Missouri softball team hoping for redemption this weekend

Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 11:39 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Less than a week into the regular season, it appears the high preseason expectations put on the Missouri softball team won't be the hardest ones to meet.

The expectations that are going to be the most difficult for the Tigers to live up to this season are going to be those of their coach, Ehren Earleywine.

The Tigers went 4-1 in their season-opening tournament last weekend in Alabama, a showing that dropped them from No. 5 to No.11 in the Softball Collegiate Top 25 rankings.

Earleywine was not pleased.

"I think we should have dropped down that far," Earleywine said. "We played like a very common team last weekend, and so I don't even know if we're worthy of an 11 ranking right now." 

When Earleywine was asked to talk about went wrong for his team last weekend, he decided, at least momentarily, not to answer the question.

"It'd be easier for me to list the things that we did well because we did a lot fewer things well than we did poorly," Earleywine said.

But after speaking briefly about some of those positives, he couldn't resist addressing the earlier question.

"I didn't feel like we pitched well. I don't feel like we played outfield defense well at all, and I don't think we hit very well," Earleywine said. "Last weekend was disappointing on many levels."

Easier than he thought to tick off the bad points. But come on, a 4-1 record to open to the season can't be that bad, can it?

Well, consider what Earleywine said a couple weeks before the season started about the level of competition he expected to face opening weekend.

"The scheduling was purposeful," Earleywine said. "I wanted to make sure that first weekend, that first four or five games, were games we didn't have to strain our neck to win."

Not only did the Tigers narrowly defeat Troy in the first game of the season 3-2, they were defeated by what was supposed to be an inferior team, Eastern Kentucky, in the third game of the season.

The Tigers might have hurt their necks in those games. And not only that, but with a roster full of freshmen, seven of whom played last weekend, Earleywine did not come back to Columbia feeling like he had concluded much about his young team.

"I felt like I learned very little (about the freshman)," Earleywine said. "I'm still trying to figure out what they're capable of, and that's a little bit scary because I'm counting on them, and our team's counting on them to be big producers for us this year, and if they're not, we're gonna be in trouble." 

And trouble, as it turns out, is headed the Tigers' way.

"I just felt like that first weekend would have been, for most players, an easy weekend where you could really gain some confidence in yourself ... and roll into this weekend.

"But as it turns out, we're finding ourselves scrambling now and trying to figure out who we are against some of the better teams in the country, and that's not the ideal situation to be in."

He's not kidding. The self-reflection will have to happen on the fly this weekend. The Tigers will play five games in three days at the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs, Calif. There, they will battle three teams in the top 25, two of which are ranked in the top 10.

The plan going into the weekend is to throw freshman Bailey Erwin against the less-heralded UC-Davis team to open the tournament, No. 2 pitcher Kristin Nottelman against No. 22 Nebraska and Northwestern and ace Chelsea Thomas against No. 7 Washington and No. 5 UCLA.

This tournament represents the last time the Tigers will face teams ranked as high as their team until they meet No. 10 Baylor in Columbia at the end of March. The games this weekend will give the Tigers and Earleywine a lasting indication of whether or not this team can live up to all that preseason hype.

"It's going to be a telling weekend for sure," Earleywine said.

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