How Missouri softball spent its 12 days off before the NCAA Tournament
After receiving a late bump from the conference tournament, the Tigers were faced with a longer than anticipated wait while other teams used their field.
May. 18, 2018
There was no questioning the fate of Kayli Kvistad’s towering fly, even before it reached its apex over right field in the seventh inning of Missouri’s Sunday matinee against the Florida Gators on May 6. But as the ball finally disappeared over the wall, the repercussions were already dauntingly imminent.
The three-run home run capped a late comeback by the Gators and cemented Missouri’s last place finish in the Southeastern Conference — and its subsequent exclusion from the SEC Tournament hosted at Mizzou Softball Stadium.
So when Missouri (28-17) opens the NCAA Tournament against Tulsa (33-23) at 3:30 p.m. Friday, its most recent taste of competition will have been the seventh inning downfall in that consequential regular season finale. That’s a 12 day hiatus between games.
“I think we’ve had our fair share of bumps and bruises,” interim coach Gina Fogue said on Tuesday. “So there’s a little bit of recovery [during the time off], but still making sure we’re working on the things we need to work on and having good practices that are meaningful.”
Twelve days is a long interval between games even for this time of year and Missouri hasn’t fared well after time off between postseason stages the last three years.
Last season, the Tigers made an early exit from the SEC Tournament in the first round and had to wait nine days before their first NCAA Tournament game. They proceeded to lose back-to-back contests and were the first eliminated from the Eugene Regional.
After winning their regional in 2016, they had a week off and were then swept by Michigan in the Super Regional. And their 2015 campaign ended similarly on consecutive losses after six days between the same two rounds.
Fogue was an assistant coach for all three of those tournament runs. She hopes to alter the trend coming out of this week-and-a-half break as her interim season in the head coaching role comes to a close.
“I think you have in mind as an assistant all the things the head coach has to go through,” Fogue said. “In my head as an assistant, it was trying to figure out sitting and listening, a lot of what I did the last eight years, and learning from those experiences. But those helped me grow.”
She and the Tigers have been tasked with trying to continue to grow during these 12 days of waiting.
Missouri’s players were given the option to attend the SEC Tournament last week and watch games together, but it wasn’t required viewing.
“It (stinks) that we weren’t in the tournament, but at the same time it’s softball, and we love softball, so getting to watch it was cool,” sophomore outfielder Cayla Kessinger said. “It was just fun. We got to hang out with each other, so we made the best of it.”
“Bittersweet” was a word both Kessinger and junior infielder Rylee Pierce used to describe the experience of watching the event play out without them on their home field.
“I think that [the other teams] not seeing us on their bracket in the tournament was probably a relief,” Pierce said. “It’s cool to see our field just beautiful and being put to use, but it left a sour taste in our bellies and we’re ready to get playing again.”
The downside of seeing the ballpark put to use by 12 other teams was that it wasn’t available to the Tigers for practice. Instead, they turned to the baseball team’s Taylor Stadium and Missouri football’s indoor facility, Devine Pavilion.
Fogue said the team practiced two to three hours per day. She also commented on the effects of post-final exam timing for many of the players.
“The focus sometimes helps because you don’t have to worry about all the studies,” Fogue said, “but then you have the outside distractions. You don’t have anything else to do. It can be good and bad.”
One of those distractions, for the first seven days at least, was not being certain whether Missouri would even receive an NCAA Tournament bid. The Tigers’ 6-17 conference mark didn’t help them much as they finished last place in the SEC and a hair above .500 overall. Being swept by Florida to end the regular season left them lingering vaguely around the bubble.
“Setting up practices and keeping routines the same is one of the things we wanted to make sure we were doing,” Fogue said. “We tried to make it as normal as possible, worked on what we needed to work on after the Florida series and just kind of made it like another week of practice.”
But when it came time for the Tigers to learn the selection committee’s verdict for them, confidence that they would be in dominated the clubhouse. Missouri’s biggest selling point was its No. 23 RPI ranking, boosted immensely by playing a cut-throat SEC schedule.
“We kicked (butt) in our RPI,” Pierce said.
So, did she think the Tigers would get in?
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah.”
That they did, and comfortably at that; Missouri is the No. 2 seed in the four-team Norman regional.
“I don’t think there was any doubt in my mind that we were gonna make the tournament,” Kessinger said. “It was just where were we gonna get placed was the biggest question.”
On Tuesday, two days after being placed in Norman where they’ll take on Tulsa first, Kessinger and Pierce were dying to get back out on the field against an opponent. They were nine days into the hiatus. By game time on Friday, they will have waited long enough.
“I know our record doesn’t show much,” Pierce said, “but we’re ready to go out there and compete.”
Edited by Adam Cole | firstname.lastname@example.org