COLUMBIA — When Missouri softball followed up a winless appearance at the Women’s College World Series in 2009 with another in 2010, Tigers coach Ehren Earleywine didn’t just feel the sting of those lost opportunities. He felt the sting from a lifetime following Mizzou sports.
“I’ve been a Mizzou fan all my life,” he said. “I’ll die a Mizzou fan. So I went through all the frustrations through the years. We have good runs but never finish the deal.”
Team NCAA Championships by Big 12 Teams (all sports)
Big 12 Conference teams have accounted for 199 national championships in all sports, according to the conference media guide. Missouri accounts for two of those — the 1954 baseball team and the 1965 indoor track team — ranking ahead of only Texas Tech.
Missouri is tied for 11th for Big 12 regular season championships with four, and last in postseason conference championships with eight.
For the third time in as many years, Missouri softball (50-8) is on the brink of unprecedented success, facing the Washington Huskies (37-14) at home in the NCAA Columbia Super Regional on Saturday. With a Big 12 regular season title this year, a conference tournament title in 2009 and back-to-back World Series appearances, the Tigers have enjoyed more success in the past three years than many other Missouri sports ever have.
“Our softball program’s rise to national prominence gives a great sense of pride to Mizzou fans all over,” Missouri Athletics spokesman Chad Moller said in an e-mail. “Our team has had a chance to play on national television quite a bit over the past three seasons, and our hope is for those opportunities to increase to bring more exposure to the program, to the athletic department, and of course to the University of Missouri overall.”
Earleywine has been at the super regionals before, though. He’s been past it, even. And he is not satisfied.
“I don’t consider our program any different than the rest,” he said. “We’re good enough to get there, and we cause a lot of excitement and everybody tunes in and then we lose.”
His teams have been good enough to win the World Series, he says. It’s just a matter of getting over the top.
“We’ve had good enough teams, but once we’ve gotten to (the World Series) they haven’t played well,” he said. “It’s just been courage. When we got to that stage, kids tightened up. The stage was too big for them, and they never allowed themselves to be what they were before that.”
The Tigers enter the super regional better prepared than ever before, though.
Kristin Nottelmann, a junior right-hander who guided Missouri into the World Series last year with 24 wins and a 2.09 earned run average, is now backing up Chelsea Thomas. Thomas, a redshirt sophomore with a .82 ERA, is the only pitcher among three finalists for USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year.
Thomas, who pitched in Missouri’s 2009 early exit and sat out last year’s postseason with a stress fracture in her right arm, said the Tigers are better positioned than the past two years. They’re richer for the experience, and they’re eager to avenge the losses.
“I think making it to the World Series last year is going to be huge,” Thomas said. “Because pretty much the players in the lineup have already been there. It sets us up pretty well. Having that experience and getting the nerves out will help out so much.”
Missouri was a bit of a surprise team in its first appearances at the World Series, Thomas said, and that added to the nerves.
“This year, we are supposed to be there,” she said. “And everyone in the country knows that.”
Backing up Thomas and Nottelmann is a group of position players Earleywine said is the best he’s had in his time at Missouri.
Sophomore shortstop Jenna Marston and senior outfielder Rhea Taylor were both on the preseason watch list for Player of the Year. Taylor leads the team in batting at .378 and had five total hits in Missouri’s double elimination games against DePaul last weekend with home runs in each victory. Junior Ashley Fleming isn’t far behind Taylor, batting .337. She also has 14 home runs.
"We're in a comfortable place right now," Taylor said. "We have a lot of upperclassmen, nine seniors, and having Chelsea back is a big plus. This is the team to do it."
Taylor said that while on paper she didn't have the season many expected, she feels like she and the team are both peaking at the right time.
"I think it's different this year," Taylor said, remembering the past two World Series exits. "Now it's like the big stage is our stage."
Missouri faces a Huskies team that won a national championship in 2009, and also exited the World Series with two straight losses last year. If the Tigers beat the Huskies, it would be Earleywine’s third trip to the World Series in five years since he took over a 26-27 team.
“Everyone is expected to compete for championships, and Coach Earleywine has done nothing but embrace that mindset from day one here,” Moller said. “The level of success he’s had in such a short time has been remarkable. You certainly want to achieve this kind of success so quickly, but it’s more the exception than the norm.”
If and when Missouri softball does win a national championship, Earleywine said, he hopes it can help advance the mindset of the whole of Missouri athletics.
“We should not be content with just being in the top 25 and making regional appearances,” he said. “We should be competing for national championships, and we should be able to say that without laughing.”
He’s tempered his expectations for the impact, though, even if his team does manage to do something only two Missouri squads have done since the school’s first football team was organized in 1890.
“The truth is, the unfortunate part is, if and when we win a national championship, it will be great for a certain amount of people, but we’re still just softball,” he said. “I don’t think it changes an entire athletic department when something changes in a non-revenue sport.”
It could be a start in the right direction, though.
“I hope it’s just one small increment of a mindset that we’re not going to celebrate mediocrity,” he said. “If I can be one small part of that shift, I would consider it a real plus.”