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May 22, 2011

Mizzou moves on

All season the Missouri softball team bounced back against a team it had lost to the day before.

In the regular season, that ability avoided a losing streak.

In NCAA Regional play on Sunday at University Field, it saved the Tigers' season.

One day after losing a heartbreaker to DePaul in extra innings, the Tigers won two elimination games and took their fourth-straight Regional crown. Redshirt sophomore Chelsea Thomas won both games and pitched a no-hitter in the clincher.

With winning scores of 7-3 and 8-0, it was hard to imagine this was the same Missouri offense struggling to only one run in 11 innings against the same team on Saturday.

But it's part of a pattern the Tigers have developed. Before Sunday, Missouri had come back to beat a team it had lost to the previous day three times. Sunday marked the fourth (and most important) time.

"Whatever we do on Saturday that we don't do well, they seem to always come back on Sunday and have had made adjustments," Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said. "They did that today."

Part of the adjustment was physical. On Saturday, Missouri kept popping up DePaul's riseballs. It warranted a different approach at the plate.

"We had to make those adjustments today," said senior Rhea Taylor, who hit two home runs Sunday. "Getting on the top half of the ball, and that's what we did today."

"When you're facing a riseball pitcher, you have to kind of smother that pitch," Earleywine said. "You have to swing over the top of it. When you face a dropball pitcher, you have to try to hit the ball in the air.

"We just didn't do those things yesterday and I had a hunch that we would do it today. It's a very determined group of kids."

The other part of the adjustment process was mental.

DePaul beat Missouri on Saturday by scoring the winning run on a shocking play at the plate. The Tigers could easily have become shell-shocked, but Taylor said Earleywine played a role in getting the Tigers to feel better about their situation.

"After a game like that, it's easy for a coach to be pissed off and say, 'You need to get it together,'" Taylor said. "But he had encouraging words and I think that's what helped drive us."

Earleywine said earlier in his coaching career he may have chewed out his players after such a loss, but now he takes a different approach.

"Every morsel of your being wants to knock peoples' heads off ... But I know that that wasn't going to do any good," Earleywine said. "I know all they needed was some encouragement and some reminders of who they are."

It didn't take long to see the adjustments had paid off.

In the first game, Missouri took a 4-1 lead in the second inning, capped by Taylor's line drive three-run homer to right center field. She drove in another run the next inning on a fielder's choice to increase the lead to 5-1 and Missouri held on for the 7-3 victory.

Thomas went the distance, giving up a run on four hits and striking out four.

In the second game, Missouri jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a two-run shot by junior Ashley Fleming. As Thomas held DePaul at bay, the Tigers built a 6-0 advantage by the sixth inning. That's when Taylor struck again, this time with a two-run homer to give Missouri an 8-0 lead.

Coming into Sunday, Taylor had two home runs and nine RBI all season. She ended the day with two home runs and six RBI. Her performance gained Taylor redemption after she forgot how many outs there were and was doubled off second base late in Missouri's loss to DePaul on Saturday.

"It's just being on this field, and I'm a senior and I didn't want it to be the last time, so I just said, 'You just need to stop thinking and just do what you do,'" Taylor said.

Thomas put the Blue Demons down in order in the bottom of the inning for the run-rule victory. Her lone blemish on the day was a walk in the fifth. The no-hitter was her fourth of the season and eighth of her career.

But if there was one concern regarding Thomas, it was her drop in velocity. Earleywine said his ace was throwing between 62 and 65 miles per hour Sunday. Thomas usually throws in the upper 60s and lower 70s.

Thomas reported afterward that she felt fine, and Earleywine said he didn't know a specific cause of the drop in velocity.

Though Thomas had lower than normal velocity, she put effective movement on her pitches to baffle the Blue Demons.

"It's amazing that's she not able to pitch her best and still throw a no-hitter," Earleywine said.

Missouri will host Washington in a Super Regional next weekend. Dates and times are to be determined. The 12th-seeded Huskies swept their Regional this weekend.

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