COLUMBIA — Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine didn't hesitate to add extra games to the Tigers' schedule to ensure ace pitcher Chelsea Thomas would be eligible for a medical hardship waiver and an extra season of eligibility.
Thomas, a sophomore, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right (throwing) wrist after pitching a game against Northwestern on March 21. She could potentially miss the rest of the season, so Earleywine added two games against Central Methodist and one game against Missouri S&T to help his chances to keep Thomas around for an extra season.
"There may be some people that might have a problem with that," Earleywine said after last Thursday's game against Central Methodist. "But at the end of the day it's my program, and I have to keep what's in the best interest of all of us. To me it's a no-brainer. If you burn a year of Chelsea Thomas' eligibility because you didn't schedule two or three games then you're an absolute idiot."
A medical hardship waiver grants an extra-year of competition to a student-athlete if he or she suffers an injury or illness that is too severe to return for that season. Proper medical documentation from a medical doctor must be presented in order for the waiver to be granted.
According to NCAA rules regarding team sports, a student athlete must meet two requirements to be eligible for the waiver:
- The injury or illness has to occur before the first game of the second half of the season.
- The injury or illness has to occur before the student athlete has participated in three contests or dates of competition or 30 percent (whichever number is greater).
The percent is calculated by dividing the number of games the athlete participated in by one of three options:
- number of scheduled games before the season
- number completed varsity contests
- number of dates of competition completed
The same three options determine the denominator in calculating if the student-athlete was injured before the second half of the season.
The Northwestern game was the Tigers' 25th of their originally 54 scheduled games (46 percent), which includes the Big 12 Conference tournament which counts as one game. It was her 14th appearance in a game (26 percent).
Three games were canceled earlier in the season for the softball team. Earleywine said the Missouri compliance staff informed him rainouts count against the original games scheduled, and that if there were two more rainouts Thomas might not be eligible for the waiver. So Earleywine chose to aim for "completed contest" option, scheduling three extra games to give Thomas a five-game cushion for potential canceled games.
NCAA rules allow teams to add extra games as long as the number does not exceed 56 games. The games also have to be played against team's outside of the institution. Mary Ann Austin, MU's associate director of compliance, said teams at the university have scheduled extra games before to ensure an injured player could be eligible for the waiver.
According to Austin, games canceled by rainouts do not count against the original games scheduled. Rainouts only count against the number completed contests and dates of competition completed. So if Earleywine chose the scheduled games option, Thomas would be eligible for the waiver.
The team has not requested a medical hardship waiver for Thomas yet. Should the Tigers decide to apply for a medical hardship waiver the request must be sent to Keri Boyce, Compliance Director for the Big 12 Conference. She determines if the waiver is granted based on the NCAA criteria. The university has 60 days after the conclusion of the season to submit the wavier request form.
If she denies it, a team can submit an a request form to the NCAA Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement. The committee can overrule the conference's decision, approving the waiver if circumstances warrant relief from the waiver criteria.
Last week, Earleywine said he is doubtful Thomas will return this season, but hopes to bring her back for the postseason. Thomas missed most of last season with a bicep injury, but returned in time for the postseason. She was instrumental in the Tigers' run to the Women's College World Series. Thomas appeared in 24 games and posted a 16-7 record with a 1.65 ERA and 116 strikeouts including three wins in the NCAA tournament.
Earlier in the season, Earleywine said he was going to depend on Thomas to pitch the majority of Big 12 and postseason games. If she can't return, it would deal a heavy blow to the Tigers' chances of reappearing in the Women's College World Series. Before the injury, the Tigers were 22-3 with a .177 team ERA. Since the injury, the Tigers are 14-5 with a .209 team ERA. This season Thomas is 12-1 with 1.72 ERA and 123 strikeouts.
"I talked to our trainer this morning about her," Earleywine said. "She (the trainer) anticipates the pain being gone within two weeks. At that point, once the pain is gone, we'll do an MRI and a bone scan to see if the fracture is gone. If it is, at that point well let her throw some in the bullpen. Two weeks from now, we will be able to make a lot better decision. We are just hoping the doctor will surprise us."
If Thomas does return, Earleywine said he thinks it will be after the Big 12 regular season, around May 9.