COLUMBIA — Ashley Fleming took command of the lead for a couple minutes. Batting next, Nicole Hudson quickly erased that lead and tied things back up.
Fleming, a junior outfielder, and Hudson, a sophomore third baseman, have a little rivalry that’s been building over the course of the Missouri softball season to see who can hit the most home runs this year. Neither of them had one in Missouri’s weekend series at Nebraska, but both reached double digits with back-to-back solo home runs on April 20 at St. Louis University.
at No. 8 Missouri (38-6)
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
RADIO: KTGR/100.5 FM, 1580 AM
“She got one up on me for about two pitches in St. Louis,” Hudson said. “It was funny because as soon as she hit that, I was like, ‘Man, she’s ahead of me now.’ I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, but it just worked out that way. As soon as I rounded third base, I saw her face, and it made my day.”
Reaching 10 home runs for the season was just as important for Hudson and Fleming personally as it was in their rivalry. Hudson, who led the Tigers in home runs last season, tied her freshman mark, while Fleming overcame a mental barrier.
“Last year I hit my ninth (home run) in the Big 12 tournament, then the last however many games of the season I didn’t hit one,” Fleming said. “So I was cursed to get into the double digits.”
Hudson is no stranger to setting home-run marks. Not only did she lead the team last year as a freshman, but she holds the Missouri State High School Athletic Association record for career home runs in softball, having hit 40 in her four years at Webb City High School.
The whole season hasn’t been filled with home runs and friendly banter for Hudson, though. In the first of half of the year, she struggled to find her swing.
“As far as just raw energy and raw power, she’s got as much as anybody on our team,” coach Ehren Earleywine said about Hudson. “We’ve tried to harness that and make her a more refined and polished hitter that can hit to all fields and is mechanically sound. It just hasn’t all clicked yet. Hopefully it does, because if it does, it could be pretty scary.”
Hudson, who was an All-Big 12 second-team selection as a freshman, has improved in the second half of the season and, as Earleywine put it, has been producing the way she and the coaches expected her to.
“She’s hitting better now than she was the first half of the year, and I think that’s just because she’s not thinking anymore. She’s just batting,” Earleywine said. “I’m just going to get out of her way unless she comes to me. I don’t have any more direction for her except don’t change a thing.”
Along with her 10 home runs, Hudson is hitting .306 with 37 hits and 34 RBIs, which is second-best on the team behind Fleming’s 44 RBIs.
Hudson also picked up a Big 12 Player of the Week honor last week after going 3-for-4 with a three-run home run on April 13 at Northern Iowa, then batting .500 and driving in two runs in Missouri’s April 16 and 17 weekend series against Oklahoma.
“I mixed things around with my swing a lot and just finally found something that was comfortable,” Hudson said. “I think once I started getting some balls to fall, I just got a little more confidence, and it just seemed to roll from there.”
Fleming has appeared confident all year. In addition to leading the team in home runs and RBIs, Fleming’s .384 batting average is the best on the team, as are her 42 runs, 48 hits and 13 doubles. That production has been a pleasant surprise for Earleywine.
“I think this is the best season far and away that she’s had yet,” Earleywine said about Fleming. “With Nicole, we knew she was going to do what she’s been doing. With Ashley, I didn’t know that.”
In past seasons, Fleming struggled with her confidence, which she said is essential to her production on the field.
“She used to text me all the time, and in the texts you could just feel her self-doubt, lack of confidence,” Earleywine said. “Just starving for, I guess, me praising her. Now this year those texts are few and far between because she knows, ‘I don’t need to text anybody. I know I’m doing good.’”
Fleming, like Hudson, was a standout high school softball player, leading Silex to the state tournament for four straight years. But it wasn’t until she was recruited by Missouri to play basketball that Earleywine heard about her.
Fleming turned down a scholarship to play basketball at Missouri State because she said she always wanted to go to MU. The choice ultimately came down to which sport she wanted to play.
“I always felt more successful in softball because I was a pitcher, and I just felt like I could dominate,” Fleming said. “There was more jealousy in basketball and more problems associated with basketball."
“Also, I thought coming in there would be less running in softball. I was wrong about that,” she joked.
Fleming might have been wrong about the running, but with the way she’s been playing this season, it would be difficult to say she was wrong about choosing softball.