COLUMBIA – Fox Sports Net, ESPN, Gary Pinkel and a crowd that is expected to be at full capacity will all be taking notice of Missouri athletics this weekend.
The No. 9 Mizzou softball team hosts No. 14 Oklahoma for a two-game weekend series. Fox Sports Net is televising Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game, while ESPN is carrying Sunday’s 3 p.m. game, when football coach Gary Pinkel will be throwing out the first pitch.
No. 9 Missouri (33-5, 7-1)
vs. No. 14 Oklahoma (33-11, 6-3)
WHEN: 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
While it may be more hype and coverage than the softball team usually receives, the Missouri players have far more important factors motivating them before the games against Oklahoma.
“Personally, I’ve been waiting to get back at them since the second we walked off the field in Oklahoma City,” sophomore third baseman Nicole Hudson said. “They’re our biggest rivals and it’s just a really great matchup.”
Last season’s game in Oklahoma City was the last time the two teams played, when Oklahoma won the Big 12 tournament championship. And the Sooners (33-11, 6-3) didn’t just beat the Tigers (33-5, 7-1), they shut them out 9-0 in six innings.
As a freshman, Oklahoma’s Keilani Ricketts struck out 11 Missouri players in that game, while giving up just three hits. Naturally, the Tigers can’t wait to step up to the plate to face her Saturday.
“I think I’ve had dreams about some of her pitches,” Hudson said. “I’ve been waiting to get another crack at her and I’m ready to go.”
Coach Ehren Earleywine said the coaches have done everything they could this week to prepare their team to face Ricketts. Still, he admitted hitting against her will be a test for his players.
“I always compare hitting to guys that ride in the rodeo. It’s like, you rate the bull and you get more points when you ride the tough bull. Ricketts is a tough bull,” Earleywine said. “If you do well off her, those are the points that really count, those are when you’re going to get your highest marks. Anybody can get base hits and have good days when you’re playing a mid-week doubleheader against a mid-major team and the score’s 7-1. But when you’re facing a left-hander who throws 70-plus, how are you going to do that? That’s the true test of great hitters.”
If Hudson keeps hitting the way she has recently, then the Tigers should expect to have some success. In the last five games, Hudson has hit three home runs, including a three-run shot to left centerfield in Wednesday’s game, bringing her total to nine on the season and tying her with junior outfielder Ashley Fleming as the team leaders.
“I tell her (Fleming) I should be beating her because I got one taken away in North Texas,” Hudson said. “Rhea led off early so they called me back after I hit one. So I tell her I’m really in the lead.”
As if Missouri needed any more motivation heading into the weekend, its 30-game home winning streak, the longest in the country, is on the line against Oklahoma. The players said no one ever talks about it, but senior first baseman Catherine Lee admitted that it’s in the back of everyone’s mind.
“It’s definitely a huge sense of pride,” Lee said. “This is our house and we want to defend it, so we definitely don’t want Oklahoma coming in here and taking away our winning streak. That would just be a bit devastating.”
Not only did Oklahoma beat Missouri in the Big 12 tournament championship last season, but the Sooners have also finished atop the conference at the conclusion of the regular season the past two years.
“We have a lot of respect for their program,” Earleywine said. “They do a fantastic job. We want to be the best, and to be the best you’ve got to beat the best. They’ve hit us with some pretty solid punches over the past four years. Kids don’t forget that and coaches don’t forget it. We’ve been anticipating this all year. We can’t wait.”
Oklahoma was picked to finish first in the Big 12 again this season. Lee said she knows Oklahoma’s good, but she disagrees with the preseason projections.
“I believe they’ve been picked to finish first the last two years,” she said. “One year that was true, but in the end we went further. I just want to point that out. I don’t really understand why that’s the case, why they keep getting picked over and over, because they keep getting proved wrong and we hope to continue that trend this weekend.”
Lee also mentioned she hopes Pinkel can show up Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops when he takes the mound.
“Stoops threw out the first pitch at Oklahoma and he did awful. I don’t know if he even made it to the plate,” Lee said. “So we hear that GP’s (Pinkel) been practicing. We’re just really hoping that he’s got his game on because he can’t look bad.”
While honored that Pinkel will throw out the first pitch, Earleywine said he isn’t too concerned if the football coach comes up short, he’s just concerned that his team doesn’t.