Despite No. 2 seed, Big 12 Champion Tigers expect big finish to softball season
Freshman pitcher Chelsea Thomas, named the Big 12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player, gave up only two hits in a complete game shutout in Sunday's championship. Mizzou beat Oklahoma 5-0.
The Mizzou softball team won the Big 12 Tournament title over the weekend, finishing with a record that speaks for itself.
The Tigers boast the fourth-highest number of wins (45) in NCAA Division I play for a season. They didn’t allow a single run en route to winning the championship. Four of the team’s players were selected to the Big 12 All-Tournament Team, and one was named Most Outstanding Player. A No. 1 seed (given to the top 16 teams) in the NCAA Tournament seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
But Sunday night, when regionals were announced, it didn’t happen. Despite a No. 14 ranking going into the tournament and a dazzling undefeated performance, Mizzou was relegated to a No. 2 seed, a de facto drop in the rankings. For a team considered to have overachieved this season, coach Ehren Earleywine expects this disappointment to be yet another motivator.
“We were laughing as they announced it because what else can you do?” Earleywine says. “We’re not going to let it affect us, but if someone says you’re not good enough, you’re going to go out and prove that you are.”
The Tigers (45-9), who play their first tournament game Friday at 5 p.m. against rival third-seeded Illinois, face top-seeded DePaul (37-12) and fourth-seeded Bradley (25-26) in their region here in Columbia. DePaul, a team that has been to several World Series in the past decade, might be the only true test Mizzou faces.
“Their leadoff hitter – a finalist for national player of the year – is obviously one of the best in the country,” Earleywine says. “Their ace is dominant, and the rest of the team is full of fundamentally sound players.”
The Tigers should have no problem holding their own, though. Freshman pitcher Chelsea Thomas, recently back from an injury, was named Most Outstanding Player. She threw three hitless innings in Sunday’s 5-0 shutout against top-seeded Oklahoma. It was her 13th win of the season and ninth solo shutout.
“To keep [Oklahoma] under three or four runs is significant enough, so to do what she did — she’s an outstanding player,” Earleywine says. “If she’s feeling better, we have a chance to beat anyone in the country.”
Thomas isn’t the only one attracting attention. Four of her teammates—Andee Allen, Rhea Taylor, Megan Christopher and Stacy Delaney—were named to the All-Tournament team. Mizzou’s roster depth should continue to play into the team’s success.
Allen could have been the Tigers’ MVP, according to Earleywine. She made two diving plays in Mizzou’s 1-0 victory over Baylor, saving the game. Taylor, who was a second-team All America center fielder last season as a freshman, hit .594 in the leadoff spot this year as, Earleywine says, the “igniter of our offense.” Christopher, a sophomore catcher, went from splitting time early in the season to being a surprising force in the lineup. Delaney, a senior who transferred from Michigan, is another force in the deep rotation, having three pitches with “tremendous” movement.
With the championship in his third year of coaching the Tigers, Earleywine joins men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson as the fastest to win titles in Mizzou coaching history. Although he’s still relatively new to Mizzou, he has been around — and successful — in the sport for years.
Earleywine was a member of Team USA from 2000 to 2003 and a captain the final two years. He was a silver medalist in the Pan Am games, a six-time American Softball Association All-American, a 1999 International Softball Congress All-World selection, a 1999 ASA national champion and a 2001 ISC world champion. The Jefferson City native coached baseball at his alma mater, Westminster College, and at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi before going to Georgia Tech to coach softball in 2001.
Back in the sport to which he had devoted so much of his time, Earleywine experienced success yet again in two years as an assistant coach and three years as a head coach. The Yellow Jackets set every school offensive record under his tutelage, made the NCAA Tournament every season, won the 2005 ACC regular season and tournament championships, and made the title game in two other seasons.
Despite all the success, transitioning from coaching men to coaching women has been challenging at times, Earleywine says. One of his earliest coaching experiences in women’s softball highlighted some differences. After getting hit by a pitch, a player started crying, which surprised Earleywine.
“I started looking around to see if anybody else had the same look on their face that I did,” he says. “But instead, her teammates were consoling her and helping her up. Guys and girls are definitely a different breed. I’ve had to work on not being a tyrant and instead offering more encouragement and support because they respond a lot better.”
His new approach helped him become one of the most successful coaches in the nation. He was the fifth-fastest coach to 100 wins in NCAA history and is the 11th winningest active coach in the country, with a 233-96 (.708) record. Earleywine already holds the 2007 Big 12 Coach of the Year title, and this season could be yet another feather in his cap. And no matter how they’re ranked or how they’re perceived going in, the Tigers plan to force the issue by continuing their winning ways in the NCAA Tournament.
“Going into the season, I knew we could do this,” Earleywine says. “We ended up leading the Big 12 in fielding and hitting. With them playing so well, we really do have a chance to beat any team in the country.”