COLUMBIA — As the Missouri softball team celebrated its victory in the Big 12 Conference tournament championship game on Mother's Day in Oklahoma City's ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Micaela Minner displayed a tribute to her mom on the bill of her visor.
The bold white message on the black visor was easily visible, even to the national television audience: "4UMOM."
Regional First Round
vs. Illinois (29-15)
When: 5 p.m.
Where: University Field
Later, the two shared a more private exchange.
“I was like, 'Mom, we’ll be back here in two weeks, so make sure you get all my family to come again,'" said Minner, whose dates were slightly off at the time but whose intentions were clear.
ASA Hall of Fame Stadium is where softball's College World Series is played every year, and Minner plans to be there with Missouri at the end of May.
The first step for the Tigers begins Friday at University Field in the regional round of the NCAA tournament against Illinois. Missouri is playing host to a four-team regional, the first of three tournament rounds, for the first time since 2005.
"I’m excited," Minner said with a smile wide enough to convince even the most skeptical person that there was no hyperbole here. "I am very, very excited, and I just know that if we can just stay close knit as a team, it’ll show out there on the field.”
Above all else, that is Missouri's most vocal leader's message to her teammates. If they can stay together — really and truly together in a way that maybe only young women can understand — they can do anything. They can beat anyone. They can get back to Oklahoma City to cross off the list the loftiest goal they made at the beginning of the season. And Minner's got the resume to make people listen.
“I’ve been here long enough to know how important it is," Minner said. "I’ve been on six different teams with two different coaches, and not to mention like five different assistant coaches and tons of different types of girls playing on the team. ... That’s what you need first. You’ve got to trust your teammates. You’ve got to play together before you’re going to win."
Minner first moved onto MU's campus in 2003, a lightly recruited freshman softball player from Sanger, Texas, who grew up playing baseball with the boys at an All-Star level and had grown accustomed to standing out on whatever team she joined.
"I came here expecting to not be the best," Minner said, "and so it was my goal that I was going to work as hard as I could work, learn as much as I could learn and be the best on this team. So, honestly, I didn’t have any expectations."
It turns out she was already pretty good. Minner started the first five games of the 2004 season in left field for Missouri before breaking multiple bones in her left leg when she ran into a chain link fence trying to catch a fly ball during a game in Florida.
The injury was so severe that she could not be transported back to Missouri for surgery. She spent a week in Florida after having a metal rod and four pins put in her shin. Then came the worst part.
Minner spent a month in a wheelchair with her injured leg locked straight out in front of her. She had to move out of her dorm room because it wasn't handicap accessible. She had to ride a bus to class each day and then ask strangers to wheel her up the hard-to-navigate access ramps. She also had a long, painful rehab process ahead that included learning how to walk again, so it's not all that surprising that she considered returning to Sanger.
“When my mom came and stayed with me, there was a lot of talk about going back to Texas with her and not finishing out the spring semester and just taking a break," Minner said.
Although she doubted whether or not she'd be able to play softball again, Minner's teammates, particularly her seven freshmen classmates, joined together to convince her to stay.
It wasn't until two years later that current Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine took over the program, but, according to him, Minner's eventual return to the field should never have been in doubt.
“She loves softball," Earleywine said. "She’ll be the first one to tell you that softball is the love of her life, so it wouldn't matter or not if she tore her ACL, or broke her leg, or broke both of them, it was just going to be a matter of time before she came back and played again.”
Minner did tear her ACL in December of 2007 and had to watch last season as Missouri won its NCAA Regional. This time it was easier to deal with the disappointment and the rehab as well as choose to apply for a sixth year of eligibility, which she was eventually granted.
It was a little harder to hear she had partially re-torn the ligament a year later, just a few months before the start of this season.
Minner wasn't able to play the field at the beginning of the season and didn't start sprinting until the middle of March, but her exuberant leadership has been a constant. It was Minner who called for a team meeting to "get back on the same page" after the team's four-game losing streak at the end of the regular season cost Missouri the Big 12 title. And she will be the first to speak up if there are any cracks in the team's cohesiveness this weekend.
Minner remains a force on the field as well. She has been named All-Big 12 and All-Midwest Region three times each and is batting .343 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs this season. While those numbers are mostly on par with previous seasons, Minner hit just .196 with four RBIs in conference play.
"I don’t like to know my stats because it doesn’t get you anywhere by knowing them, but I do feel as though it is time for me with postseason coming up that I really need to lead by my actions," Minner said, acknowledging that she has been "pretty down" on herself at the plate times this season.
After her softball career is finally over, she wants badly to be a reality TV star and has the personality to make it plausible. But, just in case that doesn't work out, Minner has been drafted to play professionally and has a master's degree to go along with a plan to ultimately settle into a career in medical sales.
For now, though, it's all about Missouri softball. And Oklahoma City. And the World Series.
“The perfect ending to this season is to go to the World Series. To walk into Oklahoma City and know that we were one of the teams in the World Series," Minner said, stopping as if she dare not think about it too hard.
"Oh, gosh," she said, elongating the words. "I can’t even tell you what that would feel like."
Starting Friday, she has one last chance to try to find out.