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Unique accomplishment

Reunion celebrates MU’s 1997 softball title and turns attention to future of Tigers’ athletic teams.
Sunday, October 22, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:55 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Christy Skouby laughed as she told the story.

She and her teammates on the 1997 Missouri softball team were in San Francisco for a spring break tournament. Skouby, a freshman at the time, had successfully avoided initiation up to that point, but that was about to change.

[photo]

Barb Rity, left with daughter Elizabeth, Nicky Blevins and Jamie Friend gathered Friday at a reunion of members of the 1997 MU softball team.

(ADAM WISNESKI/Missourian)

While the team’s laundry was being washed, the upper classman confiscated all the freshman’s bras and decided to have some fun. They tied the bras together and left them hanging down off the third floor balcony for the freshman to retrieve.

There were hours of storytelling and reminiscing on Friday night as members of the team came back to Columbia for a 10-year reunion this homecoming weekend. The only Missouri team to win a Big 12 Conference Championship during the 10 years of conference play, it finished the season winning a school record-tying 47 games and with a No. 12 national ranking.

“We’re so proud of that accomplishment,” athletic director Mike Alden said of the team’s Big 12 title. “While that’s not something we want to stay with, we’re still really proud.”

It’s an accomplishment that Missouri was proud to honor this weekend, but one that reveals the mediocrity of the school’s athletic programs over the past decade.

There are 104 men’s teams that have been crowned Big 12 Champions. Missouri is the only university without such a team. Of the 118 women’s regular season championships, Missouri only has one. Comparatively, Texas has claimed 66 men’s and women’s conference season crowns.

While there is no disputing that the Big 12 has been an athletic powerhouse conference, the question has to be asked: Why have the Tigers’ athletic programs lagged so far behind?

Many of the members of that softball team pointed to Missouri’s athletic facilities as one explanation for the lack of success. In the past 10 years, renovations to the Mizzou Sports Park, which comprises all the athletic fields and complexes used for Missouri’s sports teams, have totaled $138 million.

Skouby said that these improvements have transformed Missouri’s athletic facilities from arguably the worst Big 12 sports facilities 10 years ago, to one of the best comprehensive collegiate sports venues today.

“We were way on the bottom,” Skouby said. “We were making a big deal out of stuff we didn’t have.”

Barb Rity, the teams’ No. 1 pitcher and batting champion in 1997, said that until these recent renovation projects, Missouri struggled to attract the nation’s best athletes. The Tigers simply couldn’t compete with the facilities at schools like Texas and Nebraska, which has 59 Big 12 regular season and tournament championships.

She said that she thinks athletes from out-of-state were turned off by the second-class facilities. And more telling, Missouri couldn’t even solidify commitments from many of the best athletes in the state.

“It’s not to say we didn’t make do with what we had, but I think it definitely affected recruiting,” said Barb Rity, who was a National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American in 1997. “We are getting a lot of recruits now that we weren’t getting a few years ago.”

The high-rate facilities like Mizzou Arena, the Green Tennis Center and the Mizzou Aquatics Center were still many years away when the Big 12 Conference began. Skouby said she remembers playing on worn-down softball fields with one stand of rolling metal bleachers brought to the field for home games.

Tim Hickman, Missouri’s associate athletic director, said that he thinks the recruiting front is changing for the Tigers, which could be one explanation for why Missouri’s athletic programs seem now to be more competitive within the conference than in year’s past. Recruiting in-state student athletes has improved alongside facility improvements.

“In the last seven to eight years, you can see that we have made a lot of strides,” Hickman said. “We may have been falling behind before because the best athletes want to play in the best facilities in the field.”

The Directors’ Cup standings, which releases yearly rankings of all Division-1 schools based on their athletic success, points to these improvements. From 1996-1999, Missouri’s average ranking was 91st. During the next three years, the Tigers averaged a final ranking of 51.

Missouri has had an average finish of 43rd the past four years, including a school-best No. 37 ranking for the 2002-2003 season. The Tigers are hopeful that this steady improvement of their programs will translate into Big 12 titles in the near future.

Until that happens, though, the 1997 softball team is proud to carry such a distinction.

“At this point, yes, it’s surprising for this to be the only team to win it,” said Jamie Friend, who played second base for the 1997 team. “It’s also kind of neat. But of course, I hope it doesn’t stay that way for too long.”


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