COLUMBIA — By fourth grade, Chelsea Thomas was throwing so hard that rival Little League teams would stop sending kids into the batter’s box. And she had only started pitching earlier that year. When no one else on her team could pitch, she volunteered.
By high school, when Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine visited Pleasantville, Iowa, to see her in person, she was throwing with enough velocity to force him to recalibrate his radar gun. Seventy-four miles per hour? In a routine bullpen session, for a high school pitcher? That speed just couldn’t be right. So he stopped her and made sure the gun was accurate.
No. 5 Missouri (50-8, 15-3)
vs. No. 12 Washington (37-14, 9-12)
WHEN: 8 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
RADIO: KTGR 100.5 FM/1580 AM
It was. And when she started up again, the miles per hour hadn’t changed much.
"I think I got a little adrenaline rush," Thomas said, laughing. "My dad hid it from me the night before, and then he told me to come to practice early. And then he told me to start warming up before practice, and I didn't know why. Then he said the Missouri coach was here to see me. It was a dream come true."
After a while, Earleywine stopped her again. He had seen enough. He offered "the flamethrower," as he called her, a scholarship.
Four years later, he ended up with arguably the best pitcher in the country. Thomas is one of three finalists for NCAA Player of the Year and the only pitcher on the list. The redshirt sophomore’s .82 ERA ranks second in the nation, and the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year owns a school record with 342 strikeouts on the year.
Earleywine says that once Thomas gets more experience, she could be the best who has ever pitched. She is already Missouri’s best chance at advancing through the weekend’s NCAA Columbia Super Regional against Washington.
“I’ve always told my girls, if you score four-plus runs with Chelsea on the mound, you’re going to win,” Earleywine said.
Thomas echoed that confidence.
"If we can score first, it's pretty much, for me, a done deal," she said. "If we can score first, we're gonna win the ball game."
Last Sunday, when the Tigers faced elimination in a doubleheader against DePaul, Thomas threw seven innings and gave up one run on four hits. In the second game, she no-hit the Blue Demons.
“She's a complete pitcher,” said Doug Gillis, an independent pitching consultant for Missouri. “She can win with a lot of strikeouts and she can win with hardly any strikeouts. She can beat any opponent.”
That wasn’t always the case.
“She was a project,” Gillis said. “Nobody had ever heard of her.”
When Thomas first signed with Missouri, she had good velocity and control on her drop ball and little else. Earleywine said his staff knew she had that pitch, but didn’t know how good the rest of her repertoire could get.
“What we didn’t know is she has a work ethic that’s second to none,” Earleywine said. “We were amazed at what she was able to accomplish. Some people are born with a little extra piece of passion inside, and she got a big dose of that.”
The transformation came in Wixom, Mich., where Gillis heads a softball academy that has churned out more than 300 college pitchers. Gillis and Earleywine knew each other from their days playing softball, and as a result, Gillis has worked more closely with Missouri pitchers than those from other schools. The past two summers, Thomas has worked extensively with Gillis.
First, they renovated her mechanics, he said. Then they added two more pitches: a rise and a change-up — a change-up that Earleywine said is the best in softball.
Thomas spent most of her summers in Wixom, sometimes throwing twice a day for weeks at a time, she said. She and Gillis would throw in the morning, then she would help teach his daily clinic, then they would throw again at night.
“She's a perfectionist,” Gillis said. “In lessons, she goes back and she perfects it. Then, she goes back and shows you again.”
It’s been that way since fourth grade, her father, Rich Thomas, said. Once she realized she wanted to pitch, she was devoted to it.
“I can remember her saying, ‘One day, I want to pitch in the Olympics,’” Rich Thomas said.
It was a rough start, though.
"I think the first pitch I ever threw went over the backstop," Chelsea Thomas said. "When I was younger, I was a little wild."
She always had the velocity. The combination of velocity and wildness is why she was a fearsome pitcher, in every sense of the word. In addition to some parents not wanting their children to face Chelsea Thomas, some also asked for her birth certificate, thinking there was no way she could throw that hard at that age.
But she needed control, and she knew it.
"I used to cry when I hit people," she said.
So Rich and Chelsea Thomas began working daily on her pitching and got her into lessons. Rich Thomas went on to coach her high school softball team. He says he never had to pressure her. It was often the other way around.
“As she was developing, she was the type of athlete where I never had to say, ‘Do you think we ought to throw today? Do you think we need to work on this?’,” he said.
Usually, she would always come to him, sometimes on Friday or Saturday night, saying they needed to work on something.
"I don't like to fail at many things," Chelsea Thomas said. "I would call myself a bit of a perfectionist."
Once she signed on to pitch for Missouri, she realized she needed to expand her pitch selection.
“Prior to her coming to Mizzou, she was what I would call a thrower. She threw hard, and so she got away with just throwing hard,” Rich Thomas said. “She soon learned that even though you throw hard, you’ve got to be able to spin the ball and change speeds.”
So Chelsea Thomas underwent a transformation, and 57 wins later, she is on the brink of guiding Missouri to its third-straight Women’s College World Series.
What’s more, she has only been healthy for one full season as what her father calls a "real pitcher."
Gillis said she was just scratching the surface and Chelsea Thomas agreed.
"I think there's plenty of room for me to grow still," she said. "A lot of players have the same pitches senior year that they had freshmen year. I don't want to be that pitcher. I want to take my game to the next level every game that I can."
Chelsea Thomas said that last season, while she was injured, she embraced the mental aspect of pitching — knowing how to scout batters and knowing when to select which pitch and why. She said she was still learning how to use those skills with the pitches she added just two years ago.
"She had a miraculous season,” Gillis said. “In the first year of putting yourself on the map nationally, a lot of times when the pitcher does that, they don't work as hard. But that's not like her.”
DePaul knows what she's like. The Blue Demons saw what she can do, then they saw her go back and do it again.