COLUMBIA – Chelsea Thomas took some extra throws before the bottom of the first inning began. The players on the Missouri softball team finished their warm up throws and stood there, watching their ace warm up.
Normally, Thomas doesn’t throw too much before an inning, trying to save each bullet, as Tigers coach Ehren Earleywine says. But before what turned out to be her final game in a Missouri uniform, she took a few extra throws.
Perhaps it was too many. The first two pitches she threw to Washington batter Victoria Hayward were balls. But the third was the one that will probably stick with Thomas for a long time.
The 2-0 pitch sailed off Hayward’s bat and into the right field seats. Washington had a quick 1-0 lead and Missouri was six innings away from ending its season.
After throwing 119 pitches Thursday, Thomas came into Friday's game ready to starve off elimination and pitch two games. She kept the Washington batters from scoring again the rest of the game, allowing the Huskies just one more hit.
But for one of the first times this season, a worn-out Thomas was not the problem. It was Missouri’s hitting, or lack of it, that got the Tigers in trouble.
Missouri came close to scoring in the first. With Nicole Hudson on base after a walk, junior Mackenzie Sykes hit a ball that appeared to be going over the centerfield wall, but Huskies outfielder Kylee Lahners reached over and robbed Sykes of the home run.
Washington pitcher Bryana Walker took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against Missouri batters.
“I can’t explain it,” Earleywine said. “Our offense hit the skids.”
Missouri started the sixth with singles by senior Jenna Marston and freshman Emily Crane. But just like Thursday, three straight ground outs ended the Tigers' rally.
“You can’t win ball games like that, you have to make adjustments,” Marston said.
In the seventh, the realization of elimination really set in. The laughter in the Missouri dugout stopped, and encouragement for each batter become more serious.
First, sophomore Corrin Genovese struck out on four pitches.
The pleas got louder as sophomore Angela Randazzo stepped up to the plate. She grounded out.
Then, down to their final out, the Tigers faces began to get long.
“C’mon Rachel,” the players yelled with worried expressions.
Two pitches later, senior Rachel Hay grounded out.
Genovese hung her head. Junior Brianna Corwin and senior Lindsey Muller turned away from the field to hide their faces. Alyssa Cousins, ready to come in as a pinch runner, took her helmet off and sighed.
Missouri lost 1-0 to Washington in the second game of the NCAA Columbia Super Regional on Friday evening at University Field. After Thursday night's 2-1 eight-inning loss in the series opener, the Tigers were eliminated from the 2013 NCAA tournament.
For the second season in a row, Missouri (38-14) watched the other team celebrate on their field. Washington (43-15) is going to the Women’s College World Series and Missouri is going home.
After the game, Earleywine couldn’t talk to his players.
“I just felt like it was an injustice to try to capture all that they’ve done. To try just wasn’t fair,” Earleywine said. “I couldn’t talk anyway, I was hurting pretty bad.”
It wasn’t about the loss. It was about his seniors, particularly Thomas, Marston and Hudson, and the end of their careers at Missouri.
Just trying to talk to the media about those three, Earleywine had to pause. In the background, the cheers of the Washington players could be heard.
Earleywine just put his head down and tried to keep his composure. His fight to keep himself together forced Hudson to let her tears loose. Soon Thomas’ face dampened with more tears.
The only one at the table able to keep her eyes dry was Marston. She stared off. At the Huskies celebrating, at the wall of the press tent, at the ground. She just took deep breaths and stared.
Hudson was able to smile for a moment, thinking about how she was one of the lucky few that accomplished a childhood dream. She played softball at Missouri.
After the press conference, Earleywine left quickly. Marston, Thomas and Hudson returned to their teammates in the Tigers' locker room.
One by one, the players emerged, taking photos with fans and hugging family members. Most of University Field had cleared out when family members began to wonder, where’s Thomas?
Former Tigers player Ashley Fleming went into the locker room, looking for the fifth-year senior. She returned only a short time later, shaking her head.
“She’s not coming out,” Fleming said.
Leaving the locker room would mean that it was really over. That Thomas was no longer a Tigers softball player.
Next, Crane tried. Then Thomas’ family entered the locker room. Luckless family members returned. Finally, with the help of fellow senior Rachel Hay and Thomas’ mother, the ace pitcher emerged from the locker room.
She hugged her family. She hugged her fans. She hugged her now-former teammates. After all the photos were taken and the hugs were given, it was time for the seniors to leave University Field.
For the final time, Thomas, Hudson, Marston and Hay made the walk to their other locker room at the Missouri Athletic Training Complex. The four walked across the track and soccer field, replacing tears with laughter.
Their careers at Missouri were over, but the friendships they formed were not.
“Win or lose the softball game, that’s going to be around for the rest of my life,” Hudson said.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.