COLUMBIA — The Missouri softball team is coming off one of its most successful seasons. The Tigers won 50 games and made it to the NCAA Women's College World Series.
Despite the success, Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine said he made a mistake last season.
Intrasquad competition at 2 p.m. Saturday indoors at Devine Pavilion
"I came in to the first day of practice and told them we were going to the College World Series," Earleywine said. " We got there then just stopped there. Now that we have gotten that far, we will be looking to do some damage this season. We have the talent to compete at that level, and we can realistically win it all."
This year the expectations are even higher for the team, and it shows in its ranking and schedule. The Tigers are No. 9 in the preseason ESPN.com/USA Softball Division I poll. The schedule is also significantly tougher with season openers against Alabama, Arizona and Michigan, which are all ranked in the top seven. Alabama and Michigan both made the Women's College World Series last year, and Earleywine attributes last year's success to the more difficult schedule.
"I felt this was the right season for a schedule like that," Earleywine said. "You have to rub shoulders with the big boys in order to get to that level. There is that fear of losing early and getting into a tailspin. These kids understand the bigger picture involved. People are more aware of us this season. Fans may be wondering if we were a flash in the pan or a one hit wonder. We are not."
Fifteen players return for the Tigers including starting pitcher Chelsea Thomas, who was a significant part of the Tigers' run last season. The Iowa native posted a 16-7 record and a 1.47 ERA, which was third best in the Big 12. She also managed to strike out 166 batters and posted 10 shutouts, which included two no-hitters.
Thomas said last season she depended primarily on one pitch, the drop ball. This season she is working on two pitches the rise ball and change up. She also has increased her expectations for the team this season.
"We aren't only going to make it (to the Women's College World Series), but we are going to win it," Thomas said. "Right off the bat we are playing two World Series teams. It will help us prepare for postseason play. I have a good feeling this is going to be a good year."
Outfielder Rhea Taylor was another key part of last year's team. The junior had 72 hits and 36 stolen bases which led the Big 12 last season. Taylor had hip soreness her first two seasons which caused her to miss some games. Earleywine said she feels OK this season and she will be an important factor for the Tigers.
"I feel this bunch is even better than last year's team," Taylor said. "We have new infielders, better power, speed and depth than last year. I would like to be an all-American again this year, and I want to get 10,000 times better than last year."
The team brought in six freshman, two of which Earleywine said will make an immediate impact. Third baseman Nicole Hudson and second baseman Jenna Marston are both possible starters.
"She (Marston) does everything above average," Earleywine said. "Nicole hits with great power. She can get us 12 to 15 home runs right away."
The Tigers will warmup before the start of the season Saturday with the annual Black and Gold game. The team opens the season against No. 2 Alabama on Feb. 13 and 14 in Tucaloosa, Ala.