Score round one of Border War 2.0 a technical knockout for the Missouri Tigers. Mizzou used two two-run homers and a strong effort from No. 2 pitcher Casey Stangel to send Kansas to the loser's bracket of the NCAA Softball Tournament's Columbia Regional with a 6-3 victory on Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers hit Kansas starter Kelsey Kessler from the outset, but lost two runners on the basepaths in the top of the first. In the Tiger second, catcher Kirsten Mack belted her third home run of the season into the left field bleachers to give Mizzou a 2-0 lead it would never relinquish. The homer came one pitch after Mack had hit a ball even further but just a few feet foul.
"It was just another pitch. It was a long foul ball," Mack said. "I tried not to get amped up and went back and cleared my mind and went through my same hitting routine."
"I personally thought that that was the back-breaker. To me, that was the at bat that personified that whole game," Mizzou head coach Ehren Earleywine said. "I felt the steam come out of them after that happened."
Missouri added a run in the third on a single by third baseman Angela Randazzo. The junior added two more RBI on a fifth-inning no-doubt home run to left that put the Tigers up 5-0 and chased Kessler from the circle.
"I didn't even watch it. I was hoping it was fair and it ended up being fair," Randazzo said. "I think we all knew that we all needed to step up as a team."
For a second day in a row, Missouri leaked some oil down the stretch, but managed to cross the finish line with the lead. Kansas scored a run in the fifth and loaded the bases in the bottom of the sixth, but Stangel induced a ground ball from Taylor McElhaney and Friday's hero Corrin Genovese turned a 6-3 double play to end the threat.
"It was huge," Stangel said. "We've been working on double plays really hard in practice and I kind of looked at Corrin and I was like, 'Just like we do in practice every day. Right here.' Just throwing pitches that would be good for someone to hit a ground ball was the focus. It's awesome to have the defense I have behind me and I knew that she'd get it done."
Stangel allowed a two-run homer to Chaley Brickey in the seventh inning but ended the damage there and Mizzou moved on to the Regional final on Sunday at noon. The Tigers will await the outcome of elimination games between Bradley and Nebraska at 6 with the winner facing Kansas at 8:30. The survivor faces Missouri on Sunday needing two wins to keep Mizzou from its seventh consecutive appearance in the Super Regional, the softball equivalent of the Sweet 16.
Did it mean more because it was Kansas? Depends on who you ask.
"We're freshmen, so it was just another game for me," Mack said. "Nothing more, nothing less other than it was a regional game and we're trying to stay in the winner's bracket and get to a championship game and go try and win a regional."
"Kansas had nothing to do with it," Randazzo said. "Another win under our belts."
"Both of those kids that spoke are not Missouri kids," Earleywine, a Jefferson City native, said. "When you recruit kids from out of state, sometimes they don't understand the significance and the depth of the rivalry between two schools.
"I personally have a little bit more of a fighter nature and so that type of game would have helped me be extra focused, especially if I was an in-state kid. But we played well enough to win and all that stuff really doesn't matter a whole lot other than the fact that we beat Kansas." The fact that Missouri has gotten to that point without the services of injured ace Tori Finucaine--and will be through both Regionals and Super Regionals after an MRI that showed her thumb injury was worse than originally suspected--has been a pleasant surprise for Earleywine.
"I knew the hill got steeper. It was gonna be more of a battle and how are we gonna do this? Pull a rabbit out of our hat," Earleywine said. "I really thought we're gonna have to pull everything out of our bag that we've got to win this thing. And I'm thankful. Am I surprised? Maybe a touch, just being quite honest."