May 27, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

It may sound like a Cinderella story, but the University of Missouri’s trek back to the Women’s College World Series for the first time in 15 years is no fluke.  It’s the result of good planning.

In just his third year at the helm of the program, head coach and Missouri native Ehren Earleywine has guided the Tigers to a school-record mark of 50-10, but his system for success was set in motion during his previous stint at Georgia Tech.  As an assistant coach for two years, and head coach for three, Earleywine took the Yellow Jackets to five straight NCAA Regional appearances, and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year in 2005.

“It was a system that was already proven to be successful – a proven formula,” said Earleywine.  “You also have to have good players.  I was fortunate when I took the job that there were still good players from the former staff that gave us a chance to win early.  When that happened, it allowed us to get some of the top recruits.”

The Tigers qualified for NCAA Regionals in Earleywine’s first season in 2007, advancing to the regional finals, and then made the Super Regional round last year.  Missouri will be playing in its’ fourth WCWS, and first since 1994.

“It’s a nice progression of continually improving, and taking the next step for the program,” said Earleywine.  “We’re not taking steps backwards, but forward.  When we laid out the plan, we didn’t foresee it being this quick.  It usually takes four, five, six years to develop a team that can be one of the top eight teams in the country.  It’s a result of the kids buying into the philosophy and the right recruits coming in and giving us a chance to be there.”

Missouri claiming a berth in the WCWS was no easy task.  The Tigers cruised through the NCAA Regional they hosted in Columbia, but the unseeded squad was paired with No. 2 UCLA, champion of the mighty Pac-10.  Although most collegiate softball fans probably penciled the Bruins into the WCWS bracket, the Tigers took two of three games at UCLA’s home field for the upset of the year.  And, they won the final game 9-1 in five innings.

“It has some punch for us,” said Earleywine.  “Even though we expected to win, we certainly didn’t expect to win in that last game by run-rule.  Teams just don’t do that to UCLA, especially at their home field.   They are a storied program, and the numbers they put up speak for themselves.  They are the Pac-10 champion, and to be able win against them was a real statement.  The majority of the people that follow softball – I’m sure their jaws are dropped to the floor.  It’s just a rarity.  It’s like beating Duke basketball by 50 points – it doesn’t happen.”

The resounding victory over UCLA may have been a rarity, but the Tigers’ success has been consistent all year.  Missouri ranks 11th in the nation with a .317 batting average, and posted the best ERA in the Big 12 Conference this year (1.33 ERA – 6th in nation).  The pitching staff, led by freshman Chelsea Thomas, has put together a 1.58 ERA and .189 opponent batting average in the NCAA postseason.

“Our ace pitcher Chelsea Thomas is as hard a throwing pitcher there is in the country,” said Earleywine.  “When you have that kind of pitching staff in softball, where it is a pitcher’s party, you have that chance to win every time out.”

Since the WCWS experience with be a first for this group of Missouri coaches and players, Earleywine wants his squad to enjoy the moment, but continue to compete at the same level they have all year.

“The reality is this may be your last chance to get back here,” said Earleywine.  “You hope not – you hope you’re back next year, you may not be.  Of course, these are the biggest games you’re playing all year – it’s the World Series – but that doesn’t mean you can run faster, throw the ball harder, or hit the ball farther – you have to continue what you’ve been doing all season long.  Those special plays and dynamic moments happen naturally.   Great players allow those things to happen by going out there and being themselves and the adrenaline does the rest.”

Missouri opens the WCWS against Arizona State on May 28 at 2 p.m. CT.  The game will be broadcast live on ESPN.