COLUMBIA — Last season, Chelsea Thomas, the ace of the Missouri softball team, was able to come back from a bicep injury in time for the Big 12 Conference tournament. This year she is not as fortunate.
She was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right wrist two months ago and will not pitch in this year's tournament. Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said he is doubtful she will return and she will likely apply for a medical hardship wavier which would give her an additional year of eligibility. He said he is likely to announce a decision after the Tigers find out its seed in the NCAA Tournament.
BIG 12 SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT
No. 5 seed Missouri (44-10, 11-7) vs. No. 4 seed Oklahoma State (43-13, 12-6)
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Oklahoma City
"If the pain is gone, we are going to run an MRI and bone scan probably tomorrow (Thursday) or Friday," Earleywine said Wednesday. "If it goes much further past that, I don't think it's worth trying."
Thomas is 12-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 14 appearances this season. When the Tigers played their first game without Thomas, Earleywine tried to keep up the team's morale.
"He basically said 'Even though she's gone, we have to be the same team that we were,'" Tigers junior Rhea Taylor said. "Just because one player gets hurt doesn't mean that we aren't the same team that we were. Our other pitchers might not shut down teams like she used to, but we still have to hit and make plays."
The Tigers went 32-9 this season without their ace.
"If that's considered a down year for Missouri softball, we're in a pretty good position," Earleywine said. "This is one of the best coaching jobs that I've done. You go 32-9 without Chelsea Thomas ... I told my staff they should be coaching staff of the year."
Despite not having its ace for the Big 12 Tournament, the team is not lacking motivation.
Missouri (44-10, 11-7) will go into the tournament as the No. 5 seed and will play No. 4 seed Oklahoma State (43-13, 12-6) at 2 p.m. Saturday in Oklahoma City, Okla. Oklahoma State swept Missouri at University Field a month ago. After dropping both games to the Cowgirls, the Tigers said they had a hollow feeling.
"At home, beat us twice, didn't play well, we were standing there looking at each like what just happened," Earleywine said. " I don't know what the girls said, but I speak for myself in saying if we could pick one team (to play) it would be OSU. We absolutely cannot wait to play them."
Earleywine said he remembered outfielder Lisa Simmons shouting "Revenge!" during a team huddle after practice Wednesday.
"The girls haven't forgot about it," Earleywine said.
"When we found out we were going to play Oklahoma State, I was like alright time for payback," Missouri pitcher Kristin Nottelmann said.
In two games, Cowgirl pitchers Kat Espinosa (19-5, 1.53 ERA) and Anna Whiddon (21-7, 2.21 ERA) held the Tigers to three runs and seven hits. Earleywine said he thinks the Tigers are a better team than they were that weekend and rightfully so.
Since the Oklahoma State series, the No. 8 Missouri offense has been on a tear, averaging 7.1 runs per game while increasing its team batting average from .284 to .302 for second in the Big 12.
The Tigers are getting consistent offensive production from Taylor, sophomore Ashley Fleming and freshman Jenna Marston, who all have batting averages greater than .350. But to win the tournament, Earleywine said there are two other players that need to hit well.
"I think the x-factor right now would be either (Nicole) Hudson or (Catherine) Lee," he said. "If one of those kids gets comfortable, they can both carry (an offense)."
The same could be said of senior Gina Schneider who struggled earlier in the season. She had as low as a .235 batting average before changing her batting stance. Since the change, she has increased her batting average to .283.
"I've found a way to relax and get more comfortable out there," Schneider said. "The last few games, I've been hitting pretty well, and if I can continue that in the postseason, I can say it was a successful season."
Missouri won the Big 12 tournament last year, but it will not be easy to repeat. The Big 12 has five teams in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Poll, which is third most in the NCAA behind the Pac 10 (7) and the SEC (6). But Earleywine said he would feel comfortable just defeating Oklahoma State in the first round because it would put them in a good position to host a regional tournament.
"If you don't win the first game, you put yourself in a position to where the committee could make you a two seed," Earleywine said. "If you do win the first game against OSU, then being a top 15 team ... I don't know how that could not make you a one seed."