Tough as nails
Mizzou softball wins Midwest Regional to advance to Supers
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Mizzou’s softball team called on its secret weapon in the NCAA tournament this weekend: freshman pitcher Chelsea Thomas. Thomas, in turn, had her own secret weapon for leading the Tigers to victory over Illinois, Bradley and DePaul in the Midwest Regional.
She has a fast pitch. In winning the regional, Thomas hurled two complete-game wins, allowing one run in 14 innings of work. Her 74 mph heater — which produced 10 strikeouts — is comparable to a 103 mph fastball in baseball. But that wasn’t it.
She has focus. Coach Ehren Earleywine, in his third season with the Tigers, described her maturity as the most developed he’s seen in a freshman in his 16 years of coaching collegiate sports. But that wasn’t it either.
So what exactly was the reason for Thomas’ success? Neon-pink fingernails.
“It makes me happy to look at them,” Thomas says with a giggle. “I love pink!”
Mizzou’s ace, a dominant force and intimidating presence on the mound, was a bit distracted Friday night as severe storms entered the area. Playing Illinois in the first game of the NCAA tournament regional — a double-elimination four-team bracket — Thomas gave up a run and threw 32 pitches before the game was called midway through the first inning. It was a completely uncharacteristic performance.
“It just seemed like the atmosphere was wrong, like the field was wrong,” Earleywine says. “Maybe God sent the storm in for us so we could get up [Saturday] and start all over again.”
Friday night, Thomas went to dinner with her parents and then back to their hotel. Not one to vocalize her disappointment, she focused instead on turning it around Saturday. She pulled out her favorite fingernail polish.
“She’s always handled the pressure,” Chelsea’s mom, Dana Thomas, says. “She just gets it done and doesn’t show any emotion; it’s always been a strength of hers.”
With newly painted nails, Thomas retook the mound Saturday morning. She shut down Illinois the rest of the way to a 5-1 victory and didn’t crack a smile until the umpire raised a fist for the final out. Earleywine said after the game that he’d dreamt about who to put on the mound that day. Thomas’ performance was again a dream come true.
Crossing state lines
Earleywine’s supportiveness was a big reason Thomas decided to enroll at Mizzou. In her small hometown of Pleasantville, Iowa (population 1,539) Thomas’ teams never made the high school state tournament until her junior year.
By then the University of Iowa and Iowa State had mostly filled their recruiting classes and didn’t pay much attention to Thomas. Earleywine saw her performances, though, and immediately started working to bring her to Mizzou.
“No one else really even looked at her or gave her the time of day,” Dana Thomas says. Earleywine, she recalls, had a different point of view: “‘Hey, she’s a diamond in the rough. If she comes here, we’re going to go places.’”
Just as Earleywine anticipated, the Tigers are in uncharted territory. Now at 48-9 after three wins this weekend, the team has set a new school record for wins in a season. And just as with men’s basketball and women’s soccer teams, the softball team won the Big 12 Tournament Championship the same season it set records for wins.
Thomas (15-4) is the force behind nearly a third of those wins, despite missing a month to recover from injuries.
“This is my 16th year of coaching college athletes, and I don’t ever remember a freshman like this,” Earleywine says. “Nothing fazes her.”
The path through the regional was hardly a cakewalk. After the opening win against Illinois, Mizzou eked out a 2-1 victory over Bradley Saturday before winning a 1-0 pitchers’ duel against DePaul on Sunday in the championship round.
A pair of two-run home runs, from junior third baseman Gina Schneider and sophomore left fielder Kathryn Poet, made the difference in the rivalry game against the Illini. Rhea Taylor scored the first run for Mizzou in the bottom of the first. After singling, she stole second and scored on a short bloop to left field by Maria Schweisberger.
On the winners’ side of the bracket, the Tigers dealt the Braves their first loss of the tournament. Behind pitchers Kristin Nottelmann and Stacey Delaney, Mizzou held them to just one run. Micaela Minner scored from first on a Lindsey Ubrun double in the second. The winning run was scored in the sixth, when Taylor again singled and stole second before coming home on a double from Poet.
In the championship round, Taylor scored the lone run of the game, this time doing it all herself.
“I didn’t think I hit it that hard,” Taylor says, “but apparently I did.”
Before the game had ended, catcher Megan Christopher let loose a bit of premature celebration. On what looked like strike three for the final out, she jumped up from her crouch and pumped her fist in the air, running toward the dugout. But the umpire hadn’t called strike three.
Laughing about the moment after the game, Christopher admitted she felt a little silly but was happy about one thing: “We got to see Chelsea strike one more out.”
Throughout the postgame press conference, the players gibed back and forth, joking with one another and at times bickering like sisters. The Tigers say their closeness is unbreakable.
“This team is different than any I’ve played on when it comes to having support for each other,” says Minner, who has played for six years. “Talent can only take you so far, but when you have heart and you have your teammates picking you up whenever you’re down constantly and sincerely and consistently, that’s the difference.”
Taking on California girls
Next up for Mizzou is UCLA in the Super Regional round. The Bruins (41-9) are the second overall seed in the tournament and come from the battle-tested Pac 10 Conference, which is where six of the final 16 teams in the tournament are from. UCLA has won more softball titles than any other school in the country; there’s little chance of the Tigers intimidating them.
“All you can ask of your players is to give you everything they’ve got,” Earleywine says. “If that’s not enough, then we’ll tip our cap to the other team and get on the bus and go home. I like our chances and am excited about the opportunity to redeem ourselves.”
Redemption will be the name of the game for Mizzou. In the San Diego Classic I on March 1, the Tigers lost a heartbreaker to the Bruins, 2-1, on a passed ball. Thomas, who was up against the Bruins last time and will be again in Game 1, can’t wait for the rematch.
“Everyone has the understanding that [Thomas’] speed is her No. 1 asset, but what people don’t know is that she hits her corners very well,” Christopher says. “People catch up with speed — even an average hitter — but she can mix a changeup and a riseball. Her poise is phenomenal.”
The Tigers take whatever UCLA throws at them starting at 8:30 p.m. Friday in Easton Stadium in Los Angeles. Count on the hand with the painted nails hurling just as much back at them.