COLUMBIA — Last year at this time, Kayla Kingsley, a freshman on this season's Missouri softball team, was watching the Tigers advance through the postseason.
This year, heading into the super regional tournament this weekend against LSU, Kingsley is entrenched as the team's starting left fielder, No. 7 hitter and is coming off a regional tournament weekend in which she led the Tigers in hitting, going 6-for-9.
vs. Missouri (46-12)
WHEN: The first game is scheduled for 6:30 Saturday night. The next game is scheduled for 2:30 Sunday afternoon, and if necessary, the third game is scheduled for 5 Sunday evening.
WHERE: University Field
TICKETS:Tickets are available at the Mizzou Arena Ticket Office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Orders can also be placed through 1-800-CAT-PAWS or online through Ticketmaster.
PARKING: Parking is available at no charge in the lots to the east of University Field. Access is off of Providence Road because Carrie Francke Drive is closed between the softball stadium and the Research Park Drive intersection. Complimentary shuttles will be available to transport guests from the parking lots to the entrances.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM
MU athletics has scheduled a Family Fan Fest including face painting, inflatable games and a balloon artist for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the softball parking lot north of University Field.
For more details go to the NCAA Super Regional Central website.
"For me, when I'm standing down at third base, there's about three kids that when they come up, I get excited because I think something is going to happen," said Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine about Kingsley. "Now who would have said that a month and a half ago? It's amazing how quick things have changed. The birds sing again. The sun came out today for her because she got a few hits over the weekend. Life is good again."
Things weren't always going this well for Kingsley.
Before the season started, Kingsley had earned herself the starting center field position. But her new career at Missouri didn't take off quite as fast as she would have liked.
"She dropped a ball or two in the start of the season, couldn't get any hits, and from that point forward, she was done," Earleywine said. "I mean she was just toast. No confidence, wasn't happy."
She wasn't happy because she was homesick.
"I think it affects every freshman that I've ever coached," Earleywine said. "But it really hit Kayla hard. She's got three sisters that she's very close to."
Friend and freshman teammate Corrin Genovese agreed, saying that when the team is away from home for such a long time, sometimes those off-the-field problems start to affect a player's performance on the field.
"She's very close to her family, and I think part of that led onto the field," Genovese said. "You know, she was missing her family, and we're her best friends doing everything we can to help her, calm her down about it. But it's hard being away from home."
Kingsley struggled badly for a majority of the season. For a freshman who has been recruited by a large Division I university, failure is something new. Most players in this situation are used to succeeding all of the time.
"(Failure) has been the biggest (challenge) for me," Kingsley said. "I really had no idea how to cope with it. All I could say is that I just kept grinding. Coach E told us not to give up, and I made sure I wasn't going to give up and let it defeat me because I knew what kind of player I was."
But Kingsley continued to look lost at the plate. In mid-April, Earleywine said he regretted not redshirting her.
"I know she’s going to regret this year because she’s taken her lumps, and she’s learned a lot of lessons the hard way," Earleywine said. "In hindsight, I probably would have redshirted her."
But he didn't, giving Kingsley opportunities to earn her starting position back. Finally she found an answer when the team traveled to Oregon. Coincidentally, it started with her family.
"I remember I was in my hotel room," Kingsley said, "and I just sat there, and I talked to him (her father) for a good two hours on the phone, and he told me, 'It's gonna click. Just wait, it's gonna click.'
"He really helped. He told me 'you're going to fail.' 'This is a failing game' ... He just said all the right things, and told me to keep grinding and everything will work on its own. 'You will have your shot again.'
"And ever since that talk ... I've been more relaxed, and it has really shown."
It certainly has. Kingsley has gone 10-for-28 since the start of the Oregon series.
Earleywine also credits a change in her approach at the plate. In the beginning of the season, she was allowed to swing away, but recently, she has made the change to slap hitting, which lets left-handed batters use their speed. They get a running start, hit the ball on the ground and race to first base.
It is a much simpler approach to hitting that Earleywine thinks has given Kingsley her confidence back.
"She got a few hits, got a little confidence, and next thing you know, she swings away, gets a hit and goes, 'Wait, maybe I can do this,'" Earleywine said. "Her hitting has benefited from her slapping because of just the confidence she's gotten from being a contributor."
Kingsley impressed her teammates with her resilience.
"I give her more credit than anybody in the world because when you have a starting job, the last thing you want to do is lose it," Genovese said. "And then once you lose it, some people just get their hopes down and say maybe next year I'll win that starting spot back. But she was determined."
Earleywine said he is hoping Kingsley can provide a spark similar to what Allen Craig and David Freese provided for the Cardinals' championship run last season.
"When you can add another exciting kid in your lineup that's going to put the ball in play, make things happen, it changes everything. It's worth another base runner or two a game. It could be worth another run or two a game. Little shifts like that can put a team just enough over the top to make a serious run. ... Next thing you know, you got a championship team."
Kingsley has a bit of an added incentive for wanting the Tigers to advance to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. She's from there.
"I want this bad," Kingsley said. "I think it would be so cool to be right back in my backyard. Every year I've gone to it because it's five minutes from my house. It'll be cool actually playing in it this year."
The next step for Missouri is to win two games against LSU this weekend at University Field.