COLUMBIA – The Missouri softball team enters the 2012 season about as highly touted as any softball team the Tigers have fielded.
Even before the Tigers' first game, they have been showered with honors.
Among them are a No. 5 ranking in the preseason ESPN.com/USA Today Top 25 Poll and a No. 6 ranking in the preseason USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, and they have two players on the USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year Top-50 Watch List.
So should Tigers softball fans be counting down the days until their team's first national championship?
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said not to get too carried away with preseason hype.
"The people that do the voting (for the polls) generally have really no idea what they're doing," Earleywine said. "We've been in some precarious positions in the polls over the last three of four years. Even if the rankings were accurate, it doesn't matter where you start the season, it's where you end it."
Much of Earleywine's team this season could be very fresh faces.
"We could potentially be starting five freshmen. It could be our entire infield, (Angela) Randazzo, (Corrin) Genovese, (Ashtin) Stephens and (Kelsea) Roth and (Kayla) Kingsley in the outfield," he said.
This is not something Earleywine is necessarily comfortable with.
"But it's the team I got," Earleywine said, somewhat frustrated after a scrimmage against Central Methodist University. "You got to coach the team you got, not the one you wish you had."
The one Earleywine has is young, but talented. Earleywine will bring a highly regarded class of 10 freshman to the team's first game against Ball State on Friday afternoon at the Quality Inn Classic in Troy, Ala.
But as everyone knows, the starting pitcher for the game and the ace up the Tigers' sleeve for the season is going to be All-American pitcher Chelsea Thomas.
Thomas is coming off a phenomenal 2011 campaign in which she led the country with a 0.95 ERA, struck out nearly 400 batters and threw two perfect games in one week. After winning a gold medal with the USA Softball Women's National Team at the Pan-Am Games in Mexico, Thomas returns to Missouri to see just how far she can carry the Tigers.
Last season, she gave Earleywine his first Women's College World Series victory, but then she and the Tigers were quickly ousted by conference foe Baylor.
So what does she have to do to carry them further this season?
"This year, I'm going to have a target on my back, so I'm going to have to be ready for them (opponents) double time," Thomas said. "And for me, hitting spots is going to be really crucial. Sometimes, I could get away with throwing the right spin and missing my spot a little bit, but these teams are going to know what I've got, so that's going to be a big part of this year."
Thomas will be supported by three fearsome returning hitters that should stabilize the Tigers' offense. Outfielder Ashley Fleming and third baseman Nicole Hudson combined to hit 27 home runs last season, knocking in 113 runs. They will team up with catcher Jenna Marston, a converted shortstop, who hit for a stellar .311 batting average and scored 57 runs.
Earleywine said he thinks Fleming, the team's No. 3 hitter, is due for a monster offensive season. If that's the case, the Tigers are going to win a lot of ballgames.
"If you get a few runs and you got Chelsea Thomas, you win the game. Cocktail for championships right there," Earleywine said.
So, what does Earleywine think about his team's chances of winning a national championship this year?
He talked about last year.
"You get to the World Series, and you're thinking, man, we got a good team here," Earleywine said. "You're thinking if we play good softball, we got a chance to be a national champion, and then you get to the game, and they don't (perform). It's like you're watching a product you've never seen before.
"I know they (this year's team) are capable. It's just a matter of now getting the mental part of expectations to match up with the big game."
Missouri will play 14 games on the road before returning to MU for its first home game March 9 against Alcorn State. The Tigers' first conference game will come March 16 against Kansas.