LEXINGTON Ky. – Nicole Hudson watched the ball fly deep into left-center field. She walked backwards, following the ball as Mackenzie Sykes tracked it down. Seeing that the ball was being thrown home, she turned and ran behind home plate to back up catcher Rachel Hay.
The runs scored. The No. 3 seed Missouri softball team was down 6-2 in the fourth inning and the Southeastern Conference tournament championship was looking more and more out reach.
Some thought the game was over as soon as ace Chelsea Thomas left the circle for Missouri. After pitching seven innings earlier in the day to beat Tennessee, two innings were all she could muster against No. 1 seed Florida.
“I wasn’t feeling 100 percent for sure after throwing one game, but I really wanted to be out there,” Thomas said. “SEC championship game, ya know, I want the ball.”
Just 55 minutes before the game, Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine didn’t know who to start.
Thomas sat in the dugout with her arm wrapped in a heating pad. She talked to the SEC commissioner, Michael Silve. She talked to ESPN reporter Holly Rowe, she talked to her trainer, a lot, and finally, she talked to her coach.
“She said she felt good enough to throw a couple innings, and I had to trust her,” Earleywine said.
But Thomas lost control and had trouble feeling her hand. She gave up a home run and a walk in the second, while throwing two wild pitches. The SEC Pitcher of the Year was done for the SEC tournament.
Hudson tried to help her own cause in the fifth. With center fielder Jenna Marston on second, Hudson rested her bat against her shoulder, took a deep breath and waited for the pitch. Then she took the ball deep. To the deepest part of the field, right where the wall met the dirt. Marston came in to score, cutting the Gators' lead to 3.
But Florida scored again in the bottom of the inning. And then again in the sixth. Missouri was down 10-4 and like the end of a sad movie, the rain began to fall.
“It’s a helpless feeling, and I hate not being able to be out there because it’s not ideal for Nicole to be out there if she didn’t sign up for pitching,” Thomas said.
Four batters later, the tournament was over. The Gators tackled each other while Tigers stared at the field, some with looks of sadness, some with looks of anger.
“I've forgotten so many wins, but I’ll never forget any loss,” Earleywine said. “And tonight will be just another one of those.”
Winning the SEC tournament was never a goal for Missouri. The Tigers just wanted to have a high enough seed to host a NCAA Super Regional. Missouri will now wait to find out its fate when the NCAA selection show airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
“The goal coming in was to try to get a top-eight seed, and I think by beating Tennessee this morning, I think that did it for us,” Earleywine said. “If the committee decides otherwise, they’re entitled to that, but I felt like us winning the first two games would do that for us.”
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.