Missouri outfielder Rhea Taylor, along with eight other seniors and two juniors, is headed to the Women’s College World Series for the third-straight season. In its last two appearances, the Tiger's softball team is 0-4.
When asked if it’s time to start winning games on the big stage, Taylor’s response was short and to the point:
No. 5 seed Missouri (52-8)
vs. No. 4 seed Florida (52-10)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Oklahoma City
RADIO: KTGR/100.5 FM, 1580 AM
Watch Online: ESPN3.com
“Uh, yes, let's be real,” she said.
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine expressed the same sentiment.
"We're looking to get the monkey off our back," Earleywine said. "It's just about playing to our capabilities. In the last two years we've come short of that standard."
In 2008, Missouri upset UCLA in the super regionals, and in 2009, Missouri advanced to the big stage despite a season-ending injury to starting pitcher Chelsea Thomas. This season, Thomas has been healthy and has the best ERA in the country. Much of the same lineup as last season has a year's more experience, and Taylor said she thinks this is the year that Missouri wins at the World Series.
“First two years we went, it was like ‘Two and barbecue,’ and we don’t want to do that anymore,” Taylor said. “When we get there, we just have to take care of business.”
Falling short at the World Series is not a foreign concept to Missouri's first opponent, No. 4 seed Florida. Florida is the only team with more consecutive World Series appearances than No. 5 seed Missouri. This is the fourth time for Florida.
“For Ehren (Earleywine) and I, being here the most consecutive years, it’s kind of humbling,” Florida coach Tim Walton said.
The Gators reached the semifinals in 2008 and the finals in 2009 but fell short of the title on both occasions. In 2010, Florida’s lone win in Oklahoma City came at the expense of Missouri. Walton said that Chelsea Thomas’ presence for Missouri this year makes the Tigers a different opponent than in 2010.
“The kid sitting on the bucket calling pitches (in 2010) didn’t have a 0.83 ERA and wasn’t striking out a million,” Walton said. “She changes the complexion of the game.”
This year’s rematch, set to begin at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, features a Florida lineup that is proficient at the plate. Its 110 home runs lead the nation, and the team’s .326 batting average is second in the World Series field.
Earleywine said Florida is arguably the best hitting team in the nation.
“We certainly have a very difficult matchup right out of the chute,” Earleywine said. “But if you’re going to win it all, you’re going to have to play somebody like that anyway a couple of times.”
For Taylor and her senior teammates, 2011 represents a last chance to get over the hump in Oklahoma City. She said there is an added significance in this year’s tournament knowing that it is the seniors’ last.
“This is the year,” Taylor said. “This team is leaving. We’ve been here since we were freshmen.”
Earleywine said that with a roster full of seniors, this sense of finality is an emotional obstacle that his team will have to overcome.
“The thing with seniors that I’m always so worried about is that it becomes a big emotional thing like ‘Oh. Boo-hoo. This could be my last game’ and it is sad,” Earleywine said. “And so, that’s always your concern. When you start letting those emotions and things get in your head, it can affect you negatively.”
Still, the coach understands just what this team means to his players and what his players have meant to his program.
“I mean think about the growth of this program over the last four years,” he said. “Those kids have been at the forefront of that movement, and it’s really neat that they’ve been able to separate those emotions and play hard day in and day out knowing that each game could be their last.”