Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
From the highest-level athlete to a fan of a really good team, there’s nothing quite so shocking as the upset loss that ends a season with high expectations, expectations now crashed to earth. It’s even worse when it means the end of a great career, that beloved superstar that walks off the field for the last time, never having quite made it to the Promised Land.
After a second straight year of a shocking loss in an NCAA Super Regional, this time to Washington (it was LSU last time around), the MU softball program and its fans now look to life without Chelsea.
Chelsea Thomas, with all those All-American awards and Pitcher of the Year in two conferences, is gone for good. So are several other top players including some that are darn near irreplaceable. We lose Nicole Hudson, whose move from the field to the pitching circle didn’t keep her from being one of the team’s most reliable hitters. Farewell Jenna Marston, who became a terrific catcher and also contributed a lot to the offense. Lindsey Muller, Princess Krebs, and Rachel Hay all have played their final game in the black and gold.
But, after even with the loss of quite possibly the greatest player in the program’s history, and several other key components, there’s reason for plenty of optimism.
The focus will be on replacing Thomas, but really if you want to see this team go from where they are to the next step and get back to planning trips to Oklahoma City every spring, you need to look at the offense. The scores in the Super Regional games that broke the Tigers’ hearts are very telling. This year, the Washington Huskies beat Missouri 1-0 and 2-1. Last year, LSU beat them 6-1 and (after a 5-1 MU victory) 2-1. Five games, only one of which saw the Tigers cross the plate more than once? Yeah, replacing Thomas is not all this team needs.
So, while we share the excitement about high school superstar pitchers Casey Stangel and Tori Finucane coming to Columbia, let’s talk about what coach Ehren Earleywine’s done to build the power on this team with these big bats coming to Columbia for next season.
Jordan Zolman is a hard-hitting corner infielder who can also pitch out of tiny Arbyrd, Mo. Can she hit? Her batting average for this year is said to be .827, so I’d say that’s a yes. She also put up impressive power stats.
Kelli Schkade a slick shortstop out of Albany, Texas, who can also hit for average and power and comes from an athletic family (big sister Jami plays softball for Illinois.)
Yet another power hitter in Kirsten Mack out of Riverside, Calif., who has played mostly third base but can also hold down a spot at first or in the outfield. The signing of Mack also means that for two years running, Mizzou has signed a player out of the top softball competitors in Southern California (Tiger freshman Sarah Moore is from Chino Hills) a sure sign of how far the program has come as far as establishing a national brand.
While it’s great to bring in players from SoCal, Missouri’s also continuing to bring in the best of the home state’s players. Natalie Fleming (sister of former Tiger Ashley Fleming) is a three-time Missouri All-Stater. Fleming’s also a strong hitter with an impressive on-base percentage…and her hometown of Silex makes Arbyrd look like New York City.
So, there are reasons to think the Tigers might just have some more pop in their bats in the years to come. But that still leaves that over-arching question—what about pitching? When Bailey Erwin decided to head back home to Oklahoma mid-season, we saw that no matter how great your No. 1 pitcher is, only having one is a bad idea. That’s why it’s so impressive that Earleywine has inked not one but two pitchers who are listed as high school All-Americans and as Gatorade Players of the Year in their respective states, for this year; with a good possibility of yet a third in the following year.
Probably the crown jewel of this class is Finucane. Mizzou beat out the best of the softball world for this one. UCLA wanted her bad, so did Alabama and some of the other powers of the sport. Small wonder—her numbers last year were preposterous, with a 26-1 record, an ERA of 0.21 and 341 strikeouts in 164 innings. This fireballer has the potential to challenge Thomas’ incredible numbers in the Mizzou record book.
But, perhaps with last season in mind, the Tigers have brought in a second All-American in Idaho’s Stangel (go ahead, let’s get the jokes about her name out of the way now.) The three-time winner of Idaho’s Player of the Year award, she managed to top Finucane’s record by going 28-0 her senior year while leading Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City High to a state title. And if her pitching skills weren’t enough, you can add her name to those above who could contribute significant hitting skills to the Tigers in the next few years, as she batted .640 with 16 home runs.
And if those two aren’t enough depth for you, a third pitcher, and a third Gatorade Player of the Year in her state, appears headed towards Boone County in the next batch of recruits, as Paige Lowary of Dallas Center-Grimes (Iowa) high school has given an unofficial verbal commitment to play for the Tigers starting in 2014. Unlike college football, it’s pretty rare for these verbals to be broken, and it looks likely that in a couple of years that Tigers might have not two but three top-line pitchers, to go along with an improved offense.
So, the future looks awfully bright — with one potential dark cloud on the horizon. Great high school pitchers do not automatically become great college pitchers. One of the main reasons Thomas went from a fireballer with very little control, almost a softball version of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, into the winningest pitcher MU’s ever seen is the outstanding coaching of Pete D’Amour. D’Amour’s one of the great assistant coaches in college softball, so it’s small reason he’s considered a hot prospect for schools with head coaching vacancies. We’re hearing whispers that put his name in the same sentence with an opening at the University of Virginia, and I doubt it’s the only job for which he’ll be seriously considered. A school looking for a coach would be foolish not to look at him.
Short term, it would be a big loss for the Tigers. They’d be very hard-pressed to find a better pitching coach than D’Amour, and Earleywine’s staff of D’Amour and Melissa Paul has been stable since Ehren came back to Missouri. Like Gary Pinkel, Earleywine’s a believer in stability in the coaching staff.
But long term, losing assistants for head coaching opportunities is like this outstanding recruiting class. It’s just one more sign that Missouri softball has become one of the top programs in the nation.