COLUMBIA — On a team with nine seniors and eight starters coming back from last year, it was the return of a sophomore that was most highly anticipated Saturday at the Missouri softball team’s annual Black and Gold exhibition game.
Chelsea Thomas, who was forced to miss the majority of last season after suffering a stress fracture in her throwing wrist in March, was back on the mound starting a game for the first time in 11 months.
As far as how she performed, coach Ehren Earleywine said Thomas looked “average.”
“And that’s the way you’re supposed to look in February, especially a kid who just started pitching at Christmas,” Earleywine said.
Thomas gave up nine hits, five runs and two earned runs in five innings pitched as her Gold team fell to the Black team 6-2. Aside from having to shake off some rust, Thomas was also up against Missouri’s probable starting lineup, facing teammates who promise to be among the best hitters in the country this year.
One of Thomas’ numbers did make everyone happy, though. Earleywine said the radar gun clocked her right-handed pitches at 70-plus mph numerous times.
And even more important, Thomas felt no pain after the game.
“I felt great today,” Thomas said. “My arm is doing really good. I’m back up to my speed, back from last year, so that made me really excited today.”
After the exhibition, Earleywine explained that he and the staff had a revelation Friday concerning Thomas’ injury. They finally figured out the cause.
After throwing 30 minutes’ worth of rise ball pitches on Tuesday, Thomas was so sore she didn’t practice Wednesday. Then, when she was feeling better Thursday, Thomas threw again, but this time she mixed rise balls in with other types of pitches. Come Friday, there was zero pain, Earleywine said.
“It’s the consecutive rise balls that have contributed to the stress fracture,” he said. “And once we’ve now identified that, it was like a ‘Wahoo’ moment. Now we know what to do.”
Thomas received a medical hardship waiver at the end of last season, giving her another year of eligibility. But after the stellar start she had, the injury was hard for Thomas to handle.
“I was devastated,” Thomas said at practice Thursday. “I had to find a way to stay positive for my team, and I tried to throw myself into anything I could possibly do to help. I kind of felt helpless.”
As much as Thomas’ return means to the softball team, Earleywine said knows it means even more to her.
“As happy as I am for the program, I’m probably even happier for her because of all she’s been through,” Earleywine said at Thursday’s practice. “It’s been hell on her. All last year watching everyone else participating and having microphones stuck in her face for so long. … It’s not just a physical thing; it’ll beat you down mentally.”
To ensure history doesn’t repeat itself, Thomas has been on a pitch count since recovering and said she and the team have taken all the necessary precautions to keep her healthy.
Senior outfielder Rhea Taylor has given Thomas plenty of her own unsolicited advice, too.
“I’ve been on her all year, like, ‘Look, you need to be in a bubble. You don’t need to go anywhere, you don’t need to do anything,'" she said. "'The minute that you’re sore, you need to go into the training room.’”
If there was one person who benefited from Thomas’ injury, it was pitcher Kristin Nottelmann. After Thomas was hurt, Nottelmann emerged as the team’s ace. She went on to lead the Tigers back to the Women’s College World Series and picked up plenty of valuable experience along the way.
Now, Nottelmann is excited to see Thomas healthy and pitching again.
“My partner in crime is back, so I don’t have to do it all by myself this year,” Nottelmann said. “I think it’s going to be a one-two punch this year, and I’m really excited about that."
In Saturday's exhibition, Nottelmann picked up right where she left off at the end of last season, giving up just two hits and no runs in five innings. Thomas said having Nottelmann as a teammate relieves the pressure on her.
"If we didn’t have a great pitcher like Kristin on the squad, I would almost feel bad having to take time off," Thomas said.
Having two pitchers capable of leading his team to the College World Series is a rare luxury that Earleywine said he's more than happy to have.
“Once in a blue moon you’ll see a team with two studs,” Earleywine said. “They’re each other’s best friend because they’re going to keep each other healthy.”