Softball closes season with crucial series against Tennessee

Thomas is scheduled to pitch Friday and Sunday.

Senior Nicole Hudson delivers the ball home during the Black and Gold Game on Feb. 9 at University Field. Hudson has been coach Ehren Earleywine's Saturday starter of late in an effort to give star hurler senior Chelsea Thomas a day off. Maneater File Photo

Between a midseason transfer of a key player, an exhausted senior pitcher and 14 canceled games due to poor weather, the 2013 Missouri softball season cannot be described as boring.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had as much drama as I’ve had this year,” coach Ehren Earleywine said.

But even with all of the distractions away from the diamond, Missouri enters its final series of the year, which starts Friday at 6 p.m. at University Field, with a chance to not only win the Southeastern Conference, but also to raise its all-important RPI.

That won’t be easy for the Tigers, considering their opponent is SEC-leading No. 2 Tennessee.

“It’s a weekend that could really help us,” Earleywine said. “If Chelsea (Thomas) can win a couple of games for us this weekend, I think that would be enormous for us. Expecting the sweep, I think, is too big of an expectation. So we’re going to just try to win the series.”

Winning the series has been Earleywine’s philosophy the past two weeks. After losing two straight SEC series in which Thomas started every game, Earleywine decided to rest Thomas on Saturdays in the next two series. The strategy paid off as Missouri took two of three games at both Louisiana State and Kentucky in consecutive weekends.

Earleywine expects to keep that same pitching schedule against Tennessee.

“It’s Friday, Sunday right now,” Earleywine said. “If something changes, and she wakes up on Saturday and says, ‘You know what, give me the game ball, I’m good to go,’ then we will throw her on Saturday. I’m not against that at all. In fact, I’m praying for when that day happens. It just hasn’t come to fruition yet.”

That schedule leads to senior Nicole Hudson starting Saturday in the circle for a game with serious conference and NCAA tournament, which will be televised in over 99 million households on ESPN. Although not recruited to pitch, Hudson downplayed the pressure, saying that it was no different from any other game.

“I’ve just got to go out and pitch to the best of my ability and try to keep Tennessee off balance,” Hudson said.

Although Earleywine isn’t expecting a sweep, as he said, a win could really help Missouri as far as the postseason goes. Right now, the Tigers sit at No. 13 in terms of RPI, which puts Missouri in place to host a Regional but not a Super Regional. Typically, the top 16 teams get a Regional and the top eight get a Super Regional.

Earleywine said that aiming to get a Super Regional weighs on him, but Hudson said it isn’t a focus for the players.

“We don’t really pay attention to it,” Hudson said. “I know, in the past, it’s something I would’ve tried to look at, but at this point, we’re just going to take it a game at a time as much as we can. It really doesn’t matter. If we’re here, that’s great, if we have to go on the road, then so be it.”

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