Eleven years ago, the Big 12 Conference came into existence. Ten years ago, the MU softball team won the school’s first Big 12 Championship. Ten years later, the MU athletic program only has that one championship to call its own.
The championship drought could end today.
Saturday’s 5-0 victory over Nebraska (36-20, 9-8 in Big 12 play), gives No. 18 Missouri (37-20, 13-3) a chance to end the season in a tie with Baylor atop the Big 12 standings. Baylor defeated No. 6 Texas A&M 5-4 in 10 innings on Saturday to secure at least a share of the Big 12 title. The Aggies blew one-run leads in the bottom of the seventh and bottom of the ninth, giving way to a passed ball in the bottom of the 10th that gave Baylor the victory.
Missouri, needing to sweep its two-game series with Nebraska to keep its championship hopes alive, had to overcome a rare four-day layoff before Saturday’s game. MU coach Ehren Earleywine sounded relieved after the win in the opening game of the series.
“I’m glad to get it over with,” Earleywine said. “It’s the first week in several weeks that we’ve had a Wednesday off. We’ve been sitting around since Monday, waiting for this game to come. The anticipation has been building and building. I’m glad it’s over with.”
Senior catcher Kathy Masterson, who hit a two-run home run in Saturday’s game, agreed with her coach.
“I was actually talking to one of my teammates before the game,” Masterson laughed, not able to conceal her excitement about the win. “We were going in to change, and I was like, ‘I just want this weekend to be over!’ It seems like it’s taken forever to get here. I just want the conference to be won.”
Coming into the weekend, Earleywine said his main concern was keeping his team focused on Nebraska and not on the possible Big 12 Championship.
“You try to keep it in the back of your mind,” he said. “But, obviously, there’s excitement.”
While many teams with titles at stake are resigned to watch the scoreboard for updates about their competitors, the Baylor-Texas A&M game didn’t start until 4 p.m., allowing the Tigers to direct all their attention to the Cornhuskers.
“We just want to focus on what we have to do,” Earleywine said. “We’re not going to worry about Baylor and Texas A&M.”
“Now, I know the girls will be checking the Internet and that kind of stuff,” he chuckled. “But, the goal is to go about our business as normal tonight and win tomorrow. No matter what happens, we’ll at least be co-champions.”
Although today’s game is the most important game for Missouri softball in the past 10 years, the players are attempting to heed their coach’s advice and act like it’s just another Sunday afternoon at the park.
“There is (more pressure),” Masterson said, “but I’m not going to try and think about it.”
Second basemen Sarah Stringer, who also hit a two-run home run, said Saturday’s game calmed her for the weekend.
“After this game, I don’t think I’m going to feel any pressure tomorrow,” she said. “It’s going to be like any other game, a little more emotional afterwards, but before, I’m going to think it’s just like any other game.”
Stringer couldn’t deny, however, that the amount of fans in the stands at University Field served as a strong reminder of what’s at stake this weekend.
“It was amazing out here,” Stringer said, looking into the stands as the fans exited. “We had fans, we had a lot of support today, and that makes the game even more fun.”
Stringer and the rest of the Tigers can probably expect even more fans today. Tickets for the 1 p.m. game are only $1.
A season that has exceeded everyone’s expectations except for the team itself hinges on one game.
“I’ll sleep pretty well tonight,” Earleywine said. With a laugh, he added, “Actually, that’s a lie.”