Mizzou’s Thomas back in circle
Following ulna stress fracture, Tigers’ pitcher leading team
Chelsea Thomas was enjoying a dominant pre-conference season in the early spring of 2010. She owned a 12-1 record and 1.72 ERA in 77.1 innings pitched and had struck out 123 batters while allowing just 24 walks in those 14 appearances.
And then, her season was over.
“I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my ulna,” said Thomas, “and the doctor said that if I would continue pitching, it would continue to fracture and I would need surgery. But if I stopped then, he said there was a good chance it would heal in a couple months.”
Missouri struggled through the first few weekends without Thomas in the lineup.
“The stress fracture to her ulna was really debilitating to her and our whole team,” said Missouri head coach Ehren Earleywine. “She pitched so great before she went down and we had such high hopes for our season. Quite frankly, there was a period of time through the middle of our season where we lost a lot of games that we wouldn’t ordinarily lose. The morale was a little bit low.”
Current junior Kristin Nottelmann was able to pick up the slack in the circle, and the Tigers were able to make a second consecutive Women’s College World Series appearance.
Thomas was granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA for the 2010 season and has worked her way back into the lineup for Mizzou. The rehabilitation process to heal her ulna, the longer of the two bones in her forearm, was slow and careful.
“We took things really slow and made sure we rehabbed and got me back into pitching shape in the right way,” said Thomas. “I think that was one of the key things for me is how we rehabbed so slowly in the fall.”
The source of Thomas’ injury was most likely work she did over the summer of 2009 to improve her repertoire of pitches.
“We think that it was the rise ball,” said Thomas. “I didn’t have a rise ball after my freshman year, so I spent the summer trying to master that. We think that the release is so much different from the drop ball that it was the stressor that caused the fracture.”
“Time was our luxury,” said Earleywine of Thomas’ rehab plan. “We were really conservative with it. We didn’t hae any hurried pace or timeline that was looming over our shoulder to force us to speed her recovery. We had an entire year and we laid out a plan. Chelsea loves plans. She loves to know two weeks from now I’m going to be here and a month from now I’m going to be here. She needs to see those check marks.
“So we laid out a really nice plan for her, based on information from our doctor, a physical therapist, her pitching coach, me, her parents and Chelsea’s input. We all sat in a room and hashed this out and figured out what would be best for her. Of course, she followed the plan because she’s such a meticulous kid and a hard worker. She followed the plan to a T and I think we’re seeing the benefits of that now, this season.”
Thomas has earned Big 12 Pitcher of the Week awards six times this season, most recently on May 17 to close out the regular season. As a team, the Tigers lead the nation with a 1.26 ERA. Individually, Thomas ranks second in that category with a 0.81 ERA. She also stands sixth in the NCAA Division I statistical rankings with 10.9 strikeouts per seven innings and 3.47 hits allowed per seven. Thomas stands ninth with 323 total strikeouts on the year, and 12th with 11 shutouts.
The 2011 Big 12 Champions, Mizzou earned three of the league’s major postseason awards, with Earleywine tabbed as Coach of the Year and senior Megan Christopher selected co-Defensive Player of the Year.
As proof that her comeback from injury is virtually complete, Thomas earned the league’s Pitcher of the Year award. In Big 12 play, she led all pitchers with a 1.09 ERA, going 13-3 in conference play with 166 strikeouts and 27 walks in 115.2 IP. Her 323 strikeouts on the season entering postseason play is a Mizzou single-season record.
“Early on, we had limited pitch counts for her,” said Earleywine, “and we’d only allow her to throw certain pitches a certain number of times and so forth. That process was slow, but about when our conference season started, we felt like we’d done just about everything we can do to make sure she was healthy.
“At that point, she really started racking up the accolades and accomplishments, and started to look like the Chelsea Thomas that we got a glimpse of the season before, prior to her injury. She’s done some amazing things and is very deserving of the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honor. That’s really saying something when you look at the pitching in the Big 12 with Blair Luna (Texas), Whitney Canion (Baylor), Keilani Ricketts (Oklahoma) and then Chelsea. For her to get that award in a conference with pitchers of that caliber was a big deal and really well-deserved.”
Now, the focus shifts to postseason play. Mizzou opens NCAA Tournament play at 6:30 p.m. CT on Friday, May 20, against Illinois State, with Indiana and DePaul also traveling to Columbia, Mo., for this weekend’s NCAA Regional.
“I’m really excited that we got a home seed with our home fans,” said Thomas. “We have been getting crowds that have been crazy. Being able to stay with our own schedules here at home is going to be really relaxing, I think, for us, and we’re all very confident with our bracket and feeling good going into regionals.”
With Thomas healthy and back in the circle, Earleywine and his Tigers have lofty goals for the final month of the season.
“It’s like we have extra ammunition now,” said Earleywine. “Before, we were just hoping that we would get hot at the right time, and we didn’t know if we were going to be good enough to get there, and sure enough we did. Now, you take all those members from that team and you add a Chelsea Thomas to it. I think it does inspire some confidence in all of us.”