Softball heads to SEC tourney for first time

The Rebel program has reached a milestone as it plays in the SEC Tournament Thursday in Athens, Ga.

ATHENS, Ga. - Most of the time, an eighth-place conference finish isn't particularly a cause for celebration.

But for the 2006 Ole Miss Rebel softball team, an eighth-place finish in the league standings marks the program's first-ever trip to the postseason and a reason to celebrate.

After nine years of seeing its conference tournament chances slip just out of reach down the season's home stretch, the Rebels have finally gotten over the proverbial hump.

The Rebels won seven of their final eight Southeastern Conference games, including a pair of wins at top-20 ranked Auburn, to roll into a postseason berth.

"This is a major accomplishment for us," said senior team captain Stacy McCommon. "So many others have tried to get into the tournament in past years. It feels awesome to finally get there as a senior."

But the journey to the 2006 SEC Tournament in Athens has been far from easy.

It started at the end of the 2005 campaign, when the Ole Miss administration decided to make a change in coaching staffs, bringing in Missy Dickerson to be the program's third head coach.

The 2005 squad had won a school-record 30 games en route to the program's first winning season, but struggled in SEC play down the stretch to miss the conference tournament by a two-game margin.

Departing from that team were senior catcher DeDe Justice with her school-record 49 career home runs that are 38 more than the next closest Rebel, senior leadoff-hitting center fielder Brooke Turner and her school-record 59 career stolen bases and a dynamic middle infield made of Freshman All-SEC shortstop Chloe Kloezeman, who transferred to California, and second baseman Jordan Chitwood.

That left Dickerson's new club with some key holes to fill, especially at the plate. The transition into the 2006 season proved difficult, as the Rebels got off to a 5-14 start in four road tournaments while renovations to the Ole Miss Softball Complex were being completed. Those 14 losses included a nine-game skid that was tough to swallow for a team trying to generate some momentum heading into an always-challenging conference schedule.

The start of the SEC slate wasn't much better, though, as the Rebels won two of their first 16 league contests.

The turnaround may have been when Ole Miss was swept by No. 6 Tennessee, but kept all three contests within reach of a victory against the talented Lady Vols.

Since that weekend, the Rebels have played nip-and-tuck with every opponent and certainly with more urgency after losing the series to a South Carolina team the Rebels were trying to catch in the SEC standings.

It was Sunday's game against the Gamecocks, though, that marked the beginning of the best run of wins in school history. The Rebels came from behind in the seventh inning to win 5-4, avoid a series sweep and start crafting some of the magic that would propel them into postseason play.

Some accomplishments during that stretch included the program's first five-game conference winning streak, the first series sweep of in-state rival Mississippi State and the first time to sweep two conference teams in a season. The Rebels also have back-to-back SEC Pitchers of the Week for the first time in junior left-hander Mary Jane Callahan and senior righty Dana Brill.

And now there is another hump the Rebels have to face in uncharted territory. As the eight seed in the tournament, Ole Miss is scheduled to square off with top-seeded Alabama on Thursday.

The Crimson Tide enters the postseason as the nation's fourth-ranked team. They swept the Rebels in early April by a combined tally of 19-0 in the three-game series.

Dickerson's club is not intimidated by any of that, though.

"This is a different team than the first time we played Alabama," Dickerson noted. "The kids believe in themselves and are excited to make it to the tournament for the first time. I just hope they continue to play like they have the last few weeks. Your biggest fear as a coach is that the team settles for just making it to the tournament."

Under Dickerson, the Rebels have reason to be confident. Since her All-American playing career when she was part of a historic UCLA team that won three straight NCAA Championships, she has shown the ability to lead a successful program as a head coach.

After working her way up the ranks as an assistant at Oklahoma, Indiana State and San Jose State, Dickerson took the head coaching reins at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 2003 and promptly turned the Islanders into a championship program. In 2003, the Islanders had a similar team as this year's Rebels, as they improved throughout the season to become the sixth seed in the Big South Conference Tournament, only to roll through the tourney and claim the conference title.

Dickerson, along with former Islander and current Rebel pitching coach Tom McLauchlin, led Corpus Christi to two more Big South Championships in 2004 and last season before heading to Oxford.

So the Rebel coaching staff, which includes assistant McKewn Dannelly, appears to have brought a competitive fire and a have-fun-and-play-hard style that the players are buying into.

"We have improved so much throughout the season, and I think part of that is because we have become more relaxed," McCommon said. "We're just having more fun out there than we have before."

Dickerson said the team has made tremendous strides as a whole and that the key is that the team is playing together. She also noted how this year's improvements are only the starting point.

"To have all the firsts and the kind of accomplishments these kids have made this year, it has established a precedent for what to expect for the future of this program," said the head coach. "The kids that have been here through all the tough times should be proud of what they've been able to accomplish recently."

Senior Associate Athletic Director Lynnette Johnson is also thrilled with the direction of the program.

"What these student-athletes and coaches have done over the last month is phenomenal," Johnson said. "Culminating with the first SEC Tournament bid, this has been something the team has been striving to achieve for a long time. It's a great indicator of where this program is heading."

So what can this upstart band of Rebels do against all the odds and a formidable Alabama team at 2:30 p.m. EST on Thursday?

"Honestly, we have just as much of a shot as anybody else," Dickerson said. "We have surprised some by making it this far, maybe we can surprise some more people."

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