Missouri softball team heads into Big 12 Conference play

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | 11:58 p.m. CDT; updated 1:22 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 16, 2012
MU softball coach Ehren Earleywine, left, will be able to rely on junior ace Chelsea Thomas, right, this season, but he also has 10 freshman on his roster.

COLUMBIA — Swept up into the magical run of an elite basketball team, Missouri sports fans might have forgotten there is another elite team in Columbia to rally behind.

Off to an excellent, but expected, 17-3 start the Tigers' softball team is preparing to open up its final Big 12 Conference schedule before moving to the SEC. They are set to play Friday night against rival Kansas.

The No.12-ranked Tigers are off to a predictably fast start, considering the back-to-back-to-back 50-win seasons Missouri has strung together. Yet they are doing it in an odd fashion.

The normal stats for the Tigers are there. They’re fourth in the Big 12 in hitting (.325), third in the Big 12 in pitching (1.08 team ERA) and, of course, All-American pitcher and Vox magazine cover girl Chelsea Thomas (8-1) has been dominant with a .72 ERA and 9.92 strikeouts for every seven innings she has pitched.

What is different about this team is that it's constructed in an unexpected way. The 20-woman roster has two seniors, six juniors, two sophomores and an unusually high 10 freshman, four who start consistently.

That is an abnormal amount of youth to depend on, especially for such an esteemed program like Missouri, which played with 10 seniors last season.

Top-ranked Alabama lists only five freshman on its roster; No. 6-ranked Big 12 rival Texas only has two; and defending champion and No. 5-ranked Arizona State lists seven freshman.

But unlike those teams, whose freshman aren’t expected to produce all that much, the Tigers are relying heavily upon their young players. So far the women are answering the call, playing every bit as well as their senior counterparts.

Yorba Linda, Calif., native and first basemen Kelsea Roth slid right into the cleanup position for the Tigers and has done exactly what her spot in the lineup implies. Roth is hitting .378 with 13 RBIs and she leads the Tigers with an outstanding .556 on base percentage.

Meanwhile across the diamond, third basemen and fellow Californian, Angela Randazzo has a stellar .356 batting average and is tied for third on the team in home runs with two so far this season.

And the list goes on.

Freshman infielders Corinn Genovese and Ashtin Stephens have been vital cogs in the Tigers' machine each playing solid defense and running the bases well.

Even freshman pitcher Bailey Irwin (4-0, 1.12 ERA), who wasn't expected to contribute much to this year's team, has filled in superbly for regular starters Thomas and Kristin Nottelman (5-2).

Head Coach Ehren Earleywine said numerous times early in the season that he was nervous about the youthful makeup of his team but has been pleasantly surprised with the production he has seen from his youngest players.

"We've gotten better," Earleywine said. "I don't think it's anything other than everything is starting to slow down a little bit. These freshman, I have a feeling it felt like NASCAR to them the first couple weekends, but it's slowing down, and people are starting to get comfortable." 

Despite, or maybe even because of, the Tigers' youth, they are getting it done. But can these young players continue to get better and win inside an superior conference like the Big 12?

It is important to note that many teams in the Big 12 are off to similarly strong starts, and before Missouri can look toward a fourth straight appearance in the College World Series, it's going to have to find a way to survive two months of a grinding 24-game conference schedule.

The Tigers' two-game series this weekend could be the final time the rival Jayhawks will make the familiar drive from Lawrence, Kan., to Columbia.

Last season, the two teams met in a doubleheader in Kansas where the Tigers got the best of their border foes by taking both games. Missouri eventually won the Big 12 regular season title while the Jayhawks finished dead last, mustering only two conference wins.

This season looks like it could be different for Kansas. The Jayhawks are coming into Columbia on a 20-game winning streak. Junior standout Maggie Hull will lead them onto University Field. Hull has mashed her way through the first 22 games of the season piling up seven doubles, four home runs and 23 RBIs.

The Jayhawks are going to challenge Thomas and the Tigers with their speed. Kansas has successfully swiped 30 of 31 bases this season.

"Kansas has a lot of bunters and slappers (slap hitters)," Earleywine said. "They have so much short game ability. It should be a tough matchup for Chelsea."

Despite Thomas' presence for Missouri, Earleywine is convinced that Kansas won't be the pushover it was last year mainly because of the emergence of freshman pitcher Alicia Pille, who is putting a Chelsea Thomas-like scare into her opponent's averaging more strikeouts per seven innings (10.45) than Thomas.

"This kid (Pille) is going to give them a legitimate shot of holding good offenses within range where they can strike and beat you if they can put together a couple of hits," Earleywine said.

The Big 12 Conference
The defining characteristic of this conference, and what Tiger fans can expect to see when they come out to watch a Big 12 conference matchup, is power pitching.

Texas has Luna Blaire, who struck out 16 batters two nights ago. Texas A&M has Mel Dumezich, who is second in the Big 12 and fifth in the nation in strikeouts with 129. Oklahoma has the No. 2 and No. 3 pitchers in the country in strikeouts per seven innings. 

"You got Whitney Canion (Baylor), you got Keilani Ricketts (Oklahoma), you got Chelsea Thomas, and now bottom dwellers like Kansas (have pitching)," Earleywine said. "All the sudden, they're bringing these kids who are strikeout pitchers.

"I'll tell you what, it makes for a long, long conference run if you're a hitter in the Big 12. I mean you got to grind it out just to go 1-for-3 with a walk. There is just a lot of pitching in the Big 12."

And because of that, Earleywine does not expect his Tigers to blaze through the Big 12 at the same pace (15-3) as his team did in 2011.

"I think there will be more bumps in the road this year," Earleywine said. "When you start rolling out that pitching lineup (like the Big 12 has), there is no such thing as running through this conference."

As for who Earleywine anticipates will challenge for his team's conference title, he suggests it will be the usual suspects.

"I think Oklahoma really has become our rival despite the KU-Mizzou thing," Earleywine said. "With us sweeping them last year and then (winning) the one (against them) in the World Series, I'm sure they have their sights set for that date in Norman.

"Second to them is probably our matchup with Texas. They are just loaded with hitters. Those two teams will definitely be the people you're going to have beat to win a conference championship."

The next two conference foes Missouri will face after Kansas will be Texas A&M in a three-game series in College Station, Texas, at the end of March and then Baylor at home to kick off April. 

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