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January 22, 2013

One-on-one with Chelsea Thomas

An injury is not a good thing. Most times, anyway.

But in a funny way, it's a good thing Chelsea Thomas suffered that stress fracture three years ago.

"It's really been a blessing in disguise," Thomas said.

Otherwise, the two-time All-American pitcher would be long gone from Missouri's softball program. It's simple math, really. As a sophomore in 2010, Thomas made 14 appearances. It was 14 too many for her opponents. She struck out 34 batters in three games against Alabama and Michigan, later threw two no-hitters and started 12-1. Thomas was untouchable.

And then, suddenly, she wasn't.

After Missouri had played its first 25 games of the 2010 schedule, this rising star in the circle learned she'd miss the rest of the season with a stress fracture in her throwing wrist. A year after reaching the College World Series as a freshman, Thomas would watch her sophomore year from the dugout.

"I was devastated at first," Thomas said.

As anybody rightfully would be. However, per NCAA rules, Thomas hadn't appeared in enough games to qualify for a full season. That's where the math comes in. It meant she was eligible for a medical redshirt. In other words, because she sat out 2010, she can play her fifth and final season in 2013.

Call it her "real" senior season, which she can share with fourth-year seniors Jenna Marston, Nicole Hudson and Rachel Hay.

"It really was a chance for me to learn a different side of the game. I'm fortunate to have this year," Thomas said. "JJ, Nicole and Rachel are some of my best friends. I was bummed when I got hurt, but knowing I could end my career with them, it was really a relief for me."

After two straight record-breaking seasons in the circle for Missouri, it's apparent the stress fracture is a distant memory for Thomas. When she returned in 2011, she showed off her slimmer frame and immediately made up for lost time by leading the nation with a 0.95 ERA. It ended abruptly when a walk-off home run by Baylor's Holly Holl eliminated Missouri from the College World Series, but Thomas put on a show for a national television audience that night by striking out 19 batters in 12-plus innings.

She was an All-American that year, and she became the first Missouri player to ever earn All-American honors twice in a row when she did it again in 2012. Last season, her ERA dipped slightly, but she still ranked fifth nationally in that category and was among the leaders in strikeouts as well.

Without that stress fracture and redshirt year, Thomas' final memory of Missouri softball could have been her team's best-of-three defeat to LSU at home in the Super Regional last spring. She dealt with overheating issues during a 6-1 loss in the first game of the series, and she took the elimination defeat in Game Three the next day.

It just means she's had seven months to think about how she'll rectify the situation as a senior, and don't think she hasn't been thinking about the rematch with LSU during SEC play in mid-April.

"I'm looking forward to playing every team in the SEC," Thomas said. "I think I have something to prove and I'm excited to get to do that."

Thomas, who already graduated and is working toward her master's degree with the goal of eventually becoming a coach, now has one season left to win that elusive national title. No matter what 2013 has in store for her, she's already changed the culture of Missouri softball during the past four seasons alone. Just look at the Tigers' record book. She's already shattered the record for strikeouts and also ranks third all-time in wins, needing 15 this season to tie Teresa Wilson.

Seniors like Thomas make Coach Ehren Earleywine's job a lot easier.

"This is my dream job. This is where my home is. Really, groups of kids like that are what allow you to keep your job and get you extensions and allow you to live and be with your family," Earleywine said. "What greater gift could anyone give you than that? Those kids in that senior class have given me that gift and I'll be forever grateful and indebted to them in that."

Scary thing is, Thomas thinks she can get even better in 2013. She admits the workload may have worn her down late last season. That's why she took to the international scene this summer, when she competed for Team USA and fine-tuned her mechanics.

"My focus would be on location and just my mental game, I think that's the most important part," Thomas said. "I'm not worried for this season, but I think I can learn from last season's mistakes and try to get better for this season."

Sometimes, just maybe, injuries are a good thing.

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