KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Cinderella arrived wearing a red and blue uniform and cleats at the SEC Softball Tournament, a previously unknown junior college transfer by the name of Kaitlin Lee.
“She has won over the country,” said Ole Miss coach Mike Smith, who in his third season led the Rebels to their first-ever SEC Softball Tournament championship one year after taking the program to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
“The energy Kaitlin brings on the field, it’s infectious,” Smith said, having seen the 5-foot-6, 130-pound prospect pitch four complete games in four days, allowing just 3 runs and 1 walk. “(USA Gold medalist) Jennie Finch tweeted in the middle of the game about her, so when you get arguably the best pitcher in the history of the game to tweet on Kaitlin Lee, you’ve pretty much arrived.”
— Jennie Finch (@JennieFinch) May 13, 2017
Lee is indeed the sort of rags to riches story that’s hard to resist. Coming out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, she didn’t have any Power 5 conference offers.
Smith said all Lee wanted was a chance at Ole Miss, as hungry for opportunity as one might expect from someone who grew up with five sisters and three brothers on the Mississippi coast in Gulfport.
‘Who is this girl?’
Lee and the Rebels came a long way to get to the point of beating LSU 5-1 in the SEC Softball Tournament title game on Saturday night in Knoxville.
The fall softball season can be a grind for the players, as it’s filled with individual workouts and intrasquad scrimmages that can be chippy as players compete for positions.
Ole Miss senior Miranda Strother remembers her impression upon meeting the energetic Lee for the first time.
“When she first game in, I was like, ‘Wow, this girl is balls to the wall, who is this girl?” Strother said. “Now, we’re like. ‘Let’s go!’ She’s that person you don’t want on the other team, but you want her on your team.
“We really vibe off Kaitlin, her coming to the program has brought a high, intense energy.”
Lee said it’s all about her passion for the game.
“It’s 98 percent emotion,” Lee said. “They asked me what’s getting me through this, and it’s all my adrenaline and energy.”
— Ole Miss Softball (@OleMissSoftball) May 14, 2017
Smith, a former minor league baseball pitcher who found his way to the Ole Miss coaching position three years ago after a successful NAIA run that included a 2009 national championship, knew the team would need to mesh.
“It was tough at first because she has a domineering personality, not in a bad way, but that dominant personality,” Smith said. “But the players knew.”
Just to be sure, Smith said he met with senior team leaders Strother and Courtney Syrett about how Lee could bring more leadership to the team.
Smith set the table for Lee to have ideal success before he had even recruited her when he hired former Arizona All-American and national championship pitcher Taryne Mowatt as his pitching coach in August 2015.
“Coach T makes these minor adjustments here and there and tell me tiny things I need to think about, because I’m a real thinking pitcher,” Lee said. “I look at her as a straight mentor, she leads me and calms me when I need to be calmed, and pushes me when I need to be pushed.”
It was Mowatt — like Lee a diminutive blonde — who turned in a legendary performance in winning 2007 Women’s College World Series MVP honors by throwing 8 complete games and 1,035 pitches in seven days.
“I think I’ve given short girls that want to pitch hope they can do it,” Mowatt told The Oklahoman in 2008. “You don’t have to be tall. You don’t have to throw 70 miles per hour.”
Mowatt outdueled NCAA all-time wins and strikeouts leader Monica Abbott in 2007, Arizona scoring 1-0 and 5-0 wins in shutting out Tennessee over 17 innings and stranding 26 runners in those two championship series games.
It led to Mowatt being named ESPN’s “Best Female Athlete” of 2007.
“I think it’s very similar between the two, small stature, both have good changeups, screwballs,” said Alabama coach Pat Murphy, who faced both, including a 4-1 loss to Lee and Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday.
“I think that’s a perfect combination. That kid is perfect with Taryne.”
Smith is hoping the story plays out the same in the postseason, as his No. 19-ranked Rebels (40-18) await the NCAA Softball Tournament seedings and brackets (Sunday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Kaitlin is a lot like Taryne Mowatt — Taryne was exactly the same way,” Smith said. “People didn’t think that she was going to be the pitcher that she was. I think that you can put her as slowly starting to get to that Taryne Mowatt stage.
“If she can pitch us through a regional, a super and into the College World Series … I mean what she was able to do this week is beyond amazing.”
How does she do it?
Lee has nine different pitches in her arsenal, but what she throws varies by game, depending on what she’s throwing well and what the scouting report calls for.
In a 2-0 shutout over No. 1-ranked Florida, Lee said the only pitches she threw were a curve, screwball and changeup.
“She threw a changeup for a strike almost every time, threw pitches on the outside corner and most of the result pitches were out of the strike zone,” said Gators coach Tim Walton, whose 50-6 team was shut out for only the second time this season. “I thought we swung at a lot of bad pitches and took good pitches, or she made good pitches and then made better pitches.
“I thought she hit her spots and at the end and she got us to wave at the pitches she wanted to get us out with.”
Alabama’s Merris Schroder said Lee’s changeup creates doubt for hitters.
“She hits her locations when she needs to, and she has a very good changeup too,” Schroder said. “As a hitter, she keeps you on your heels, because of that changeup.”
Lee maintains an aggressive approach even if her pitches aren’t overpowering, as she surrendered just 1 walk in pitching 4 complete games over the 28 innings and four days she pitched at the SEC Softball Tournament.
“I don’t like to give up freebies, so if you’re going to be beat, you’ve got to beat me with my best stuff,” said Lee, who beat Mississippi State, Florida, Alabama and LSU, in order. “And that [one walk], the pitch was a strike … I’m sorry I’m still salty about it.”
Kaitlin Lee’s personality
Lee’s demonstrative nature in the pitching circle rubs some of the competition the wrong way, but LSU coach Beth Torina admitted that over time it’s more appreciated.
“I think she’s a competitor,” said Torina, whose team was 0-4 vs. Ole Miss this season, with Lee earning three wins and a save in those meetings. “I think she kind of grows on you a little bit.
“At first, the smile, you don’t know what to make of it but as she continues to compete she really grows on you and I have a lot of respect for her and what she did this week,” she said. “Obviously, we don’t have her figured out.”
Smith joked throughout the tournament that Lee was making all the coaching decisions, as far as telling him she was going to start the game.
Lee’s energy does have it bounds, though.
After dancing during pregame introductions and cheering when her teammates were batting the first four innings of the title game, Lee grew dizzy.
Smith said the Ole Miss trainer instructed her to sit down in the dugout to conserve energy.
Lee shrugged it off and said she could have pitched a third game on Saturday night had the situation called for it.
“If we played a game right now, I’d punch him [Coach Mike Smith] if he said I couldn’t pitch,” Lee said with a chuckle. “That first game [4-1 win over Alabama] I was tight and I was working myself out and didn’t have my best game.
“That second game I was warming up and I said ‘Coach T (Mowatt), I’m warmer than I’ve ever been.”
Lee, whose Twitter account encourages people to “be the person your dog thinks you are,” appears comfortable in her new role as a star pitcher.
Upon arriving for the championship press conference, she took off her shoes once entering the room, making herself comfortable at the front table.
“I was like, ’sit back, take a deep breath, it’s Jennie Finch,” Lee said of the tweet from the USA Olympian. “I try not to let it hit me because it’s overwhelming. I think I’m a great person for all the young’ins to look up to and I’m proud to be that for them.”
Ole Miss coach Mike Smith and SEC Softball Tournament MVP Kaitlin Lee discuss Rebels 5-1 title game victory
Posted by SEC Country on Saturday, May 13, 2017