COLUMBIA — At the beginning of the season, Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine had five talented freshman join the team, making decisions about who to start difficult.
But there was little doubt that freshman Nicole Hudson would be on the field. Her ability to hit for power earned her a spot at third base where she has been a major contributor to the Tigers' lineup since the beginning of the season.
Hudson went 2-for-3 with a two-run home run and a double Wednesday to propel the Tigers to a 3-0 victory over Northern Iowa at University Field. The win was No. 3 Missouri's 11th in a row and pushed its record to 14-2.
In the first inning, Hudson sent a pitch sailing more than 220 feet over the center-field wall, falling just short of hitting the scoreboard. Earleywine said Hudson marked up A.L. Gustin Golf Course behind University Field during batting practice. He said her bat has helped replace the void left by last year's senior power-hitter Lindsey Ubrun, who led the Tigers with 16 home runs.
"Very few people have that special something in their barrel and she's got it," Earleywine said of Hudson. "The ball comes off her bat a little different than most girls we scout. Your going to see some amazing things from that kid in years to come. She's pretty special."
Hudson sent the Northern Iowa (9-8) outfield backpedaling on every at bat. Even her one out was a fly ball caught at the warning track. Despite her ability to hit for power, Hudson has adjusted her swing since joining the Tigers. She has worked more on contact hitting and less on hitting home runs. She learned not to drop her back elbow and has kept her hands further up the bat to help her hit the rise ball.
"You can go up there an try and play home run derby, but your swing will suffer," Earleywine said. "In batting practice it's easy to drop your hands and have an uppercut (swing) and hit home runs. But when a pitcher has a good 65-mph rise ball, you have to keep you hands up and hit the ball at more of a down angle."
In high school, Hudson played outfield and pitcher and got comfortable at both positions. Earleywine thought it was the best for the team to have her play third base, a position that was new to her.
"It was definitely weird," Hudson said. "But I will take whatever I can get to be out on the field.
Earleywine said Hudson still has a lot to learn about fielding. Her throwing accuracy is something that she has been struggling with and it showed in Wednesday's game. On one play, a routine ground ball found its way to Hudson and she threw the ball a few feet in front of first which pulled junior Catherine Lee off the bag. Lee applied the tag and got the out, but Hudson slowly walked back to third base with her head hanging down looking disappointed.
"I'm still learning slowly, but I think I'm getting better every game," Hudson said. "There are going to be some growing pains. I tend to get flustered a little bit when we are in a game. I just got to try to settle down and make good throws."
"She had gotten better, but she still has a long way to go," Earleywine said. "She'll be a good third baseman when it's all said and done."
Earleywine said she is lock to start when the Tigers start Big 12 play, and she will be a key part of their lineup.
"Nicole (Hudson) is going to be there in the next four years unless she gets injured," Earleywine said.
Hudson was not the only Tigers hitter to have an impact offensively Wednesday. Marla Schweisberger sent a home run over the left-field fence in the fifth inning capping the Tigers' victory.
Pitchers Chelsea Thomas, Jana Hainey and Kristin Nottelmann combined to pitch seven innings. Together they struck out seven batters and only issued one walk and gave up two hits. Hainey improved her record to 2-0 and Nottelmann got her first save of the season.
The Tigers will host the Children's Hospital Invitational this weekend and play five games in three days. The team will play two games Friday. It will play New Mexico at 1 p.m. and Bradley at 3 p.m. Earleywine said he plans on using all his players for the tournament and shake up the lineup.
"I told the girls to be ready everyone is going to get some opportunities," Earleywine said.