KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The first thing you may notice watching Kaitlin Lee is that her right hand looks more like it belongs to a baker sifting flour than a pitcher throwing a softball. The rosin coating her hand is part superstition, picking up the rosin bag part of her routine before each pitch, but it is mostly necessity. When you grow up in Mississippi summers and your hands sweat, especially hands that aren't that big to begin with, you need to keep a grip on the ball.
All of which you forget about as soon as she releases the ball. Or more specifically, the first time you hear the grunt of exertion that follows the ball, a guttural "oohrah" worthy of the Marines. It sounds as if every ounce of energy available to her 5-foot-6 frame is required to make the ball travel 43 feet. It sounds like that on the next pitch, too. It sounds that way after every pitch in every inning in every game. Yet she never seems to run out of energy.
"The first week," Ole Miss teammate Elantra Cox recalled, "I'm just like 'God, will she please be quiet. It doesn't call for all that.' "
Eventually, Cox allowed, it becomes background noise. You forget it, just like the baker's hand. But you don't forget Lee, the junior who won four games in four days to lead Ole Miss to its first ever SEC tournament title and a chance to host an NCAA tournament regional this weekend as the No. 12 national seed.
The way Florida, the No. 1 seed, arrived in Knoxville for the recent SEC tournament reveals something about the rise of a conference that now, for the first time, sends all 13 softball-playing programs to the NCAA tournament. As evidence of the seriousness with which the Gators treated the SEC event, Florida coach Tim Walton noted that the school chartered two planes for the trip. From its travel to it stadiums to its recruits, the SEC is second to none.
How Lee then sent the mighty Gators home, shutting out the nation's top-ranked team in a quarterfinal, reveals something, too.
There is no conference like the SEC at the moment, not because it is the best at the top but because there is no bottom. Because of people like Lee.
"She is so much bigger than she really is," said Christie Meeks, Lee's pitching coach for two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. "She's a little-bitty girl on the field, but her guts are 7-foot tall, 350 pounds. ... She's not intimidated by anybody."
The likes of Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee didn't even play softball when Arizona and UCLA were trading national titles and churning out Olympians through the mid-1990s. Yet those SEC schools turned football-born financial means, good coaching hires and an expanding regional talent pool into the kind of success that quickly made them regulars in the Women's College World Series. The top of the league set a standard that challenged perennial also-rans like Ole Miss, which played its first NCAA tournament games just last season, to step up or continue to get embarrassed.
If the competition weren't as intense, maybe Ole Miss coach Mike Smith, now in his third season, wouldn't have paid attention to reports about an undersized junior college pitcher with little interest from Division I programs. Maybe Ole Miss, like everyone else, would have overlooked someone who both refers to herself and is referred to by teammates as a Chihuahua, a label that seems to apply equally to her size, energy and the sounds that accompany each pitch. Instead, Ole Miss had to look high and low for the pitching to compete, which was the only way the SEC was ever going to stumble across her.
"I think that you're not really able to succeed through everything in your life if you haven't been through some struggles," Lee said. "And I've been one who has been through some struggles, for sure."
That she enters the NCAA tournament as one of its newfound must-see attractions, complete with the seal of approval from Jennie Finch, is remarkable for someone who was pitching for Mississippi Gulf Coast a year ago. The pitcher who dominated the SEC tournament, and enters the NCAA tournament with a 20-10 record and 1.78 ERA, attracted essentially no attention from major college programs out of high school. She originally went to Delta State, a Division II school without a storied softball history. When that proved something other than the experience she sought, she transferred to the junior college.
At the repeated insistence of her coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast, and knowing he needed another pitcher, Smith kept tabs on her.
"I just saw the numbers she kept putting up," Smith said. "I'm like, 'These numbers are pretty darn good, but it's Division II junior college. So is she going to be able to be the No. 1-type kid we were looking for to be able to pitch in the big, bad SEC?'
"But she kept getting people out."
Cox said that while Ole Miss players initially weren't sure what to make of the new arrival, it was clear how much Lee believed in herself. Just as that was clear to Meeks back when Lee introduced herself to her junior college pitching coach by talking about the 20-plus varieties of pitches she threw. That unwavering belief could come across as cockiness if not for the smile and self-reflection that often accompany it. But there is unmistakably something that not even she can identify driving her forward.
A left-handed slap hitter for Mississippi Gulf Coast, in addition to her pitching duties, she was hit by a pitch late in her freshman season that broke her nose and required surgery to insert metal plates in her face. Grudgingly cleared to play just before the postseason, on the condition she wear an arsenal of protective gear, she was going to be used only as a last resort. By the fourth inning of the first game, she was in the circle and throwing shutout innings. A day later, she threw another shutout.
"I don't consider myself overpowering," Lee said after the SEC tournament. "I don't consider myself the best pitcher in the SEC. I do not, without a doubt, consider myself that. But I can without a doubt tell you that I have the best mindset and mentality out of any pitcher in the SEC. And in the nation. I can promise you that. That's what beats them."
So survive in the deepest conference college softball has ever seen? Bring it on. Win four games in four days in Knoxville? Done.
Along with the charter flights, new stadiums and television lights, that's a big part of why the SEC is the best in the land.
"I would tell everybody until I'm buried in the ground that it's nothing about power," Lee said. "It's all about passion and heart and confidence."
No love for Minnesota
That moment when you finish assembling furniture and notice the important-looking bolt unused on the floor? That should be how the NCAA selection committee felt when it left unseeded a team that went 54-3 and won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. That Minnesota travels to No. 16 Alabama for a regional, along with Louisiana Tech and Albany, is inexcusable. What doomed the Gophers appears to be a lack of top-tier wins, a 2-2 record against RPI top 25 opponents in the most recent publicly released report. But Minnesota beat LSU and Cal on the road. Its only losses were to Illinois and twice to Washington. The decision defies common sense. If there is no room for human judgment in the selection process, then take the humans out of it and pick the bracket by formula. That's fine. If humans are involved, and they can't conclude that Minnesota is one of the 16 best teams, then they must know something I don't.
The SEC's depth is unprecedented, but the Pac-12 is back. The assemblage of No. 2 Arizona, No. 3 Oregon, No. 5 UCLA and No. 6 Washington means the World Series, known unofficially for years as the Pac-12 tournament, could have a retro feel. The conference had just five teams seeded in the top eight of the past three tournaments combined but could host half of the super regionals this year. The biggest obstacle to that in the regional round could be Michigan, which joins Fresno State and Montana in Washington's regional.
Tough road to repeat for Sooners
Just as Minnesota suffered for its conference, Oklahoma's path to back-to-back national titles may have been undone not by performance but by conference affiliation. With few chances in the Big 12 to help their RPI, even with the return of the conference tournament, the champs are the No. 10 seeds. So even if the Sooners survive a regional that includes a potential giant killer in Tulsa pitcher Emily Watson (they played a 10-inning thriller in March), they would likely hit the road for a super regional at No. 7 Auburn in a way-too-early rematch of last year's title series.
Montana will play Washington on Friday in the Big Sky program's first-ever NCAA tournament game. It could face another former national champion in Michigan during the regional in Seattle. That's heady company for a program that existed only on paper when Bethany Olea, its only current senior, was a freshman at Arizona Western College. In just its third year of softball, the entire program has fewer all-time home runs than Arizona standout Katiyana Mauga.
Too close for comfort
Geography often brings together old rivals -- sometimes when they might prefer to remain apart. LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette haven't played since a regional in the 2013 NCAA tournament. They could meet again in the regional hosted by the 13th-seeded Tigers. Texas and Texas A&M haven't played in the regular season since the Aggies left for the SEC, meeting for the first time in a regional a year ago. They could meet again -- but likely only if Texas beats Texas State, which happens to have former Longhorns legend Cat Osterman on the coaching staff.