By Darren Hellwege, KBIA Sports Director
How confident is too confident? Is there a point where you worry about a team being too cocky, or does it lead to an attitude that produces greatness?
Mizzou softball’s very good, and they know it. So good, that a dominant victory Wednesday left many on the team feeling down. Yeah, it was a shutout, but for a team with three no-hitters already this year, giving up a few hits (including a bunt single that traveled a matter of inches) feels like you’ve been battered. Yeah, they had a home run and scored plenty to win, but when six of the last eight wins have been by the “mercy rule” just letting a team take you into the seventh seems like a bit of a defeat. But, it’s an attitude that might carry a team that’s been to two straight College World Series, accomplishing very little once they reached Oklahoma City, to the next level, the only level left: national champs.
The Tigers ran their current win streak to 14 as a first inning blast from Marla Schweisberger and strong pitching from Chelsea Thomas and Kristin Nottelmann combined to give MU a 3-0 victory over Southern lllinois at University Field. It was a dominant performance, but that’s exactly what coach Ehren Earleywine expects in games like this.
“We’re not proud. We’re not happy. We feel like, with teams like this, we should shut them out, and we should score 6-7 runs,” said Earleywine. He noted that an early lead, with pitchers like Thomas and Nottleman, can lead batters to be relaxed, and while that’s sometimes a good thing, one can get too relaxed. “It’s a little hard sometimes to get motivated for these non-conference games, we know the Big 12 will be tough. But you can’t let up, it can throw your mechanics off and really mess you up.”
Schweisberger’s mechanics looked solid in the first inning. After Rhea Taylor opened the game with a single and added her obligatory stolen base (that’s 16 this year) Schweisberger took the second pitch from SIU’s Danielle Glossen over the left-centerfield wall to give Mizzou a 2-0 lead. And while the Salukis had threatened, a little, in the first inning 2 runs turned out to be twice as many as the Tigers would need, and when Glossen walked in another Tiger tally in the third, Red Auerbach could have lit a cigar for how unlikely a Tiger loss was.
Which could be a concern, says Earleywine. Asked if a loss at this point in the year might sharpen focus, he agreed it might be useful. “I don’t usually like the idea of good losses. Losing makes me want to puke. But yeah, like last year with Ball State sometimes it’s needed.”
Schweisberger’s trip up the lineup to the two-hole has been one of Earleywine’s famed Mad Scientist experiments that’s worked well so far. She hit gangbusters last weekend and added the home run Wednesday, her second of the season to go along with 18 RBIs, tied with Ashley Fleming for tops in this murderers row. With so many bats doing so well (of the starting nine on Wednesday, No. 9 hitter Abby Vock is the only one with a slugging percentage under .500) Earleywine certainly has a lot to work with.
Which is a luxury, given that he may well also have the best one-two punch in the circle in all of college softball, and both pitchers Thomas and Nottelmann continue to be on a roll. With four innings on Wednesday, Thomas has now gone 41.2 innings without giving up a run. She struck out five, gave up two hits and walked one in running her record to 7-2 on the year. Nottelmann pitched three innings out of the bullpen for her second save, with a remarkable line—one hit, six strikeouts and no walks. The ERA comparison might frighten coaches elsewhere in the conference—Nottleman’s is an anemic 1.02, Thomas has a ridiculous 0.38.
Not surprisingly, the Tiger swagger is also found in that pitching staff, where Thomas said of her performance “It makes me mad when they get a hit.”
Even when it’s a dribbler down the line, held on the right side of the chalk by pure dumb luck? “I hate it.”
One thing about the confidence of the sophomore pitcher from Pleasantville, Iowa: it has never extended to thinking about her teammates with anything less than full respect, including her pitching partner Nottelmann. Asked about the half-day pitching, the sort of thing many aces would grumble about, Chelsea was matter-of-fact. “We both need to see batters mid-week.”
“We compliment one another very well,” added Thomas, “I do the drop and she does the riseball so well. It’s really a double-edged sword.”
Thomas also was complimentary of the rest of her teammates. “We’re hitting really well now, which makes my job a lot easier. I’m very grateful.” It’s hard to be this confident and this humble at the same time. Chelsea Thomas makes it work.
The game ticks the countdown clock one day closer to the goal all the Tigers eagerly await. It’s now seven more days until Big 12 season opens. And whether they need one of those “good losses” this weekend when they host the Wilson Classic with North Dakota State, Western Michigan, and Minnesota, or they sweep through all five games this Friday through Sunday, the Tigers say they’re ready for March 23rd, when a trip to Lawrence to take on arch-rival Kansas will start the Big 12 season.
And how ready are the Tigers for Big 12 play? Earleywine was in full agreement with the assessment of Chelsea Thomas. It may sound arrogant, cocky, or whatever, but let there be no doubt in Norman, Austin, Stillwater, or Lawrence. “We are 100 percent ready. The Big 12 is tough, but we’re ready for the competition.”