After a 21-3 non-conference slate that included a 16-game win streak which vaulted the Rebels into the top 25 for the first time in the history of the program, Ole Miss had been knocked off its course. It endured a rugged first two weekends of SEC play, being swept at home by Texas A&M and then traveled to Knoxville for the same result against Tennessee that saw the team plummet to 0-6 in the standings.
"I was in there with my staff and we were 0-6 and it was like 'oh my gosh, what are we going to do?' Are we going to be that lone team now watching (during the SEC Tournament) this weekend?" Smith said. "You don't want to be that 13th team. There was some doubt as to who was going to step up in the lineup, who was going that big hit for us."
In his short three seasons at the helm of a program that was once a footnote in the SEC and had never scored a run in the SEC Tournament, Smith had shattered records and moved the program forward every step of the way. This was the first time he felt like his team was underperforming. Pitchers were leaving balls over the plate, the defense was sloppy and their production at the plate was stagnant.
"We got humbled pretty quickly," Smith said. "Nothing was working for us."
Some of it was just the harsh reality of playing in a league that is projected to send 12 teams to the NCAA tournament, host five regionals and boasts ten teams in the top 25. But change was undoubtedly needed. Smith moved the lineup around. He re-emphasized the little things, which was the foundation he built the program on, as cliched as it sounds. Smith is the son of a military man, and believes attention to minute details is how results come.
"I think what helped us is that we went back to focusing on the little things, and not big things," Smith said. "That's hitting to contact, not trying to drive the ball and instead trying to hit a hard ground ball. I think those were things that were important."
Ole Miss took a series from 16th-ranked Kentucky and then swept 11th-ranked LSU two weekends later. The Rebels won four of their last six series, and are currently playing their best softball of the season as they enter the first round of the SEC tournament on Wednesday against Mississippi State.
Things started to click after a sluggish start. Ole Miss got production from sophomore outfielder Kylan Becker, who was just recently named First-Team All-SEC. Junior Kaitlin Lee and freshman Morgan Bruce stepped up in the circle, and the two pitchers made Second Team All-SEC and First Team Freshman All-SEC respectively. Junior outfielder Elantra Cox finished the regular season hitting .418 with a team leading 77 hits.
"I wish we had those series against Texas A&M and Tennessee back," junior utility player Paige McKinney said. "We want to play them again right now because the team we are now is not the team we were in the beginning."
Ole Miss sits as a firm two seed in most NCAA Tournament projections. It sits at 19th in the rankings and 23rd on the RPI. A strong showing in the SEC tournament could bring a regional to Oxford, which would be an almost unthinkable accomplishment considering where the program was three years ago.
"It's definitely something that our coaches have been casually throwing in there, that way we aren't super focused on it, but it is still in the back of our minds," McKinney said.
A win over Mississippi State would draw a date with top-ranked Florida, who swept the Rebels in Gainesville in three close games earlier this season. McKinney and Smith both agreed that the series gave them confidence, despite falling in all three contests. A win over the Gators would certainly enhance the Rebels' chances at hosting. But regardless, Smith feels his team that got a taste of the postseason last year is seasoned with experience and ready to make a splash in the NCAA Tournament.
"Any time you experience that, and we have some really good experience," Smith said. "They've been able to play on some of the biggest stages. Any time you can play at Florida in front of a few thousand or at Tennessee, that is a big stage for college softball. They're going to get another opportunity this weekend to play in front of a few thousand here at the SEC Tournament. Experience is valuable as you take the next step in your journey towards success and being relevant."
Last year, Ole Miss was just happy to be in the postseason. This season they believe they belong and can contend with anyone.
"The mindset of this program is just different, as well as our performance," McKinney said. "The culture that's been created here, it is just insane how much different it is honestly."