COLUMBIA — Rhea Taylor wasn’t interested in playing softball for Missouri. But the Georgia native agreed to visit the MU campus anyway when assistant coach Melissa Tucci called. They had met when Tucci was an assistant for Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine at Georgia Tech.
There is still a little disbelief in her voice when she talks about the trip. The coaches were nice. The facilities were nice. The campus was nice. Everybody and everything was nice.
Taylor said it was like “nothing that I’ve ever seen before, really.”
It turns out Missouri softball has never seen a player like her, really.
“Every offense has that igniter or they hope to have that igniter, and Rhea’s definitely ours,” Earleywine said. “Statistically it’s apparent that when Rhea starts off the game with a hit, or when she leads off an inning with a hit, we kind of follow in suit.”
Taylor has compiled some impressive statistics from the Tigers’ leadoff spot this season. The freshman led the Big 12 Conference in five offensive categories: batting average (.408), hits (80), runs (60), triples (tied with five players with four) and stolen bases (52).
In addition to more than doubling the total of her nearest competitor, Taylor’s 52 stolen bases also set a new Big 12 season record.
Although she’s proud of the record, which she broke Sunday against Nebraska, she wasn’t exactly nervous while standing on first base after a lead-off single.
“It’s not like my main priority when I think about softball. But I was like, ‘You know, I’m on base. I can break the Big 12 record. Why don’t I just go ahead?’” Taylor said.
Taylor’s offensive efforts helped the Tigers (44-14, 11-6 in the Big 12) finish the regular season third in the conference standings. This weekend the team will travel to Oklahoma City for the Big 12 tournament.
The Tigers will face Texas Tech in the quarterfinals on Saturday. A fourth win against the Red Raiders this weekend would likely mean a match-up against No. 7 Oklahoma. The Sooners, along with No. 5 Texas A&M, which the Tigers could potentially face in the championship game, swept Missouri in conference play this season.
“That’s the thing I’m most excited about seeing, because I don’t really know how that’s going to unfold or how that’s going to look,” Earleywine said of his team’s potential rematches.
“But I know that when we did play Oklahoma and when we did play A&M, a lot of our freshmen and a lot the players in our starting lineup hadn’t seen that kind of talent, they hadn’t seen that kind of road venue, they hadn’t seen that kind of crowd, and so I’m real interested in seeing how we match up with those teams now.
“I think it’ll be better. I think we’re more experienced in every phase of the game, but whether or not my assumption is right we’ll see on Saturday.”
Senior Amanda Renth also said having more experience will help the Tigers, who sometimes start as many as five freshmen in a game, defeat Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
“I think it’s just everybody’s playing together a little bit better defensively,” Renth said about her team’s progress. “That’s the biggest thing, we’ve got to play good defense, and I think we’re looking better.”
Earleywine, though, was careful to stress the importance of starting well, saying the team has routinely showed a lack of desire in the opening games of conference series.
“Maybe with the understanding that our team has, that if we lose once we’re out, maybe that’ll motivate them to play better in that first game,” he said. “Whatever it is, we are going to have to play better than we have in the past in that first game against Texas Tech if we’re going to advance to Oklahoma.”
Jen Bruck and Stacy Delaney will continue to share the pitching workload for the Tigers, who will have to win two games on Saturday to advance to the championship game.
“I think we do have an advantage in that regard because not everybody has two good pitchers,” Earleywine said. “Most everybody has one ace that they go to.”
On offense, it will be Taylor at the top of the lineup, where she has been every game this season. She has reached base in her first at-bat in more than half of her team’s games.
“Obviously she’s had a tremendous year, so she’s doing something right, and we don’t want to mess with it too much,” Earleywine said.