COLUMBIA — Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine gave his team a speech in the Tigers' first game without ace pitcher Chelsea Thomas against Oklahoma in late March.
"It gave them two options, one is to be depressed and feel sorry for yourself and to mope, and the other is to play hard," Earleywine said.
Missouri is in the NCAA tournament for the 14th time. It has won the regional tournament the past two seasons and advanced to the Women's College World Series last season.
Missouri will face familiar opponents in DePaul and Illinois who the Tigers played in the regional tournament last season which was also hosted in Columbia. The Tigers defeated both the Blue Demons and The Fighting Illini to advance to the Super Regional tournament.
DePaul: The Blue Demons (38-16) finished in a tie for the Big East regular season championship with Notre Dame, both finishing 18-3 in the conference. DePaul has made the NCAA tournament for 13th time in the past 14 years and has made four Women's College World Series appearances since 1999.
Missouri leads the series 7-6
Illinois: This is The Fighting Illini's (43-6, 16-2) fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament. The team finished second in the Big 10 behind Michigan who had a 18-1 conference record. Illinois is tied for the fewest losses in the NCAA with Washington and Michigan. The Fighting Illini are fifth in the nation with a .329 team batting average. A game between Missouri and Illinois was canceled earlier in the season because of rain.
Missouri leads the series 1-0.
Creighton: The Blue Jays got an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Blue Jay slugger Renae Sinkler is fourth in the nation with 24 home runs. Creighton ace Tara Oltman is 32-12 with a 1.62 ERA and 281 strikeouts.
Missouri leads the series 12-11
COLUMBIA REGIONAL TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE:
Friday, May 21
Game 1: Illinois vs. DePaul - 4 p.m.
Game 2: Missouri vs. Creighton - 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 22
Game 3: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2 - Noon
Game 4: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2- 2:30 p.m. (loser of game eliminated)
Game 5: Loser of Game 3 vs. Winner of Game 4 - 5 p.m. (loser of game eliminated
Sunday, May 23
Game 6: Winner of Game 3 vs. Winner of Game 5- 1 p.m.
Game 7: Loser of Game 6 vs. Winner of Game 6- 3 p.m. (if necessary)
Thomas, a sophomore, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right (throwing) wrist after pitching a complete game against Northwestern on March 21.
The injury seemed to slam the door shut on the Missouri's aspirations to make it back to the Women's College World Series after earning a trip there 2009. The pitcher is the most important player in softball, and most teams ride one dominant arm to the championship much like Earleywine thought he was going to do with Thomas at the beginning of the season. Thomas was 12-1 with 1.72 ERA in 14 appearances when she was diagnosed.
After Thomas' injury, the Tigers lost five out of their next 10 games including losing five of their first six games against Big 12 Conference opponents.
"Quite honestly for a four, five game time period there, they were feeling sorry for themselves," Earleywine said.
He had been doubtful that his ace would return this season, and this week he declared Thomas out for the season.
She had one last throwing session this week and still had slight pain in her wrist prompting Earleywine to make the decision. Thomas is eligible for a medical hardship waiver because she did not play in the second half of the season and she did not pitch in more than 30 percent of the Tigers' games. She will apply for a fifth year of eligibility.
Missouri (46-11) will host Illinois, DePaul and Creighton this weekend at University Field in a double-elimination NCAA Regional as the No. 9 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers will play Creighton at 6:30 p.m Friday.
Thomas helped the Tigers reach the WCWS last season turning in dominating performances in the regional and in the super regional tournaments against then No. 2 ranked UCLA. The Tigers will be without her 11 strikeouts per game and her ability to pitch complete games. But that does not mean the team is short on confidence going into the tournament.
"We didn't skip a beat," Missouri senior pitcher Jana Hainey said. "There's 21 other girls on the team. With everybody else it's who steps up when, instead of riding one person the whole season. We want to win regionals, win super regionals and go on to win the World Series."
Earlier in the season, the Tigers' ultimate goal was to win a national championship. But after Thomas got hurt, Earleywine asked the team if it wanted to lower its goals.
Earleywine said the team responded with a resounding, "No!"
"I guess I felt like, What was I going to do, tell them no? And override 22 kids, that wouldn't go over too well. They'd lynch me," Earleywine said. "I told them it's their season. 'I can't catch it for you, I can't hit it for you, so if that's the way you feel, go get 'em.' That's basically the way I left it."
It is not easy for a team to win without it's ace. Just ask Baylor. The Bears were ranked in the top 25 in the first half of the season and were predicted to finish third in the Big 12. But like Missouri, Baylor lost ace Whitney Canion to a stress fracture in her left (throwing wrist). The Bears finished 28-25 and missed the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers did not fall to a similar fate. After struggling the first 10 games without their ace, the Tigers have won 19 of their past 22 games including advancing to the Big 12 Tournament championship game where they lost to Oklahoma 9-0.
"We had a pretty successful tournament," sophomore Ashley Fleming said. "We are going to score runs, Chelsea being out doesn't affect our offense. There's going to be a game where Chelsea is not going to be on and same for our other pitchers. If we are scoring runs no matter who's pitching we are going to have a good chance to win."
The Tigers' offense has scored five or more runs in 19 of their past 22 games and is second in the Big 12 with a .302 team batting average. They were able to chase off Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Blaire Luna in the conference tournament scoring four runs off the Texas ace.
Earleywine said it was possible to advance deep into the postseason without a dominant ace. He cited Georgia, who advanced to the semifinals in last season's WCWS.
"Georgia made some pretty good noise last season, and I didn't feel that their ace was a dominant ace type pitcher," Earleywine said. "So because of that, it holds out hope for the Missouris of the world. I like where we are at. You can always have more talent in the circle and few more home run hitters and whatever. But I like my team. We are going to compete."
Earleywine admitted he didn't anticipate his team being in the position they are now without Thomas.
"This is actually better than what I would have expected," he said. "When it happened (Thomas' injury), I thought let's just hold on to the top 16 then you get a one seed. I didn't know if we could do that. Staying in the top 16 without an ace pitcher hard to do, and we are ninth. I'm very proud of that. The girls surprised me. I'm not going to lie."