COLUMBIA — Missouri softball players practiced their hitting and fielding Thursday. The players laughed and joked with one another as they ran their drills on the field and in the batting cages, preparing for the NCAA regionals.
Coach Ehren Earleywine stood in the dugout, watching his team, injured sophomore Ashtin Stephens stood in the pitcher’s circle drying off balls from the rain, and assistant coach Pete D’Amour hit balls to his fielders. Everyone was there and accounted for.
This weekend at University Field
Game 1: Oregon State vs. Hofstra, 3 p.m.
Game 2: Missouri vs. Stony Brook, 5:30 p.m.
Game 3: winner Game 1 vs. winner Game 2, noon
Game 4: loser Game 1 vs. loser Game 2 (loser eliminated), 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: loser Game 3 vs. winner Game 4 (loser eliminated), 5 p.m.
Game 6: winner Game 3 vs. winner Game 5, 1 p.m.
Game 7: (if necessary), 3:30 p.m.
- Missouri's games will be simulcasted on KTGR Radio and Mizzou Network. All Columbia Regional games will be on ESPN3.
Everyone except pitcher Chelsea Thomas.
She was in the locker room receiving treatment for her arm. While Thomas didn’t show symptoms until a series against Alabama in early April, anyone who knows the Tigers' ace knew something was off.
“It’s just a freak thing, she just didn’t have it,” Earleywine said after Thomas’s first loss of the season in early March.
Freak things turned into trouble with a blister, which turned into fatigue. Missouri’s lack of pitching options forced Earleywine to start Thomas almost every game, something that is not unusual for a softball pitcher.
“Two or three years ago in the Big 12, we played two-game series',” Earleywine said. “And Chelsea threw every single game and never once said, 'My arms tired, I’ve got a blister.'”
Three years ago as a sophomore, Thomas suffered a stress fracture 14 games into the season and received a medical hardship waiver. She seemed to have made a full recovery, being named a top three finalist for National Player of the Year the following season.
Now, there had to be something more going on.
Last week, doctors suspected that she could be suffering from exertional compartment syndrome, a condition that pushes on the nerves in her arm when the muscles swell. This leads to numbness or a tingly feeling in her hand.
Thomas mentioned after the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday, she had trouble feeling her hand, and she was taken out after just two innings.
“It feels a lot better now,” Thomas said Thursday. “So we’re working towards the weekend.”
From the moment she stepped off the field in Lexington, Ky., Thomas has not thrown a single pitch, and does not expect to throw a pitch until Friday. In that time, she has done a lot of running at practice and had some treatment, like wearing Kinesio Tape that extends from her neck down to her arm.
“It kind of takes a percentage of tension away from the muscle I think, so it just kind of helps limit the movement,” Thomas said.
At the end of practice Thursday, Thomas jogged out of the locker room to join her teammates for a meeting. She stood in the back, her face emotionless as she stared ahead.
“She hasn’t had that bright look in her eye,” Earleywine said. “She hasn’t had that ready smile that she’s had in the past.”
The date of Thomas’ next start is still to be determined. Earleywine said he probably wouldn’t decide to start Thomas or No. 2 pitcher Nicole Hudson in the first game of NCAA regionals until Friday at noon.
Missouri takes on Stony Brook on Friday and if the Tigers win, they will play the winner of Oregon State vs. Hofstra on Saturday. One school of thought going into the pitching decision is to have Hudson start Friday, saving Thomas for a probable matchup against Hoftstra, a team Earleywine called a “giant killer,” on Saturday. However, with the double elimination format, every game is crucial to advancing to the Super Regionals.
“The fact of the matter is, if we don’t show up on Friday, our season will be over this weekend,” Earleywine said.
In interviews, Thomas jokes and smiles politely at questions she has been asked for her five years at Missouri, but she speaks with a softer tone and a tired look in her eyes.
Earleywine said he fears Thomas is putting the entire weight of Missouri’s need to win on her shoulders.
“She has so much pride and she cares so much about her teammates,” Earleywine said. “I feel like she feels like she’s let the team down because she’s been injured.”
For now, the possible diagnoses don’t have any long-term effects. The biggest problem is that if she is feeling tight and tingly, she will have a poor pitching performance. Thomas is working to manage symptoms to be as effective as possible right now, noting that she and the doctors will figure it out after the season.
However many starts Thomas has left in her career as a Tiger, the ace plans to give every start her all because she has nothing left to lose at this point.
“You can obviously tell frustration with her, but she’s fighting through it and she’s always a fighter,” Hudson said.
Thomas was named to the All-Southeast Region first team Thursday, the third regional recognition of her career. Hudson, along with catcher Jenna Marston and first baseman Kelsea Roth, earned Second Team All-Southeast honors.