COLUMBIA — Rhea Taylor wasn’t
sure the ball she hit was going to be a home run, but that didn’t stop
her from admiring it as she ran towards first base.
“I watched that bad boy,” Taylor said. “Once I stepped on the plate, I was like ‘Oh my God.'”
With two outs in the top of the sixth inning, Taylor swung at a high and away pitch, hitting a ball that barely snuck over the left field fence. Her Missouri teammates mobbed Taylor at home plate celebrating the home run that gave the Tigers a 1-0 victory in their NCAA regional championship game against DePaul on Sunday at University Field.
The Tigers now advance to the Super Regional round, where they are set to play
UCLA, who is ranked No. 2 nationally. The two teams will play a
best-of-three series. The winner advances to the College World Series
in Oklahoma City from May 28 to June 3.
On a beautiful and sunny day, shouts of MIZ-ZOU from the Missouri dominated crowd filled the ballpark throughout Sunday's game. The win gives the Tigers back-to-back Regional championships and a school record 48 victories. Three other Tiger teams had won 47 games.
Before the home run, Blue Demon pitcher Becca Heteniak and Tiger pitcher Chelsea Thomas went back and forth in a classic pitching duel. Zero after zero was placed on the scoreboard.
Thomas, a freshman, had the Blue Demons hitters off balance the entire day. Although known primarily for her velocity, Thomas showed remarkable control throughout the game. She allowed only five hits in her 15th victory of the season.
“People catch up with speed. Even an average hitter is going to catch up with speed. But Chelsea has the ability to mix in a changeup and a rise ball,” Tiger catcher Megan Christopher said. “Her poise for a freshman is phenomenal.”
Heading into the game, the Tigers had to win just one of two games to claim the Regional crown.
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine didn’t want to take any chances. He could have waited to use Thomas, his staff ace, for a possible winner-take-all final if the Tigers lost Game 1 to the Blue Demons.
But he didn’t want to play that game. He knew Thomas would take care of business, despite being a freshman.
“This is my 16th year coaching college athletes. I don’t remember a freshman ever, not just this game, but ever since I met her, nothing fazes her,” coach Ehren Earleywine said. “She never gets too high or too low.”
Despite being the No. 2 seed, the Tigers said they knew if they played the way they are capable of playing, they would repeat as champions. However, one aspect of the Tigers play troubles Earleywine.
“The thing that is most concerning to me is our hitting,” Earleywine said.
The Tigers now advance to Super Regional, where they are set to play UCLA, who is ranked No. 2 nationally. The two teams will play a best-of-three series. The winner advances to the College World Series in Oklahoma City from May 28 to June 3.
In March, the Tigers lost to the Bruins 2-1. In the bottom of the seventh of that game, the Bruins scored on a passed ball to win the game. The Tigers players still have a sour taste in their mouths.
“It’s time to redeem ourselves,” Christopher said, who vividly remembers the passed ball as the catcher.
Despite the loss in March, Earleywine said he is confident in his team's ability.
“Chelsea (Thomas) was very dominant against them. I like our chances,” Earleywine said.
The softball team is one of many Missouri athletic programs to achieve record breaking seasons the past couple of years. Earleywine, who says his team has failed its fans the past couple of seasons at key home games, expects the winning ways to continue.
“I feel like we’ve let them down too many times. As a Missouri fan my whole life, I understand that feeling,” Earleywine said. “Mizzou athletics is on the rise.”