Missouri softball team didn't go far to find offensive standouts

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 11:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:38 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 26, 2012
Missouri softball freshman Ashtin Stephens plays in the game against Texas Tech on April 14.

COLUMBIA — Before the season began, Pete D’Amour, the Missouri softball team's pitching coach and head scout, talked about the program’s growing national notoriety. He pridefully proclaimed that the Tigers' recruiting reach was no longer limited to just players in Missouri.

The Tigers' freshman-heavy roster effectively proves his point. It contains a coast-to-coast variety of players, who come from places like Yorba Linda, Calif., (Kelsea Roth) and East Amherst, N.J. (Corrin Genovese).

After three consecutive World Series appearances, Missouri is considered a national powerhouse, and it has been able to hand pick some of the country’s most highlytouted talent over the past few years.

But a closer look at the Tigers' production thus far this season points to an interesting development within the roster.

Missouri’s most productive players, especially during the conference season, have been Missouri-grown talents. Silex native Ashley Fleming is far and away the Tigers' most dangerous hitter this year. She leads the team in virtually every offensive category.

And after Fleming, Missouri’s most effective players came to Columbia from less than two hours away: the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs.

Freshman Ashtin Stephens and sophomore Mackenzie Sykes attended Blue Springs High School, where they played together for three years and led the Wildcats to an undefeated (31-0) state championship season in 2009. 

Stephens considers Sykes her best friend and "older sister," but their paths to success with the Tigers have been much different.

Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine had known Stephens from softball camps and clinics since she was 10 years old. He coached with her father, so when it came time for Stephens to make a decision about which college she was going to attend, even her ties to Oklahoma (she grew up there and is a big Sooners fan) weren’t enough to overcome the relationship she had formed with Earleywine years earlier.

Stephens guesses her bond with Earleywine, who was a Team USA fastpitch softball player, stems from a physical attribute they have in common.

“I think he always liked me because I was small,” said Stephens, a 5-foot-4 infielder who some fans affectionately refer to as “Little Bitty.”

“At one point, I think he called me his twin. He’s told me stories about being so little and not being as strong as everyone else and basically my whole life has been like that. I am little. I am really little, especially in the softball world, and I’ve had people tell me my whole life I wasn’t going to make it. He uses that to motivate me.”

Along with their similar frames, Earleywine considers Stephens to be his twin because, like himself, they are both students of the game. He said she plays a more cerebral version of softball than you will see from most players her age.

Thus far for Missouri, Stephens has been rock-steady at second base (a position Earleywine played). She has started 36-of-44 games there, including the past 15 in a row, regularly making stellar defensive plays, and she has only two errors to her name.

Batting ninth, her slap-hitting style and batting stance can be compared to that of Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki. She sprints toward first base while simultaneously making contact with a pitch.

This action is not particularly extraordinary. Many softball players employ this style of hitting. But what is impressive is the successful rate at which she is doing it, and the competition she is doing it against. Against conference opponents she is third on the team in batting average (.289) and co-leads the team with three steals.

"She was one of those kids when she came in here she was game ready," Earleywine said.

And that's where the difference between Stephens and her Blue Springs teammate Mackenzie Sykes becomes clear. 

As a freshman, Earleywine did not think Sykes was ready to play, and she didn't get much playing time tallying just six hits in 32 at bats her first season. Sykes played only sporadically, never really carving out a permanent position for herself — then the new recruits arrived. 

Sykes watched as Earleywine ushered in a highly-touted group of 10 freshmen. Almost all of them seemed poised to start immediately and take away what little playing time Sykes had.

But Sykes said she didn't let this bother her. According to Earleywine, she doesn't let anything bother her.

"Anybody that knows her, knows that she is just a super-consistent human being," Earleywine said. "She is never really excited. She’s never really down. She’s just steady."

Sykes says, no matter what, her routine and preparation never change. It doesn't matter if she's sitting on the bench or starting in the outfield, she's feels as though she is always ready to contribute.

So when Missouri began to struggle badly at the plate, Earleywine started shaking up his lineup hoping someone would respond. And, of course, Sykes was ready.

She has started in nine of the Tigers past 10 games and has a .333 batting average in 15 conference games.

She began the season on the Tigers' bench and received only rare pinch-hitting duties or occasional defensive replacement assignments. But Sykes has climbed all the way to the top of Missouri's lineup — literally. She batted leadoff two times against Big 12-leading Oklahoma last weekend. 

To go from coming off of the bench to starting can be jarring experience for any player, Earleywine said. But to go from hitting at the bottom of the order to leading off against some of that nation's best pitchers — that is not something just anyone could handle. 

"A lot of kids can’t endure that, but she has," Earleywine said.

"She just keeps bringing it. When somebody else is falling asleep, or forgetting to run out a pop fly or goes 0-for-3 she sitting there ready.

"You got to like that."

Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.

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