By Molly Hulsey
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Missouri softball head coach Ehren Earleywine doesn't mince words when it comes to pitcher Chelsea Thomas.
"If she stays healthy and passionate, I think Chelsea could eventually be the best that ever pitched," Earleywine said.
His words are some of the highest praise possible for any pitcher, but to truly express their weight, Earleywine has to go back to the first time he saw Thomas pitch. Thomas was only lightly recruited out of high school, and Earleywine had no intentions of traveling to see her in action. After receiving persistent emails and tapes from her father, he made the drive to Pleasantville, Iowa, and pulled out his radar gun to see what Chelsea could do. After the first pitch, he knew something was wrong.
"The gun read 73 miles per hour. I told her dad, there's something wrong with my gun, and I'm going to need to recalibrate this thing."
The next pitch? 74 miles per hour.
"I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone," he said. "I knew that if that kid committed to us, I had a chance to be a pretty good coach."
Commit she did, and for Chelsea, coming to Missouri was a dream come true.
"I always dreamed that I would be able to play Division I softball, but I never really knew if I could do it," Thomas said. "Knowing that this team and this program were on the rise, it was an incredible offer and one I couldn't deny. It's one of the best choices I've made so far in my life."
It was a good choice for Missouri as well. Although her sophomore season came to an abrupt end after a wrist injury that eventually led to a medical redshirt, Thomas has had an immense impact on her team in just two seasons. Since Thomas' arrival, the Tigers have made two straight World Series appearances after a 15 year drought, and look to return as they host NCAA regionals this weekend.
As a program on the rise, the team has received increasing media attention, capped off by a nationally televised series against Oklahoma, which was a special moment for Thomas.
"Being on ESPN gives you a little something extra," Thomas said. "I know a lot of East and West coast schools look at us and think, 'Oh, that's just Missouri,' but for them to get to see that we're more than just a small-town school was great."
Individually, this has been the best season of Thomas' career, and she is only a redshirt sophomore. Earlier this month, Thomas was named the Big 12 Player of the Year. She set a school record for most strikeouts in a season, received an invitation to try out for the USA Softball Women's National Team and is a finalist for USA Today's National Player of the Year award. For Thomas, however, what is most important about this season is the team around her, one she hopes and truly believes can make a deep postseason run.
"This team is the best chemistry-wise that I've been on in my entire life," Thomas said. "Everyone just meshes well together, and that is one of the best things about this team."
To Earleywine, Chelsea represents more than just a star player. After raising her game to such a high level after injuries and struggles, she represents a mindset and example for the entire team.
"We live in a world of quitters. Everyone wants to quit as soon as things get tough, and to watch Chelsea go through what she went through and persevere is just a good lesson for everybody."