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Competitive spirit

Coach Earleywine goes to bat for the team

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  • Story and photos by Ryan Gavin
  • Published: June 1, 2011
Coach Earleywine on the mound

Mizzou softball coach Ehren Earleywine joins a team huddle during the super regionals. The Tigers play in the NCAA Women's College World Series for the third consecutive season starting June 2.

In the second game of the Tigers’ NCAA Softball Super Regional, Princess Krebs hit a slow roller up the third-base line. Standing in foul territory, the Washington defender reached over the line and scooped up the ball. Mizzou coach Ehren Earleywine passionately argued the foul call with the umpire. And, as is often the case when coaches have heated arguments with officials, Earleywine’s objection led to his ejection.

Never mind his No. 5 Tigers were already up 5-0 in the top of the first inning. Or that they had beaten the No. 12 Huskies 4-0 the day before. Or that National Player of the Year finalist Chelsea Thomas was on the mound.

After the game Earleywine called his behavior “dumb” and “a mistake” and said he hopes to channel the “swell” into the right avenues the next time it roars inside him. But that intensity, that overriding competitive spirit, is what makes him who he is.

“At the end of the day I am who I am, and there are certain things I don’t want to change,” Earleywine says. “I’m a competitor, and I wouldn’t be where I am in life if it weren’t for that competitive spirit inside me.”

The turnaround

Coach Earleywine argues with an umpire

Coach Earleywine argues with the umpire about a call and is subsequently ejected from the game. He later said he regretted the move, but team members say they're happy their coach backs them up.

That fiery spirit has been the constant in the transformation of Mizzou softball. When Earleywine took over the program in August 2006, the Tigers were coming off a 26-win season in which they had a losing record. Fundamentals had gotten loose. Game attendance and fan interest were low.

In his first season on the job, Earleywine led the Tigers to a 40-win season and postseason play. In 2008, the team won 47 games and made it to the super regional round of the NCAA tournament. Mizzou broke through in 2009 by making the College World Series, following up with a repeat trip in 2010. The Tigers won more than 50 games each of those two seasons and set attendance records in the process.

Stellar performance has become the expectation for Earleywine and his Tigers. Softball followers predicted Mizzou's players would win more than 50 games this season, and they have (52 and counting). They were expected to continue drawing fans (a record 2,604 watched the Super Regional win) and to make the Women’s College World Series (they have, for a third consecutive year). They even took the Big 12 Championship in a year in which half of the WCWS field of eight is from their conference.

But that’s still not good enough. They’ve got a WCWS title in their sights.

“We’re not going there for two and barbecue this year,” Earleywine says.

The soft spot

“I wish I knew what he said!” center fielder Rhea Taylor says. “I think it makes us go a little harder. It shows us he has our back and that he would put us before himself.”

In the dugout, players huddled on the top step to watch Earleywine go to bat for them. He may have promised a kinder, gentler version of himself this season, but this definitely wasn’t one of those moments.

Players say Earleywine is a straight shooter and refuses to sugarcoat anything. But a tough outer shell can conceal something sweet inside.

The Jefferson City native invites players over to his home for holiday parties with his wife, Lisa, his son, Connor, and his daughter, Duran. When Earleywine brings up family, it’s more than talk. The team is a part of his.

While eating lunch, Earleywine saw the devastation in Joplin that followed the destructive May 22 tornado, and he immediately started collecting supplies and organizing efforts for relief. The man known for his scientific and statistical approach to life was letting his feelings show.

“Every once in a while, we’ll be like, ‘Oh, he is a real person, not this crazy madman,’” Taylor says. “A lot of people think you can’t be friends with your coach, but he’s really the greatest guy.”

The Women's College World Series

Coach Earleywine

Returning to the field after his ejection from a game, Earleywine tips his cap to the fans. The Tigers finished the game with a 6-3 victory over Washington.

After the final game with Washington, a 6-3 victory, Earleywine came back onto the field to thunderous applause from the record University Field crowd. Tipping his cap to the fans, he ran out to the huddle in right field. Once his team had welcomed him back, all he said was “Tigers on 3!”

“It was so torturous watching from the team room,” Earleywine says. “You would hear the cheering or the booing and then five seconds later it would happen on TV. It was just so painful to watch in there, but I guess I deserved it.”

Earleywine will be back in the dugout for Thursday’s 8:30 p.m. WCWS start, televised on ESPN2. No. 4 Florida is regarded as the country’s best-hitting team, but No. 5 Mizzou counters with Thomas, the nation’s top pitcher.

The series will mark the final games for nine seniors on the team who have been with Earleywine from the start. He understands the situation will make for an emotional series, but he wants the players to put off those feelings until they’ve played their last out in the WCWS.

“In the past, he’d always tell us to take a scientific approach to the game,” Taylor says. “He still has that, but I think he understands now that as girls, we’re going to bring some sort of emotion into the game, too.”

Those same emotions might tear through Earleywine again with even more on the line. But the calculating coach points to a statistic: Mizzou has never lost after he’s been tossed.

“If we get to the national championship,” Earleywine says with a wry smile, “look for me on the bus.”

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Last updated: June 6, 2013