COLUMBIA — Entering Big 12 Conference play, this year's Missouri softball team is in a similar position to last season.
The records are nearly identical (25-3 in 2009, 22-3 this season), and Missouri's fielding is as strong as it was last season with fewest errors in the conference (23 in 2009, 17 this season). The team ERAs are not too far off either ( .096 in 2009, .177 this season).
No. 3 Missouri (22-3) at No. 12 Oklahoma (25-6)
WHEN: 2 p.m.
WHERE: Norman, Okla.
FACT: At the beginning of the season, Big 12 Conference coaches picked Oklahoma to finish first in the conference, while Missouri was picked to finish second.
But the Tigers have played a much tougher schedule this year than it did last year. Nine of the Tiger's first 10 games were played against opponents ranked in the top 25. Coach Ehren Earleywine said the two teams are similar but said he thinks this year's team has a better shot of winning the Big 12 regular season title.
"Emotionally they're ready," Earleywine said. "We played a tougher schedule at the beginning of this year, and that benefit is a plus for us. It is a better preparation phase as opposed to the teams we played last year. For whatever reason, right now I feel we are a better team."
The Tigers have good reason to be confident with sophomore Chelsea Thomas as their ace. She has helped anchor the Tigers' pitching which is second in the Big 12 in team ERA and fifth in shutouts (9).
Thomas has dominated opposing lineups and is in the top 10 of most Big 12 pitching categories. She has a 12-1 record (fifth), striking out 123 batters (fourth), and posting a 1.72 ERA (10th) in 77 1/3 innings.
This season, Thomas has added variety to her pitch selection with a rise ball in addition to a drop ball and changeup she threw last season. The rise ball has become her out pitch and is big reason for her already surpassing last season's strikeout total of 116. Thomas said she has improved a lot since last season.
"I am getting more control of it (her rise ball)," Thomas said. "It's beneficial that I have two pitches now that I can throw for strikes. The experience I got playing in the World Series last year and the Super Regionals was really beneficial for me."
Thomas has battled numbness in her wrist, soreness and fatigue this season, which caused the coaching staff to limit her pitch count in some games. Last season, Thomas missed all but two Big 12 games because of tightness in her right (throwing) shoulder. She alternated starts with former Missouri pitcher Stacy Delaney in the postseason and was the starter in Thomas' absence. This season, the Tigers expect Thomas to start the majority of their conference games, and the coaching staff is beaming with confidence in her.
"I think Chelsea does what she needs to do. She's fine, she can pitch against anyone in the country," Missouri assistant coach Pete D'Amour said. "She beat UCLA last year as a freshman, and you don't see that very often. She knows she can beat anybody. That's as confident as you can get."
One concern Earleywine has is the team's offense. The Tigers have a .292 team batting average (eighth) and have the third fewest home runs in the conference (21). At times, the team has had trouble making contact, but Earleywine said it had an impressive offensive performance in their last game against Northwestern. The team scored five runs on six hits off Lauren Delaney, who Earleywine said is a "World Series caliber pitcher."
"Against Northwestern, they showed me that they can put a very good pitcher in play consistently," Earleywine said. "I was really encouraged by that. I thought 'girls if you can do this off this kid who is throwing 70 mph, you can do it off anybody.'"
"I don't think we've hit as well as we can," senior Gina Schneider said. "I've seen this team hit. If we were all on at the same time it would be kind of scary. When out bats are alive, I think we are unstoppable."
Winning against Big 12 teams will not come easy for the Tigers. Six out of the 10 conference teams are ranked in the top 25. All 10 teams combined are 223-83, and only have one team has a losing record (Kansas, 14-15).
The Tigers will face a tough conference test right away when they play two games against Oklahoma (26-7) starting Saturday. Oklahoma was picked to finish first by conference coaches at the beginning of the season with Missouri at second.
"I think Oklahoma is a great program, and I have a lot of respect for them," Earleywine said. "They deserve all the credit and the attention they receive. I think they have a similar respect for us. It's very exciting no matter who you're starting conference play with. But to be starting it with these two teams adds a little bit of an adrenaline rush."