COLUMBIA — Early in the season, if someone had asked Missouri softball player Lisa Simmons if she expected to play in the postseason, she might have shrugged her shoulders and just said she was happy to play when given the opportunity.
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine gave her that opportunity this weekend in the super regional round of the NCAA tournament against Oregon. Simmons, scored the winning run the Tigers 1-0 victory in Game 1 on Saturday. In Game 2, she sparked a Tigers offense that has been relatively quiet in the postseason averaging just 2.8 runs in its past four postseason games.
In the top of the fourth inning, Simmons hit her second career home run off Oregon ace Jessica Moore. The ball sailed into the bleachers behind the right-field fence, putting the Tigers head 3-1. It turned out to be the deciding run in a 7-2 victory over Oregon on Sunday at University Field that gave Missouri the super regional victory and sends the Tigers to the Women's College World Series for the second year in the row. The Tigers' offense totaled 10 hits in the victory and they improved to 51-11 to break the school record for wins in a season.
"Something just changed for me, and coach E was like, 'Lisa change your bat angle.'" Simmons said. "It was just a little bit of luck and a little bit of hard work."
After Missouri recorded the final out, the players spilled onto the field exchanging hugs and jumping up and down. They took a victory lap around the field giving high fives to fans along the way. They ended up meeting in on the pitcher's circle embracing the moment as confetti rained down and the players held up their super regional championship trophy.
"Just to be home and celebrate with our fans was a great feeling," Missouri pitcher Kristin Nottelmann said.
It was a gratifying moment for Simmons who only had 12 starts coming into the super regional round. Earlier in the season, she was used as a defensive replacement late in games. After some adjustments to her swing, she began to show Earleywine solid swings in batting practice prompting the starts this weekend.
"Lisa had a really good week of practice and looked good in our Wednesday intersquad," Earleywine said. "Lisa is a good drop ball hitter and their ace was primarily a drop ball pitcher, so we felt it was a good matchup. She made us look really smart both days."
Simmons is just one example of Earleywine giving players opportunities to start. Last season Earleywine said junior Kathryn Poet sat the majority of the regular season then peaked during the postseason. Luckily for the Tigers, he gave Simmons that same chance.
"She has come far, and I think the message for our players is that you can get your chance at any time," Earleywine said. "If you watch what happened to Poet and watched what happened to Lisa Simmons, you will be ready."
Missouri never trailed in the game. The Tigers put the game away with a four-run sixth highlighted by a solo home run from freshman Nicole Hudson. The shot flew over the right field fence and reached the A.L. Gustin Golf Course.
"As soon as she came around, I high-fived her and said thank you," said Nottelmann, who was the winning pitcher in all five of the Tigers' NCAA tournament games. "I needed a little more run support, and I asked her for it and she gave it back to me starting that big rally. It was a big hit."
Nottelmann (25-7) has been stellar for the Tigers in the tournament, posting a .087 ERA in the five postseason games. Sunday, she pitched her fourth straight complete game, allowing one earned run on eight hits and striking out four batters.
Earleywine, a Missouri native, has helped establish Missouri as a national power. He said it was always his dream to do that in his home state. Last year, he said the team was just happy to make the WCWS, and they were the first team eliminated. He said the team was awe struck by being there.
This season, Earleywine said he vows not to make the same mistake.
"We need to enjoy this and not get too caught up in the World Series yet," he said. "Starting tomorrow, we need to reset our goals. Last year, our goal was to get to the World Series, and it was my fault once we got there that I never sat the team back down and said 'OK we're here now, so let's reset our goals and win some games.' But now you're one year smarter. I'm better for that, and a lot of our players from last year will make some adjustments too."
The Tigers will head to Oklahoma City to appear in their fifth WCWS in the 35 years of the program. Missouri will play Hawaii at noon Thursday in the first round.