic. It’s a good test for us early on. (The next week) We come back and stay a little closer to home down in Troy with some good teams. I get to face my former school, McNeese State, first day out down there. We have Troy, Tennessee Tech and Eastern Illinois, so again week two with some good teams there, before going on the road to in-state rival Southern Miss.”

Home sweet home
Following a 12-game road trip to start the campaign, the Rebels return home for three-straight weekends of softball action in Oxford.

“The next two weeks we’re hosting our own tournaments,” Smith said. “We have the Ole Miss Classic and the week following our Red & Blue Classic. Two good home tournaments and we hope the weather is better this year than it was last year. We’re really looking forward to being at home those few weeks.”

After tournament play the Rebels open up the 24-game conference slate versus Missouri. In addition to hosting the Tigers, Ole Miss will also welcome defending Women’s College World Series Champion Florida, as well as Arkansas and Tennessee. SEC road matchups include trips to Kentucky, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Smith said of the grueling SEC slate. “People say ‘Hey you’ve got this team on the schedule; you’ve got this team on the schedule.’ It’s a grind week in and week out, I don’t care who you get. If you don’t get three teams one year, you’re going to get three teams the next. We try to get battle-tested early to get ready for our SEC play. We’re hoping we’ve got a good non-conference slate that battle tests us and gets us ready for SEC play. It doesn’t get any easier from Kentucky to Mississippi State to hosting Florida, to going to South Carolina, hosting Arkansas, Georgia, and then we finish with Tennessee. We’re playing some teams that were at the College World Series last year. It’s a tough schedule and we feel really confident about it.”