When a fast-pitch softball team loses its top pitcher, the circle often becomes a hole. When Missouri sophomore ace Chelsea Thomas was sidelined in March, reaching a second consecutive Women’s College World Series seemed remote.
So much for assumptions.
No. 9 seed Missouri will face No. 16 Hawaii in the first game of the WCWS in Oklahoma City at noon Thursday.
As a freshman, Thomas was a key cog in Missouri’s first-ever trip to the WCWS.
While Thomas is a power pitcher, her replacement is more finesse. And Kristin Nottelmann (24-7) has been nails in the postseason. She hasn’t given up more than two runs in any of her four NCAA Tournament starts. She yielded one earned run in 14 innings against Oregon, the team Missouri beat twice to capture the Columbia Super Regional.
Against the Ducks, the Tigers also got solid contributions from role players. Inserted into the lineup after impressing coach Ehren Earleywine with her batting practice efforts, Lisa Simmons added a spark to the bottom of the lineup. She had a hit and scored the only run in MU’s 1-0 victory Saturday. On Sunday, she got on base every time, going 2 for 2 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a home run.
“If you look at our stats, I think we play more kids than, I don’t want to say anybody, but I can’t think of teams that play more people than we do,” Earleywine said. “A lot of that is trying to get kids innings so that when it is their turn to step into a starting role that they’re not so green.”
A year ago, Missouri lost its first two games and was eliminated before it unpacked its bags. The Tigers reached their first WCWS by upsetting host UCLA in the Super Regional.
“Last year, our goal was to get to the World Series,” Earlywine said. “It was my fault once we got there that I never sat the team back down and said, ‘OK, we’re here now, let’s reset our goals and try to win some games.’ It was, ‘Oh, we’re just happy to be here.’
“It was such a rush going from L.A., coming home for just a minute and then going back out to the World Series, it was like a whirlwind. We never really got our feet under us. Again, it was my fault because I didn’t reset our goals.”
Earylwine’s players appear to have received the message.
“This year is going to be different,” Nottelmann told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “Last year, we were kind of awestruck about being in the World Series and making it there. We kind of settled with being there. This year, I think we actually want to prove that we are supposed to be there and we can do well.”
Women’s College World Series At A Glance
Eight teams are divided into two four-team pools. Each pool plays a round-robin schedule; the teams with the best records from each pool will meet in a best-of-three final next week. All games are played at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
Thursday Pool 1
(9) Missouri vs. (16) Hawaii, Noon (ESPN)
(5) UCLA vs. (4) Florida, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday Pool 2
(10) Arizona vs. (15) Tennessee, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)
(6) Georgia vs. (3) Washington, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Pool 1 team tidbits
The Tigers are 51-11 and the No. 9 seed. The 51 victories is a school record. Missouri is hitting .299 and has an impressive .403 on-base percentage. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Rhea Taylor leads the team with a .442 average; she has seven homers, eight triples and 47 stolen bases. Ashley Fleming is hitting .376 while Jenna Marston checks in at .371 with a team-best 52 RBI. The Tigers have won 15 of their last 17 games. Missouri has just three seniors on its roster.
The Rainbow Wahine are 49-14 and the No. 16 seed. Hawaii eliminated No. 1 seed Alabama in shocking fashion, winning two games in Tuscaloosa after being run-ruled in Game One. The Rainbow Wahine won the decisive third game on two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning. The fact that Hawaii won thanks to a homer wasn’t shocking; the team set an NCAA record with 154 homers this season (Texas led the Big 12 with 88 round trippers). Melissa Gonzalez is hitting .408 with 25 homers while Kelly Majam is hitting .406 with 30 homers.
The Bruins are 45-11 and the No. 5 seed. UCLA is making its 24th trip to the WCWS. Senior first baseman/pitcher Megan Langenfeld is one of three finalists for the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year Award. She’s hitting an eye-popping .500 with 16 homers and 49 RBI. As a pitcher, she’s 11-1 with a 1.25 ERA. Donna Kerr is UCLA’s top pitcher; she’s 18-7 with a 2.37 ERA.
The Gators are 48-8 and the No. 4 seed. Florida is playing in its third consecutive WCWS. Sophomore center fielder Michelle Moultrie (.403 batting average, 13 stolen bases), junior first baseman Megan Bush (.374, 15 homers, 50 RBI), freshman Brittany Schutte (.327, 16 homers, 55 RBI) and junior right fielder Kelsey Bruder (.366, 15 homers, 48 RBI) are the Gators’ key position players. Junior Stephanie Brombacher is Florida’s top pitcher. She’s 34-6 with a 1.89 ERA. Gators coach Tim Walton is a 1996 graduate of Oklahoma.