Chelsea Thomas faces end of career with Missouri softball

Thursday, May 23, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Missouri pitcher Chelsea Thomas winds up during the final inning of the NCAA Columbia Regional Semifinal Saturday at University Field. Thomas gave up eight hits and walked two, but maintained a shutout, her sixth complete game shutout of the season. She completes her five-year career at MU at the end of this season.

COLUMBIA – Chelsea Thomas sat in the Missouri Athletic Training Complex on Tuesday, smiling as she thought about her five years on the Missouri softball team.

“It’s just been so crazy,” she said.

The legend of Chelsea Thomas has grown after 14 no-hitters and several unbelievable performances. She’s won big games and pitched in tough losses. She’s earned just about every award and recognition a collegiate pitcher can receive.

Now, her career as a Tiger is coming to a close. She says it hasn't sunk in, and just like she has always done, Thomas is handling the situation with ease.

Six years ago, Thomas sat on her couch at home in Pleasantville, Iowa, watching the Women’s College World Series.

“That could be me some day,” she thought. “I could play there.”

And a year later, she was on that stage. She still remembers the surreal feeling of being in that circle on national television. She also remembers the sting of losing both games she started that year in the WCWS

Thomas has learned to turn a loss into a learning experience. She watched film profusely, figuring out what she could do differently next time. 

Since then, Thomas has accumulated 95 wins, won three conference pitcher of the year awards and broken Missouri’s career strikeouts record. Along the way, Thomas remembers the losses as much as the wins. In fact, one of the most fun games for her was a 13-inning loss to Baylor in the 2011 WCWS.

“I just remember, it was my second game of the day, and I was just fighting like crazy,” Thomas said.

Thomas gave up a home run to lose the game, but her 19 strikeouts is still the second-most for a single WCWS game.

When Thomas is in a big game, she looks the same as she does in a preseason intrasquad scrimmage. She keeps an emotionless face, throws strikes, then turns around to grab her rosin bag before running off the field. Between innings, she sits in the dugout alone, thinking about the last at bat and the next. Her routine doesn’t change.

But when it’s the postseason, or just a tied game against a tough competitor, Thomas is able to become a different pitcher.

“There’s just an extra level that you save until you really need it,” Thomas said. “I just try to do whatever I can to help the team to get out of those tough situations.”

Each fan, teammate and reporter has their favorite Chelsea Thomas story they tell to those new to the legend. The first Florida game this season is certainly one of them.

Thomas pitched 12 innings against Florida in an early nonconference game, allowing zero earned runs. It appeared to be just another impressive start in her illustrious career. But what really made her performance incredible is that she was sick the day and night before with food poisoning. 

“Anybody who’s a Mizzou fan would’ve been proud of her,” Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said. “Here’s a kid, pale white, sick and dehydrated, from the night before and pitched 12 innings against the best hitting team in the country.”

But the bad chicken she ate didn’t matter to Thomas. What mattered was that her team needed to beat Florida, a team that Missouri lost to in its past two WCWS appearances. So she raised her pitching another level and walked away with the win.

As much as Thomas thrives on the field, she hates the attention when she steps off it. Being one of the most interviewed players in her time as a Tiger has taught Thomas how to deal with the media. She speaks slowly, thinking about each word to ensure no mistakes. She smiles politely at repeated questions, and she never avoids the tough questions.

Even when Thomas doesn’t pitch, she is always in the lineup of postgame interviews. Her routine is a little longer than most players, but she does it with a smile.

Thomas goes from conditioning and physical therapy at practice to countless interviews with the media. It can be a challenge to be interviewed on camera without laughing while a teammate, often times Corrin Genovese, dances behind the camera.

She goes to the locker room with her teammates to shower and change, but while the rest of the team goes home, she picks up a form to apply for her master's degree in positive coaching and then returns to do more interviews.

On Tuesday, she had to stay late to do a phone interview with an Iowa paper. She had talked for an hour about pitching, and she wasn’t done. There are many days, ­especially weekdays, when Thomas talks about pitching more than she actually pitches.

But Thomas still talks and does interviews with a smile. Just below her extended cheeks lies Kinesio Tape, extending from her neck, down her arm.

The tape is one of the many steps Thomas and the trainers had to take this season to help her perform “Chelsea-like.” After tingly and numb feelings in her pitching hand began to hit Thomas this season, the condition of her arm became the question of the season.

For six weeks, Thomas and the Missouri staff dealt with what doctors thought to be exertional compartment syndrome. She couldn’t pitch every game like she wanted, and every Missouri loss, even the ones she watched from the bench, weighed heavy on her.

“It’s been hard to watch,” Earleywine said.

The coach couldn’t see the bright look in her eyes that she used to have and he saw her feeling bad for not being able to help more.

But like many of the other comebacks Thomas has made in her career, she made an almost miraculous recovery. She says she now feels minimal symptoms and is slated to pitch the remainder of the season, beginning with the Super Regionals on Thursday against Washington.

The last time the two schools met in the Super Regionals, Thomas walked away with two wins and the Tigers earned another trip to the WCWS. She was named a top-three finalist for National Player of the Year just a few days later.

Through all the ups and downs, the awards and the injuries, Thomas tries to remember two things: She loves softball, and she must stay humble. From the young girl watching role models Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, to being the star pitcher that Mendoza reports on for ESPN, Thomas has kept the words of her parents in her mind.

“Never let anything get to your head.”

And for five years, it hasn’t. Thomas shook her head in disbelief that her college career is almost over. In her bag next to her lies the form to continue her academics at Missouri. In a few weeks, she will no longer be the ace pitcher for the Tigers.

But whether she ends up as a coach, a player for Team USA, or in a professional league, it's quite likely Thomas' success will continue.

 Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.

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