There was only one way to describe the atmosphere at University Field on Thursday evening: electric.
No. 13 Missouri softball (41-13, 15-7 Southeastern Conference) defeated No. 6 Alabama 8-6 in Game 1 of a highly anticipated series that could help the Tigers secure the conference title.
“Before the game started I could just tell that our team was ready to play,” Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said. “I knew that they were going to keep fighting. Now, whether or not we scored, I didn’t know, but I knew it was one of those deals where our girls were determined to win. They respect Alabama but there is absolutely not a shred of fear.”
The Crimson Tide rolled in with a bang, as Hailey McCleney hit a leadoff home run in the opening frame to put Alabama in the lead. The visitors tacked on another run off of a sacrifice fly in the second inning.
Then the Tigers fought back.
After an easy 1-2-3 outing in the top of the third, Missouri managed to get on the board, thanks to an RBI single from redshirt sophomore catcher Sami Fagan. Sophomore outfielder Emily Crane added the go-ahead hit with a two-run homer just fair of the left field pole, making it 3-2, Missouri.
Crane attributed her confident at-bat to the Tigers’ recent victory at Florida.
“The series win over Florida was unreal,” she said. “Just being able to beat the No. 3 team in the country was pretty awesome because we knew that we had a chance then to win the regular season title. Coming into this week it kind of lit a fire, and I think that fire is still burning.”
That fire kept going. Alabama tried to get back into the game, but the fourth inning belonged to Missouri junior infielder Corrin Genovese.
Genovese denied the Tide a hit in the top of the inning with a sliding stop, making the throw to first base for the out. She was just as effective at the plate, hitting a leadoff triple to right field and sliding home on a sacrifice fly. A solo home run by junior infielder Kelsea Roth gave Missouri a comfortable 5-2 advantage.
“These nights are made for Corrin,” Earleywine said. “She lives for this … She has a really, really low heart rate, so a good crowd actually gets her heart rate to where it’s supposed to be. So this is tailor made for Corrin Genovese.”
The Tigers wouldn’t be comfortable for long. In the next inning, an Alabama grand slam took back the lead, 6-5. But this didn’t phase Missouri.
“I don’t think we gave up at all,” Fagan said. “We have a really good hitting team and we knew we’ve put up runs before so we were going to do it again.”
And that they did.
In the bottom of the sixth, freshman Natalie Fleming regained the lead for good with a two-RBI double. An RBI single from sophomore outfielder Taylor Gadbois sealed the win at 8-6.
Missouri will secure the regular season conference title with a sweep of Alabama this weekend.
“It’s a good feeling,” Earleywine said. “When the door shuts, there’s something that’s taken away. We’ve been there before. The door is still open and that leaves hope, makes it fun. We’re enjoying this.”
Fleming has been a notably clutch performer for the Tigers all season, including a walk-off home run against Ole Miss on April 18.
“Coach Bradley described (Fleming) as having electricity in her bat,” Fagan said. “As soon as the ball hits the bat it just explodes off, and it’s awesome to have that in a freshman. That’s really encouraging.”
Asked what sparked her productivity at the plate, Fleming’s answer was simple.
“Last weekend I kind of struggled against Florida, so we worked extra hard this week,” she said. “I guess the electricity just came back.”