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February 9, 2013

Softball Kicks off 2013 Season With Exhibition

Missouri softball unveiled a new logo in the outfield of University Field on Saturday.

It's the logo of a league with five of the top 10 teams in the USA Today women's softball pre-season poll, including the eighth-ranked Tigers.

You could hear the excitement in head coach Ehren Earleywine's voice after the exhibition Black and Gold game.

"I'm so sick of the talk of the SEC," Earleywine said. "It just makes me want to puke."

Or not.

"I don't care what conference it is. Yeah, they're a good softball conference, but so what? I just think Mizzou has just gotten too caught up in this SEC thing. Let's just go play our sport."

So that's what the Tigers did on Saturday. All-American pitcher Chelsea Thomas anchored the Black team to a 5-1 victory with five scoreless innings of work, at one point hurling a pitch with such ferocity that it broke a metal bat and sent a piece spiraling toward her in the circle.

"I saw it out of my peripherals and was like, 'oh my gosh,'" Thomas said. "I've never had a bat break and fly at me."

There's not a whole lot the senior hasn't accomplished during her time at Missouri. After striking out eight batters on Saturday, nobody's worried about her performance in 2013.

Instead, all eyes were on the Tigers' offense, which sputtered at times last year and must now replace All-American outfielder Ashley Fleming. Lindsay Muller and Alyssa Cousins both hit two-run shots for the Black team off sophomore Bailey Erwin.

That was good enough for Earleywine.

"Anyone who is a Missouri fan is interested in how we swing the bat," Earleywine said. "We got 19 hits in 9 innings. Five or six other balls that were hit on the barrel, but at somebody. So for this time of the year, in this temperature, all things considered… I was pretty pleased with our offense in particular."

Freshman Emily Crane led off her Missouri career with a double in the bottom of the first inning for the Black team, and her performance also bodes well for the Tigers' offense. Earleywine said Crane was the team's top hitter during the fall season. She supported that statement on Saturday.

"Emily hit the ball on the screws every time but one, which is so prototypical of her. All fall, she did the same thing," Earleywine said. "The kid can rake."

Besides the offense and new roster additions, the exhibition game offered insight into the rest of Missouri's pitching staff. During the off-season, Earleywine emphasized the importance of Erwin's development, since she'll now pitch more innings as a sophomore to give Thomas a bit of a rest. Thomas admitted she wore down at the end of last season, so Erwin will get more opportunities in SEC play-some of which will be stressful situations, as opposed to mop-up duty.

On Saturday, she allowed those two homers for a total of four earned runs in five-plus innings. She walked three and yielded nine hits.

"She got hit hard," Earleywine said, "But it further reiterates how important it is to me that she's going to need to develop her changeup. Her hard stuff is effective, she throws good strikes, but you can't keep pounding firm balls without someone getting on time and making you pay."

Kelsea Roth and Nicole Hudson also pitched three combined innings for the Gold team, and Lindsay Muller threw four scoreless innings in relief of Thomas.

But it's Erwin who will really need to be ready to take the circle in the spring.

"She's so important. I'm not going to be able to make it through the season by myself," Thomas said. "She's going to help me out a lot."

Missouri's real season begins in sunny California next weekend. The Tigers kick off a tournament at UC-Santa Barbara on Friday morning.

"I am ready to soak up the sun," senior Nicole Hudson said. "I am ready to get some heat."

And she's ready for a new challenge in the SEC.

"Seeing that logo in the outfield is kind of exciting, but as far as the competition, we're not intimidated at all," Hudson said. "We're ready to go out and attack."

Spoken a lot like her head coach.

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