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May 15, 2011

Big 12 Champs



The Missouri softball program has risen to unprecedented heights the past three seasons.

Two appearances in the Women's College World Series, three Regional championships, a Big 12 Tournament title - all signs the Tigers are becoming a national presence.

But during that time one thing evaded the Tigers' grasp: a conference regular season title. The Tigers came achingly close to it in 2009, but an Oklahoma sweep of Missouri made the difference as the Tigers finished two games behind the champion Sooners.

"I just cannot emphasize enough how elusive that thing has been," Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said.

On Saturday at University Field, the Tigers finally caught their prey.

No. 6 Missouri swept a doubleheader from Iowa State 8-2, 8-1 to clinch at least a share of their first Big 12 regular season crown since 1997. If No. 7 Texas loses to No. 17 Baylor on Sunday afternoon in Austin, the Tigers win the crown outright.

"So many times we've had it right in our hands and it slipped away," Earleywine said. "I was just beginning to wonder if we were ever going to win one. It comes to a point where you're like 'Are we just not good enough?'"

As Missouri (46-7, 15-3 Big 12) gathered in the middle of the infield and held aloft the championship trophy in the postgame celebration, those fears officially disappeared. The title is another check mark in the list of accomplishments the Tigers have piled up the past few seasons.

"Since I've been here it's been one of our goals," junior Kristin Nottelmann said. "My freshman year we were real close to getting it and it just slipped away. To have it be solidified today was just a great win."

"We just wanted to make sure we came out and could win it, and thank God we did," junior Ashley Fleming said.

It marks the first time a Missouri team has won a Big 12 regular season championship since the soccer team did it in 2009, and it's only the third time overall in Missouri history.

The Tigers wrapped up their regular season a day early as the threat of rain on Sunday forced that day's game to be played Saturday. With a conference championship on the line, Missouri wasn't willing to take any chances of a game not getting played.

"When they told us we were playing two games, we were like, 'Wow, this is going to happen today. We're going to win the Big 12 today. Not tomorrow, today,'" senior Megan Christopher said.

The Tigers' offense showed its power against an Iowa State team that's second to last in the Big 12.

In game one, Fleming gave Missouri a 3-0 lead in the third with a shot over the right field fence that bounced across the street onto the A.L. Gustin Golf Course.

After the Cyclones got a run back on a solo home run in the top of the fourth, Missouri pulled away with a two-run double from sophomore Princess Krebs and an RBI single from senior Lisa Simmons in the fifth, and two more runs in the sixth.

Redshirt sophomore Chelsea Thomas went six innings and struck out nine to improve to 27-5. Sophomore Nicole Hudson pitched mop-up duty in the seventh.

In the second game, Nottelmann made her first start since May 4 as once again Missouri's bats came alive.

Senior Abby Vock hit a two-run home run in the third inning and Fleming followed up with her second three-run shot of the day, this one an opposite field shot.

Another RBI single from Simmons put Missouri up 6-0 by the end of the third.

Vock hit another home run in the fourth inning to increase the lead to 7-0. It was her sixth home run of the year after hitting two her previous three seasons combined.

Before the inning ended, Hudson doubled home sophomore Jenna Marston to complete the scoring for Missouri.

Nottelmann pitched a complete game, giving up three hits and one unearned run to improve to 15-1 on the year. Her performance was a positive sign that she could be a contributor in postseason play.

"It's a little bit of a confidence boost," Nottelmann said. "I like getting to face a better team going into postseason so it makes me feel like I'm ready for postseason if I'm needed."

The Tigers now wait to see who and where they will play in next weekend's NCAA Regionals. The NCAA Selection Show will on ESPNU at 9 p.m. Sunday and PowerMizzou.com will have a story with reactions from the team soon after.

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