COLUMBIA — “We’re ready for the Big 12 tournament.”
So declared Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine on Tuesday afternoon before his team’s practice at University Field.
Two weeks earlier, his statement would have been an obvious conclusion. The Tigers had lost only five games, were ranked in the top 10 nationally and were just a few wins away from the Big 12 regular season title.
Four consecutive losses and one consoling victory in their regular season finale later, the Tigers will travel to the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City as the No. 2 seed. They say their struggles are behind them.
“We’re coming off a win against Nebraska that we felt good about (and) kind of got us off the hook, so we’re excited about this weekend,” Earleywine said. “We’ve got some revenge — some debts — that we’d like to repay this weekend.”
At the top of that list is Big 12 champion Oklahoma, who swept aside Missouri in front of record crowds at the Tigers’ home field during the Tigers four-game skid.
“We are definitely going to come out and take over the Big 12 tournament,” pitcher Chelsea Thomas said. “That’s our goal. We’re done with that losing streak and winning from here on out.”
Missourian photographer Polina Yamshchikov followed the team from its sweep at the hands of the Sooners to its season-ending win over the Huskers and all points in between.
Photo 1 — Chelsea Thomas getting ice wrapped around her pitching shoulder by athletic trainer Kara Williams
Chelsea Thomas, a freshman pitcher for the Tigers, missed most of the conference slate because of injuries. She returned to close Missouri's regular season with a shutout of Nebraska and a 1.26 earned run average. Earleywine says she'll be ready for the Big 12 tournament.
“I feel like with Chelsea healthy and coming off a good outing against Nebraska, that was a step in the right direction for her," he said. "If she gets comfortable and if she gets healthy and feeling like her old self on the mound, I really think that our team can compete with anybody.”
Photo 2 — Players putting tarp on field
Rhea Taylor searched for a word to describe what sets this year's squad apart from the one that bowed out of the conference tournament a season ago after a first round loss. “I think the word I’m looking for is cohesiveness,” said Taylor, who was one of several players pulling the tarp onto the field after practice. “We weren’t really there last year. Now we have a lot of chemistry on the team, so I think us having trust in our teammates and knowing that if one person can’t get it done the other person will. Everybody’s got everybody’s back.”
Photo 3 — Micaela Minner putting eye black on Andee Allen
Micalea Minner is the Tigers' eye black aficionado and is more than willing to display her expertise. “Micaela usually does everybody’s actually,” Allen said. “Whoever gets eye black, it’s usually done by Miceala.” Now, Minner's role of applying black grease before games has become “kind of a tradition,” said Allen, who first started getting her eye black put on by Minner during her sophomore season. “It doesn’t really feel right without it. Not that that’s a superstition or anything because I’ve played games without it.”
Photo 4 — Andee Allen and Kristin Nottelmann signing autographs after a game
Senior Andee Allen and freshman Kristin Nottelmann sign autographs for young fans after a game. Earleywine said he is proud of the way Allen, an All-Midwest Region first team member last year, has mentored underclassmen. “She’s never a kid who has tried to do it with her mouth," Earleywine said. "She’s just led by example. She practices the right way. She plays the right way. She goes to class the right way. She has relationships the right way. Those things are going to get passed down. Kids look up to Andee because she’s not one that runs her mouth a lot, but she puts up numbers and she does well so people watch her and say, ‘What’s she doing?' She’s passed on the right characteristics in the younger players."
Photo 5 — Team celebrates after Lindsey Ubrun’s grand slam
Lindsey Ubrun, center, celebrates with her teammates after hitting a grand slam in Missouri's 5-0 win against Nebraska. Ubrun, a senior, has a team-leading 14 home-runs. She pumped her fist in the air as she rounded second base. “I knew it had a chance. I was hoping that it just wasn’t going to get caught,” she said about her grand slam. After the game, Ubrun said it was a relief to end the Tigers' four-game skid. “It’s nice to end on a high. We were a little frustrated and wanted to come out here and just kind of start the postseason with a good win,” she said.
Photo 6 — Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine, who has often said that finishing second or third in the conference isn't his team's goal, admitted it was difficult to maintain his calm demeanor as the Tigers were overtaken in the Big 12 standings, but he's learned that coaching a successful team is about more than wins and losses.
“When I first started coaching, I have to be honest, most of it was about just an outlet for my competitiveness,” Earleywine said after Missouri’s senior day ceremonies on Saturday. “But the more I coach, the more I realize that it needs to be about relationships and the bigger picture, and I’m still not great at that. But I have come across that realization, that winning and losing is such a roller coaster ride that I need to shift my focus on to relationships, trying to help walk their battles with them and grow with them. The better I get at that I have a feeling the better the team’s going to be.”
Photo 7 — Katie Milles taking batting practice inside Dan Devine Pavilion
Senior Katie Milles has appeared in just 21 of Missouri’s 51 games this season and has a .222 batting average, but she has served as a team leader. “I just told Katie the other day, I said, 'Some day I really do hope my daughter grows up to be like you,'” Earleywine said. “Whether or not you hit .350 is not as important as the lessons and the legacy that you leave behind for the younger players — kind of the fabric that this program’s going to be based around.”
Photo 8 — Lindsey Ubrun
Recently, the Tigers' potent offense had been in a lull. Before the slide, the team averaged more than seven runs a game. In its four losses, Missouri averaged a paltry two runs. “I think with our lineup there’s no way you’re not confident every day you go out,” Lindsey Ubrun said earlier this week despite the team’s recent offensive struggles. “We know that somebody is going to come through.” The Missouri offense is still ranked in the top 10 nationally in batting average and scoring.
Photo 9 — Rhea Taylor impersonating teammate’s batting stance
“I just like being funny,” said sophomore Rhea Taylor, right, who entertained teammates with impersonations of the batting stances of other Missouri players. “I saw other people doing it and I was like, 'Oh, let me get in this.’ They weren’t doing them very good,” she said. “It was just really funny because they’re so many different stances and a lot of people don’t realize how funny they look.”