COLUMBIA — The Missouri softball team was watching the NCAA Tournament selection show on television after last week's Big 12 Conference tournament. The team did not take too kindly to an ESPN analyst's prediction that had Illinois winning this weekend's Columbia Regional.
Missouri sophomore pitcher Kristin Nottelmann said the prediction served as extra motivation, but there was a little more to it than that.
"Any regional you play your going to be motivated, " Nottelmann said. "But they did pick Illinois, and Illinois was kind of talking some smack on us. It was just good to show them that's why we are the No. 1 team, and that's why we come to the postseason."
Missouri humbled any smack-talkers from Illinois with a 4-2 victory over the Illini in Sunday's regional championship game at University Field. In the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and a runner on second, Missouri shortstop Jenna Marston snagged a sharp grounder and fired the ball to first beating diving Illinois runner Danielle Zymkowitz by a split second.
As soon as the first base umpire swung her fist down, Tigers first baseman Catherine Lee threw the ball high in the air and jumped and raised her fist in celebration.
It was a jubilant afternoon for No. 9 overall-seed Missouri (49-11) who won its third straight NCAA regional championship. The Tigers advance to next weekend's super regionals against Oregon (36-19), which upset No. 8 overall seed Georgia Tech.
In a postgame press conference, Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine couldn't help but take a shot at ESPN for predicting that Illinois would win the regional.
"First of all I'd like to give a shout out to all the people at ESPN who predicted Illinois to emerge from this regional tournament," Earleywine said, drawing laughter from reporters.
The game started out as a sloppy one for Missouri, which committed three errors in the first two innings. Tigers outfielder Ashley Fleming sailed a throw over the head of catcher Megan Christopher trying to get an Illinois runner out at home after a single. The ball ricocheted of the backstop allowing Zymkowitz to score easily and tie the game at 1.
"We didn't make very many plays today quite honestly," Earleywine said. "We looked like a bad softball team, and we were lucky to win. I thought for sure when that stuff was happening, if the day continues like that we are going to go two games."
But Earleywine didn't take a completely pessimistic view.
"It's nice to know that you can win and still not play good that builds confidence," he said.
The Tigers bounced back in the third inning. Taylor led off with a triple and later scored on a single from Lee to put the Tiger ahead 2-1. Then came one of the biggest plays of the game. Marston hit a grounder to Illinois third baseman Kelley Wedel, who hesitated before firing the ball over the second baseman into the outfield. The error allowed pinch-runner Jaydee Young to score from first and Marston to advance to third and later score on a single by freshman Nicole Hudson to put the Tigers ahead for good.
Nottelmann (22-7) pitched her second complete game of the tournament, allowing one earned run on four hits, one walk and three strikeouts. She won all three regional games for Missouri.
Earlier in the season, after Tigers ace Chelsea Thomas was sidelined for the season with a stress fracture, Earleywine said he had doubts that Nottelmann could pitch in big games. He said she often got nervous and didn't pitch well under pressure. But after Earleywine saw her throw in the tournament, he had a different view of the Tigers' tournament hero.
"Honestly, I didn't think she had it in her to throw three games in a weekend of that caliber," Earleywine said. "I learned a lot about Kristin Nottelmann this weekend. That's a beautiful thing for us. Not just this year, but the next two years."