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January 21, 2013

Tiger softball ready for the SEC

Ignore for a moment the two-time All-American pitcher in the circle and the senior class with a career winning percentage of .803.

With his team's season opener looming in less than a month, that means nothing to Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine.

"Right now, we're an average softball team," Earleywine said.

Depends on your definition of "average". The Tigers' 47-17 record in 2012 wasn't average by most standards, nor was the second-place finish in the Big 12 or the top-15 ranking in the final national polls. Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Chelsea Thomas wasn't average, not after winning 27 games and posting a 1.16 ERA, the fifth-best mark in America. And that three-game sweep in the NCAA Tournament regional in May wasn't too average, either, considering an appearance in a Super Regional is the college softball equivalent of reaching the Sweet 16.

Thomas is back for her redshirt senior year. So is the bulk of the lineup, which includes seniors Nicole Hudson and Jenna Marston, who hit .301 and .295 respectively a year ago. Still, it's not good enough for Earleywine, who inherited a losing program in 2007 and immediately turned it into a national power.

Maybe, after qualifying for six straight NCAA Tournaments and making three trips to the College World Series, losing a best-of-three Super Regional series to LSU on its home field was simply unacceptable for Missouri last season.

Maybe that's what "average" means now for Missouri softball.

"That's one of the weekends that I won't forget as long as I live," Earleywine said. "The players should be at a place right now where they're embarrassed about last year, they're mad, and they should be hungry. And if they're not, and if that doesn't push them or drive them in that direction, then we're not going to be a very good team."

The emotions of that series with LSU still linger seven months after the fact. It was quite dramatic at times, like the Game 2 victory when Missouri scored four runs in a wild 12th inning to force a third game that evening. It was bizarrely physical, too, thanks to a few controversial collisions in the basepaths. By the end of the weekend, though, LSU's own All-American pitcher, Rachel Fico, wore down the anemic MU offense and exposed the Tigers' most glaring weakness.

So that's where Missouri stands right now: A stud pitcher, an unproven lineup and a team determined to redeem itself for missing the College World Series in 2012. There's one slight problem, however. The Tigers lost Ashley Fleming to graduation, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of that lineup. As a senior, Fleming tore apart Big 12 pitchers. She batted .365, slugged .702, hit 16 home runs, knocked in 51 runs and hit her way to a spot on the second team All-American list. When MU found itself locked in a scoreless tie in extra innings against DePaul in the regionals, it was Fleming who blasted one out of the park for a walk-off solo shot. That was her role all season- the offensive savior.

Without her, Missouri's main weakness has turned into more than a minor concern.

"We relied on Ashley a lot last year. Offensively, she kind of bailed us out of a lot of situations," Hudson said. "It's going to take more than one of us to step up and fill that role."

Hudson may be referring to herself. The third baseman's power dropped a bit as a junior, but she led the team in homers as a freshman and hit 13 as a sophomore in 2011. Marston, who switched to catcher after playing shortstop for her first two seasons, doesn't have much power but tied for the team lead in on-base percentage. She sets the table batting second in the lineup, and it'll be important for the Tigers to find consistency out of their leadoff hitters. Whether junior Mackenzie Sykes, sophomore shortstop Corrin Genovese or somebody else takes that spot, Missouri hasn't had a dynamic leadoff hitter since the departure of Rhea Taylor, who graduated in 2011 as the school's all-time stolen base leader.

Sophomores Kelsea Roth and Kayla Kingsley could be sleepers to watch after productive freshmen seasons. Roth hit seven homers in 150 at-bats in 2012, and Kingsley emerged during the second half of the season after switching to a slap-hitting style. Earleywine also loves what he's seen from freshman Emily Crane, who might be in store for a ton of at-bats early in her career.

"She was probably the MVP of our team this fall," Earleywine said. "We knew she was good. But we didn't know she was that good."

The lineup may be the only thing holding Missouri back. As any softball fan knows, an elite pitcher like Thomas can carry a team all the way, and the Tigers aren't shy in discussing their national championship aspirations. Earleywine said he feels almost obligated to help Thomas and the seniors win a title.

"But I don't even feel like we're at a place where we can even talk about that right now," Earleywine said. "Tremendous amount of work ahead of these girls, a lot of adjustments to be made, a lot of improvement to be made in a lot of different areas."

There's one team on the SEC schedule everybody's already looking forward to playing. Clear your schedule for the third weekend in April, when Missouri travels to Baton Rouge for a rematch with LSU.

"I think for a lot of us through the off-season, LSU was kind of our motivation. You're having a tough workout, or you don't really want to get up and go hit or go pitch, and you just think about that LSU game and how that all ended," Hudson said. "That's your motivation."

That, and the realistic possibility of a national championship.

"I don't think there's any added pressure," Thomas said.

And if there is, it's not something from which this team will run.

"We love that kind of pressure," Hudson said. "Before, it kind of seemed like we were the underdog, but that's not the case anymore. We're right up there, and people expect us to be good every year."

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