One is expected to break the school’s home run record. The other is said to be more fully developed than a three-time All-American.
How does softball coach Ehren Earleywine feel about these lofty expectations of his prized recruits?
Well, he’s the one making them.
Earleywine landed two of the top recruits in the nation — Casey Stangel of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and Tori Finucane of Germantown, Md. — close to four years ago. Now he finally gets to see them in black and gold.
The two call themselves Lewis and Clark, fittingly, as the duo leads Missouri from the Chelsea Thomas era and into a new frontier, trying to bring the school its first national championship in any sport since 1965.
‘The kid in the country everyone was talking about’
Pitching coach Pete D’Amour went to a tournament to watch Finucane during her freshman year of high school. D’Amour took out his phone, took a picture and sent it to Earleywine.
In the photo, coaches from softball powerhouses UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Michigan and Oklahoma lined the backstop, watching Finucane pitch under the lights.
“Before she committed to us, she was the kid in the country that everyone was talking about,” Earleywine said. “She was the next big-time, ace-caliber pitcher.”
D’Amour offered a scholarship to Finucane that summer and told her to go on an unofficial visit.
Finucane, who called the recruiting process fun but stressful, figured she’d check out the school 900 miles west of her home.
“I absolutely just fell in love with the school,” Finucane said. “Everything about it, everything it offered completely suited me.”
‘Here’s all the stuff we want you to be a part of’
Growing up in California, Stangel called University of California-Berkeley her dream school. But following a game during the summer after her freshman year, her father answered the phone, and then handed it to Stangel. The man on the other end introduced himself as coach Earleywine.
He talked about the school, the program and his coaching style. Stangel loved it, but there was one problem.
“Dad, I have no idea who I just talked to,” Stangel told her father after the call ended. “But that’s where I want to go to school.”
Earleywine and Stangel spoke on the phone regularly after that.
“I knew early on that we had a connection,” Earleywine said. “And when you feel that connection, as it relates to recruiting, your chances go up from 30 percent to 90 percent in a heartbeat because for girls, and maybe even for guys, a big part of their decision is usually based on their relationship that they have with the coaches.”
Stangel said Earleywine takes a baseball approach to the game, which she enjoys. She also said she liked his forward thinking.
“He really talked a lot about wanting to develop me as a player and make me smarter,” Stangel said. “Lots of other schools would talk about what they’ve done in the past, and they just live on it. Like, ‘We’ve won all these championships,’ or ‘We’ve done all this stuff.’ That’s really great, that’s awesome for those programs, but coach E. would always keep saying, ‘Here’s all the stuff we want you to be a part of.’ ”
‘I sleep better’
Earleywine said he expects lefty, power-hitting Stangel to break the school record for home runs before she graduates. Stangel didn’t do much to quiet the buzz when she hit a home run her first time in a Missouri uniform, during the team’s first fall scrimmage.
He also said that Finucane is further along than Thomas was in her freshman year. Earleywine said this is due to Finucane’s rise ball, her blistering, strikeout-inducing first pitch.
Although she pitches more to contact, Stangel can throw as well. In her senior season in high school, she went 28-0, posting a 0.73 ERA.
After only having one strong pitcher last season, Earleywine said he’ll appreciate a competent second option.
“I sleep better,” Earleywine said.
So with the dual-threat in the circle and Stangel’s power, can the Tigers expect to stay competitive as a national power?
“It’s funny that we’re talking about that,” Earleywine said, “because here we lost Chelsea Thomas, we lost arguably our two best hitters in J.J. (Jenna Marston) and Nicole (Hudson), and in the same breath I’m going to say to say our goals haven’t changed.”