COLUMBIA — The Tigers were done.
That's what Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine said people thought about his team halfway through the season. When Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her throwing wrist in March, Earleywine said people counted the Tigers out, assuming they had no chance of returning to the Women's College World Series.
vs. Missouri (49-11)
WHEN: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: University Field
Thomas was supposed to be the dominant pitcher that would carry the Tigers back to the WCWS after advancing to the tournament in 2009. Earleywine planned using her for most of the team's Big 12 Conference games and for the majority of the postseason. She was key to the Tigers' run last year and started this season 12-1 with a 1.72 ERA. She gave fans plenty of reasons to hope for another successful season.
Earleywine said the team was getting a lot of hype this season, but after Thomas was sidelined, everything changed. On Wednesday, Earleywine waved away reporters with his hands and walked away, imitating what he thought media did after Thomas' injury.
"One minute we were bring talked about, then they are like, 'Oh Mizzou softball, I'm going to go over here and cover this sport now,'" he said. "I just stopped hearing about us."
Earleywine said he was angry that people cast aside any hopes of Missouri going deep into the postseason. But even he was guilty of having his doubts.
"Let me be 100 percent honest, first of all when Chelsea went down, I thought it was really doubtful that we will win a national championship," Earleywine said. "I still thought at that point if we squeeze every bit of juice out them that we got, maybe we can win a regional."
The Tigers did just that. They won all three games they played in the NCAA regional tournament held at University Field last weekend. Missouri (49-11) defeated Creighton once and Illinois twice to advance to the super regionals where they will play a best two-out-of-three series against Oregon (36-19) starting at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at University Field.
Last season, the Tigers had two dominant pitchers for the postseason. Thomas and Stacy Delaney, who are No. 3 and No. 1 respectively on Missouri's all-time winning percentage list. Being without a dominant ace allowed Earleywine to take more satisfaction in winning the regional tournament this season.
"Last year, I felt we should win the regional, and this year I felt there were four teams that could win the regional," Earleywine said after winning the regional championship Sunday.” "To win the regional with this bunch of kids was a thumbs up."
After Thomas' injury, Earleywine was willing to lower the team's goal of winning a national championship and asked his players if they wanted to do that. They rejected his offer. The players never lost confidence.
"It's not surprising," junior Rhea Taylor said. "A lot of people thought we weren't going to come this far and get past regionals. I think it's a lot of BS because even though we lost Chelsea, because she is not our whole team, we deserve this. We worked our hardest to get here."
Missouri pitchers Jana Hainey and Kristin Nottelmann have shared the role of top pitcher the second half of this season. Earleywine said Nottelmann she wasn’t immediately receptive to being in the spotlight. She compiled a 3-4 record and an ERA above 4.00 in her first seven games against conference opponents.
"The lights were too bright for her at first. They just hit her right in the eyes," Earleywine said.
But in the postseason, Nottelmann has shined. She won all three games in the regional tournament emerging as the Tigers' new ace. Missouri assistant coach Pete D'Amour said her pitches were in the low-60s mid-season, but have recently increased to the mid-60s, which makes a big difference. He said he thinks she could be an ace on most college softball teams.
"I think she has just grown up," D'Amour said. "I remember telling her in a game against Oklahoma, 'It's your time to step up, this is why you are here.' There is a lot of fire in her, or else she wouldn't be here."