COLUMBIA — Last weekend, the Missouri softball players crossed off one of their preseason goals: winning the Big 12 Conference championship.
This weekend, they start to pursue their other goal: winning the national championship.
Illinois State (35-17)
vs. Missouri (46-7)
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
Because of the Tigers’ regular season success, they will start the postseason at home, hosting Illinois State, Indiana and DePaul in this weekend’s NCAA regional round. No. 5 Missouri will open play Friday against Illinois State, a team the Tigers shut out in five innings two different times this season.
But that doesn’t mean the Missouri players will be looking past their first opponent.
“We know regionals is a big deal. We’ve got to win regionals to move onto the next step,” senior second baseman Abby Vock said. “We feel like every game is going to be a challenge, even Illinois State, who we did beat before. Any team can beat you, you just have to come out ready to play.”
Coach Ehren Earleywine won’t do anything different to prepare his team for regional play than what he’s done all season. He knows each game is more important than the last, but he also knows it’s just a matter of playing another softball game.
“I use the analogy a lot of times that, ‘Hey, this is game No. 53 and it’s no different than game 11 or game 27,’” Earleywine said. “It’s softball. You can’t throw it harder, can’t run faster. When you do try to do those things, usually it plays against you. So it’s just another game.”
Earleywine’s biggest concern is keeping his highly confident team, as well as himself, from getting too cocky. Even he hasn’t been feeling the usual “anxiety” or “nervousness” he gets heading into the postseason. So he has to make sure no one, including himself, is looking ahead to future games.
“I think the general thought process is, ‘We want to get back to the World Series and do some damage there.’ And I think sometimes their minds get there before they stay here,” Earleywine said. “My job is to just remind them of the importance of this game today.”
Earleywine said he is less worried about his players’ focus this year than he has been in the past. According to him, this year’s team is the easiest he’s ever coached when it comes to preparation, which he credits to the abundance of senior leadership on the team.
One of Earleywine’s perennial team leaders at Missouri, senior outfielder Rhea Taylor, was just named to the All-Midwest First Team on Thursday morning. She was joined by junior outfielder Ashley Fleming, sophomore third baseman Nicole Hudson and sophomore pitcher Chelsea Thomas.
Senior catcher Megan Christopher was named Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year when the conference announced first and second team honors Tuesday. Christopher made it nearly impossible for opposing players to steal against the Tigers this season, so she was especially grateful for the recognition.
“I pride myself on my defensive play,” Christopher said. “I don’t come through at the plate as much as I’d like, and it’s taken a lot maturity-wise to get over that and separate my two games, offense and defense. Coach E has helped me with that a lot, giving me the confidence behind the plate that I will be playing.”
Despite Christopher’s struggles hitting this season, she played in 34 of the Tigers’ 53 games, starting 31 of those.
“You know how good she is when she’s hitting (.190) and I play her every important game,” Earleywine said. “I’m an offensive-minded guy, but she’s just that good. She really is.”
With Thomas healthy and dominating most opponents, Christopher didn’t catch for junior pitcher Kristin Nottelmann too often this season. But when Missouri played a doubleheader against Iowa State last Saturday, Nottelmann pitched the second game and Christopher said she hadn’t skipped a beat since she led the Tigers to the World Series last year.
Nottelmann will most likely have the chance to lead Missouri in its first postseason game. After her strong showing against the Cyclones, Earleywine said he will probably start Nottelmann on Friday against Illinois State.
“Not only did she give me confidence, but I think she gave herself some confidence and the team,” Earleywine said of Nottelmann’s last performance. “It’s important that the people behind you believe in you, or otherwise they’re going to be out there shaking their heads wondering why I made the decision I made. But I think everyone is confident in her.”