MU softball focused on winning national championship

Thursday, February 10, 2011 | 7:38 p.m. CST; updated 7:05 p.m. CST, Monday, February 14, 2011
Missouri's Rhea Taylor takes batting practice on Thursday. Taylor led the Big 12 and set a Missouri record with a .452 batting average in 2010. Taylor hit .404 in 2009 and a Missouri freshman record .402 in 2008, when she became the first Tiger to win the Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

COLUMBIA — Not only is it written on the white board in the locker room, but it’s the response you get time and again when talking with Missouri’s softball players and coach: “2011 national champions. Believe it.”

Only it’s not just talk, they do believe it.

Saturday's game, Black and Gold exhibition

When: 3 p.m.

Where: Devine Pavilion

Admission: Free

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The softball team is one confident group, and it has every reason to be. It is ranked No. 7 in preseason polls, and it has reached the Women’s College World Series the past two years. Missouri returns 17 players this year, eight of whom started last year.

Missouri received mention in an ESPN article as the (not-so) sleeper pick to win the whole thing this year.

Coach Ehren Earleywine has no reason to disagree.

“We feel like it’s a realistic thing to shoot for with our personnel,” Earleywine said. “We feel like we’re a pretty balanced team and pretty experienced team. We feel like if we play good and stay healthy, we do have a chance.”

Senior outfielder Rhea Taylor has been one of the team leaders since she became Missouri's first softball player to win Big 12 Freshman of the Year. She’s played on some pretty good teams, like last year's 51-13 Tigers and 2009's 50-12 team. Taylor said this is “by far” the most talented team she’s been a part of at MU.

“We have so much depth, and we all work together as a team,” Taylor said. “I say this every single year, … but I’m being truthful this time, really truthful.”

Still, Missouri does have a few things to prove. The Tigers lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship last year, and the league announced a few weeks ago that Missouri is projected to finish second to the Sooners again in 2011. The Tigers have also been swept in the first round both times they've made the world series.

This year’s team is different, Earleywine said. A combination of talent and experience makes this year’s team the best he’s coached at MU, he said, and he thinks the Tigers can play deeper into the world series than in the two previous seasons.

“If you look at the lineups from those two years, they were vastly different,” Earleywine said. “We essentially took two completely different teams to the world series.”

With so many returning players, that won’t be an issue this year. Missouri is nearly the same team as it was last year — just hungrier and more confident.

“The whole team has the same exact goals: win the Big 12 and win the national championship,” Taylor said.

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