COLUMBIA — This time of year, rain delays are a part of softball. Teams usually despise them.
Not the Missouri softball team.
NCAA regional championship round
DePaul (39-13) vs. Missouri (47-9)
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
With whirling winds and a powerful storm front moving into Columbia just before the Tigers' NCAA Regional game against Illinois on Friday night at University Field, freshman pitcher Chelsea Thomas got off to an unusually shaky start. She threw 32 pitches in the top of the first, only getting two outs, before the umpires suspended the game because of lightning in the distance. Thomas allowed two hits, two walks, and one run before play was suspended.
Thundershowers soaked the field and postponed the game until Saturday morning. Turns out, the storm was exactly what the Tigers needed.
“Last night just didn’t feel right,” Tigers coach Ehren Earleywine said. “Maybe God sent the storm in for us so we could get up today and start all over again.”
When the game picked up Saturday, the Tigers put the momentum back in their favor. Thomas settled down, holding the Fighting Illini to only four hits the rest of the way, and she did not allow another run.
“I think it was the No. 1 most important factor, to stop that first inning rush and start afresh,” Earleywine said.
A pair of two-run home runs by Gina Schneider and Kathryn Poet powered the Tigers to a 5-1 victory in their first game of the day.
The win allowed the Tigers to play No. 4 seed Bradley, who upset No. 1 seed DePaul on Friday afternoon 1-0. Braves ace Ashley Birdsong had led her team to 10 consecutive wins heading into Saturday afternoon’s game against the Tigers. She pitched every single inning in those 10 wins for the Braves.
Instead of putting first-team all Big 12 pitcher Stacy Delaney in the circle for the Tigers to start against the Braves, Earleywine elected to go with freshman Kristin Nottleman, and it worked out.
Nottleman threw three scoreless innings, while allowing only two hits. Earleywine then put in Delaney in the fourth inning. Now a senior, Delaney was a key to the Tigers' postseason run last season. Delaney pitched the final four innings, allowing one run on two hits.
“Her velocity was down and she was getting into bad hitting counts a little too often,” Earleywine said of Nottleman.“ I have so much confidence in all three of my pitchers that it was not a problem to go to Stacy. And she was the right one to go to today.”
The play of the game for the Tigers came in the second inning when the Braves had runners on second and third with one out. With the Tigers infield playing in, the Braves Julie Sherman popped her bunt attempt into the air. Tigers first baseman Marla Schweisberger dove face first, barely stretching far enough to catch the ball. She then proceeded to turn the double play by throwing to third base.
“My parents paid a lot of money for braces,” Schweisberger said laughing while recalling the face first dive.
Another risky move that paid off for Earleywine was placing Poet, who hit just .238 in the regular season, into the three spot in the Tigers' batting order. Along with hitting a home run against Illinois, Earleywine was impressed with the way the left fielder hit at practice this week.
“She had struggled with her swing,” Earleywine said of Poet. “But this week she made a mechanical adjustment in batting practice and has been hitting ropes all over the place.”
Poet continued her new found stroke in the sixth inning against the Braves, hitting an RBI double to put the Tigers up 2-0. The run proved to be the winning run. The Tigers held on to win 2-1.
The Tigers now are in the drivers seat to win their second straight NCAA Regional championship. They play against DePaul at 1 p.m. Sunday in the championship game at University Field. If the Tigers win that game, the regional championship is theirs. If they lose, they play a winner-take-all final at 3 p.m.