Ole Miss tennis is back in action.
The 7th-seeded Ole Miss women open this afternoon against 10th-seeded Alabama in the SEC Tournament on Bama's home courts in Tuscaloosa, while the top-seeded men of Ole Miss play a "Breakfast in Athens" match against 8th-seeded LSU at 8 a.m. CT Friday. The Tigers beat 9th-seeded Auburn 4-1 earlier today.
It's been another stellar season for the Rebels, while the Lady Rebels have made a move to recapture the glory of past seasons.
The men won the SEC West title for the fourth straight season and the overall SEC title for the second consecutive spring, while the women captured the SEC West and are having their best year under head coach Mark Beyers.
"It's a great feeling to win the West title," said Beyers, in his fourth season as head coach but only his third full season after taking over the program from the successful Jerry Montgomery in November, 2001. "The girls have worked so hard and done all we've asked. I'm happy for them."
This week at the SEC, the program can solidify what appears to be a solid shot at making the NCAA Tournament this year after being the first team left out of the field the past two years. A coach can find out how close his team came to making the field if he wants to know. The past two years, with a 3-8 SEC mark each regular season, the Lady Rebels have been the 65th team. The field is 64.
Now with a 5-6 SEC regular season mark and a shot for another win today against the Crimson Tide, the Lady Rebels' chances are much improved for being selected to the NCAA tourney field in May.
But all that can wait. Lately Beyers and his team have been relishing a 6-1 win over Mississippi State last Friday for the West crown and also preparing for the SEC tourney.
"We couldn't have drawn it up any better," said Beyers of the Mississippi State setting last Friday in Oxford. "Our fans were there and vocal and supporting us. We took control of the match early and never relinquished it. It just looked like our girls wanted it more, and that was the difference. We're much more confident now heading into the SEC Tournament."
The Lady Rebels beat Alabama 5-2 on March 11 in Oxford. Ole Miss last won the SEC Women's Tennis Tournament in 1999.
Billy Chadwick's Rebels, the SEC overall champions and top seed, have an early wake-up call Friday to face rival LSU.
"It's great going in as the No. 1 seed," said Chadwick, whose Rebels repeated as SEC champions by winning at Mississippi State last Saturday. "But our team knows any team in the conference can beat us. So we should be focused and ready on Friday."
But Chadwick still had a smile on his face from last Saturday as the Rebels claimed the No. 1 seed by winning in Starkville.
"We played exceptionally well in doubles down there," he said. "Our crowd (estimated to be more than half the total attendance at the match) was so supportive. Our guys felt right at home. Our fans were a big part of us winning that match and have been a great help the whole season."
Chadwick said beating the Bulldogs in Starkville is always tough, and last Saturday was no exception.
"They are a top 20 team. We beat them on their home court. It was Senior Day for them. They are our arch rival. For our team it was for the SEC championship. What tougher assignment could you ask for than that? But our guys came through like champions."
Now it's on to Athens to seek another championship. The Rebels know they are in the NCAA tourney field already. They also know they will host a Regional, although neither of those points is "official" yet.
So how do they get their mindset right to try to win the SEC tourney?
"We're all playing to position ourselves for the NCAA Tournament," Chadwick said. "And we'd love to win the title this weekend. You do know about the pyramid, don't you? It's all about that, too."
The Pyramid is the shape of the trophy awarded to the SEC tennis tournament champs. The Rebels last brought one home in 1997.
But they've had a good chance to do so for the past 11 years. During that span, the Rebels have been a top four seed in the event every year, meaning they haven't had to play on opening day.
"We're going to go over there and have fun," said Chadwick, whose Rebels defeated LSU 4-3 in Oxford on April 1. "And we're going over there to win. We can add another title to an already good season, and we can improve our positioning as the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner.
"I'm proud of the fact that we finished the regular season as the No. 3 team in the country and as the SEC overall and West champions. Nobody can take those things away from us. So we count our blessings and move on from here, hoping to add to those accomplishments in the weeks ahead."
Stephen Head got a hit Tuesday night in the Rebels' 8-3 win over Southern Mississippi and scored a run when Mark Wright hit a home run with the Rebel junior co-captain on base. He also played first base, then closed out the game in the ninth on the mound for his third save of the season.
So what else is new, right? For most of us, that he did all that has almost become nothing to write home – or in the Spirit – about.
But for one fan – one very important Stephen Head fan – it was all quite special. Peggy Head, Stephen's grandmother who lives in London, saw her famous grandson play baseball for the first time ever at Smith-Wills Stadium when the Rebels beat the Golden Eagles for the second time this season to take the three-games series.
"I saw her walk in, and I had no idea she was going to be here," said Head, whose grandmother moved from Mississippi back to her native England some 20-plus years ago but returns to the states twice a year or so to visit her children and their families - Stephen's father Tony, mom Lynn, and sister Cassie who live in the south Jackson/Raymond area, and Stephen's aunt Jackie Head Blackwell, husband Stacy, and sons Blaine and Jake who live in Puckett.
Stephen Head has played many a baseball game the past 15 years or so and made a lot of headlines over that time. But this was a first for grandmother Head.
"I guess she just got here from England," Stephen said. "I only get to see her once or twice a year. She's really funny because she's full-blooded British. She talks hilarious to me. This was a good surprise with her being here."
Peggy Head said she was pleased to finally see Stephen play baseball.
"And I wanted to see him hit a home run," she said after the contest.
Home run by Stephen or not, the Rebels, now 25-12 overall and 7-8 in SEC play, still got a much-needed win heading into an important series with Georgia.
"The win was big, because we want to host a Regional and we've got to run off a lot of wins now if we are to do that again," Head said as the Rebels used seven pitchers in the contest. "I thought (against USM) we saw some guys who could come in and pitch and get some outs. We saw some guys who can come in and do the job. Southern is a good-hitting team. We just need some guys to come in and throw strikes. We have more confidence now that we have that. We have some momentum going into the Georgia weekend now."
Head said although the Rebels have lost three SEC series in a row, they are still the team that beat Florida two of three and Tennessee two of three and Southern Mississippi two of three.
"We're the same team," he said. "The coaches talk to us all that time that we are still the team we've always been. We're not all of a sudden bad. We're still a good team and we know that. We've just got to find that winning edge again and get some more SEC wins, starting this weekend against Georgia."
The Bulldogs are 20-16 overall after a 12-2 loss at Georgia Tech Wednesday night. They are 5-9 in league play.
Head says that he and co-captain Barry Gunther have tried to lead by example and to push the right buttons when needed. But they haven't been overly aggressive or emotional during the past couple of weeks when things have been a bit more sour than earlier.
"We don't try to do a lot more or say a lot more when things are going bad than when they are going well," he said. "Just because we wear the ‘C' doesn't mean we've got all the answers either. There are a lot of captains on our team. Hey, if you've got something to say, say it. That's what being a team is all about."
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