An Abrupt End

His career wasn't supposed to end this way. Not for Matt Smith.

Smith had only known success at Ole Miss. In each of his previous four seasons, Ole Miss reached the postseason. The question was simply where the Rebels would play -- be it Oxford or somewhere else -- not if they would play on past the final regular season game.

But here he is, in the first week of June, having already said his final goodbyes to teammates and coaches. His career ended abruptly and without fanfare, a 30-25 (13-17 SEC) record the result of his senior season.

"For it just to end, it just sucks," he said.

Ole Miss was absent from Monday's NCAA Selection Show for the first time since 2002. Team after team after team was called. The Rebels weren't one of them.

There was no regional, no final charge towards that elusive appearance in the College World Series. Ole Miss didn't even reach Hoover, site of the SEC Tournament. A two-game Saturday sweep at Arkansas two weeks ago made sure of that.

Matt Smith
Bruce Newman
"It hurt a lot, not being able to get into a regional. Ever since I've been here, we've always been in the postseason. It's not really been a question," Smith said.

"It kind of sucks. It's my senior year. You never see not doing things you've done in the past as a team, especially it being my last year here."

One of the more accomplished players to ever don an Ole Miss uniform could only sit and watch Monday, his eyes peeled to the television with a few of his teammates as the teams were announced. He was helpless.

This couldn't be fixed with one swing of the bat. Or a diving catch. Or a rocket throw home. His career was over. Just, over.

"We were definitely hoping. We had actually practiced a couple of days before, always positive and upbeat," Smith said. "We all met at different players' houses together, just hoping and hoping. There was no Ole Miss in the selection show. That's when it kind of hit everybody."

The harsh reality probably hit him harder than anyone else.

"This year's different. Used to, I would know I'm coming back," he said. "Now I'm gone. To tell everybody bye is different. It's a different way of ending things than any of the times before."

Because his career wasn't supposed to end this way. Not for Matt Smith, of all players. Smith ranks in the top five in career at-bats, runs scored, hits, home runs and total bases. He is tied with Logan Power for career RBI.

Even more, he was a three-time captain, a first for any player under Mike Bianco. He was the heartbeat of Ole Miss baseball, the player responsible for a benchmark moment in its history: Smith, his fist in the air, trotting around the bases in an extra-innings win over Virginia in the 2009 Oxford Super Regional.

"It's very emotional," he said. "I've known I'd have to tell guys bye. People like (Matt) Snyder and (Miles) Hamblin, guys I've really gotten to know. It's a lot different, ‘cause you really don't know when you're going to see each other again. The last thing we have to remember each other by is the way our season ended. That's another thing that kind of made (the way it ended) a little bitter."

Smith battled injury all season, the lingering tear to his ulnar collateral ligament suffered in his freshman year still ailing him. He broke his hand when diving in an 11-9 win against Arkansas State in early May, his remarkable run of 223 starts in 224 games snapped due to surgery.

Matt Smith
Associated Press
But he returned to the team faster than anticipated -- less than two weeks, in fact, and missing only six games -- sporting the plate inserted to repair a fracture to the third metacarpal of his glove hand.

He went 4-for-4 with three RBI and a run scored in a win against Southeast Missouri State.

Vintage Matt Smith.

"For whatever reason, we were just never consistent," Smith said of the team. "We tried different things, we worked hard every day. You do all this work, and we still couldn't get our crap together.

"It's just one of those seasons that no matter what we did, it just always seemed like we couldn't keep our head above water."

Smith is looking ahead now. The MLB Draft is but a few days away. He has talked to multiple teams, and the feedback has been positive. The Milan, Ga., native feels confident he will get picked, though he is not expecting to go early.

He said he will always be grateful to Ole Miss, and carry his many memories with him. His career wasn't supposed to end this way. He never envisioned it. No fanfare. No Omaha. Not even a regional. But Ole Miss, he said, was family.

And he'll miss it.

"It's like my family, you know? Coach B has given me opportunity after opportunity to play. Me coming from basically the middle of nowhere, just to have the opportunity to be here was awesome," he said.

"Now that it's over, I really understand it now. I'm older and more mature. They're like a family. It's a place I'll always be able to come back to and have a lot of memories to tell my kids about some day. It's been my home for five years."

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