The Maneater

Mixed results defining early season for Mizzou softball

Despite powerful hitting and standout pitching, the Tigers’ record has not reflected their play.

Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics Mizzou Athletics

When asked about the Missouri softball team’s season so far, ace righthanded pitcher Madi Norman’s answers have a recurring theme: focus.

“I think focus would be the main thing that we need to carry through the season,” the redshirt sophomore said.

Last season the Tigers went 42-16. In 2017, the team lost three of its best hitters and the ace of its pitching staff in Paige Lowary. They also added 10 new players, including seven freshmen. After playing their first series of Southeastern Conference play against No. 1 Florida last weekend, the Tigers now sport a record of 11-10 on the season.

“We’re young, and we really just have a lot to learn, so at the beginning of the year, we had to find [ourselves] as a team and find our identity,” freshman shortstop Braxton Burnside said. “I think in the past couple weekends we’ve definitely found that, which has allowed us to get more wins. And I think that will only help us down the road.”

At the plate

Burnside, a native of Paragould, Arkansas, is off to a quick start this season with 21 hits, seven doubles, six home runs, and 19 RBIs. She leads the team in all four categories.

“Obviously, no one expects to come in here and do great right off the bat, but so far it’s been pretty good,” Burnside said. “Coming in and playing at the SEC level is completely different, but I was definitely up for the challenge, so it’s been exciting.”

As a freshman, Burnside said that her favorite part of playing college softball so far is the challenge.

“Every single day at practice, and every single game that we’ve played up to now, has been a learning experience for me,” she said. “And I think just soaking that all in, so I can add on to that for the next three years here, has been pretty awesome.”

Offensively, the Tigers have produced runs with exceptional extra-base power, thanks in part to a few veteran pillars in the lineup. The team currently has 62 extra-base hits, slightly fewer than half of last year’s total, even though the team is just a third of the way into the season.

Burnside leads the team with a .318 average and is followed closely by three veteran players. Senior Chloe Rathburn and sophomore Rylee Pierce are both hitting .317, and junior Amanda Sanchez is not far behind with a .313 average. Both Burnside and Pierce have started every game this season, as has senior Kirsten Mack.

“[Sanchez] could fall out of bed hitting; it’s just what she does, so we come to expect it and sometimes take it for granted, but she’s as good a hitter as there is in the country,” coach Ehren Earleywine said after the team’s first home tournament, in which Sanchez had 10 hits over six games.

Although five players have batting averages above .300, scoring has been hit or miss for the Tigers. In its 11 wins, the team has outscored their opponents 73-26, shutting out opposing teams on five occasions. In the 10 losses, the Tigers have scored 41 fewer runs than their opponents. This is where Norman’s theory about focus comes in.

“We’ve all got different areas we need to improve on, so I think mainly just focus and commitment to every play and every pitch, and really just understanding that every play and pitch is crucial and is a game changer ... I think that’s going to take us a long way,” Norman said.

On the bump

Norman, also new to Missouri this year, is a redshirt sophomore. She came to Mizzou after making just two starts last season at Louisville due to an injury from her freshman season.

She has a 6-4 record after 15 appearances, including 10 starts. Her biggest win came against No. 7 Washington on Feb. 24, when she pitched a complete-game shutout with 10 strikeouts in the team’s 9-5 win. She struggled against No. 1 Florida this past weekend, letting up six earned runs in a rough start.

“I’ve had ups and downs, which is probably normal for someone who just took a redshirt, but I feel like I’m very in control, and I can control big teams,” Norman said. “But just really staying focused is just what’s going to be really crucial for me in the upcoming games.”

Senior Cheyenne Baxter has also been a steady starter for the Tigers with 38 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings this season. Sophomore Danielle Baumgartner tossed her first college no-hitter and the university’s first no-hitter since 2013 against Butler on March 5. The fourth and final member of the pitching staff, Parker Conrad, has only thrown eight innings so far in her freshman season. Conrad has not pitched since Feb. 17.

“I think we’re doing a really good job of managing our pitchers … we’re pitching smarter, we’re pitching people in the right situations, so I think that’s awesome,” Norman said. “Our pitching staff really gets along great, which is something really cool to be a part of. You don’t find that on a lot of pitching staffs, which is part of what I think makes us really effective.”

The long season could prove to be a factor in the pitching staff’s effectiveness. With 34 games still to go, Baxter has already pitched more this season than she did last season. Norman has also pitched more this season than she has in any collegiate season.

Distractions

The beginning of the season has come with some distractions. The team unveiled its new stadium, Mizzou Stadium, in time for the home tournament last weekend.

“Probably one of the coolest atmospheres I’ve ever had the privilege of playing in,” Norman said. “Friday night in the stadium opener I kind of got a little bit caught up in all the people and the glitz of the stadium.”

Mizzou went 3-3 in the tournament, including a 9-8 loss in nine innings to Maryland after entering the seventh inning with a 7-1 lead.

“I’d give them about a C minus,” Earleywine said after the tournament concluded. “We have to beat Maryland. You have to be 4-2 this weekend, period. You hope that you can squeak one out from Oregon and be 5-1, but to be 3-3 is just unacceptable. So, C minus, but I will say this: We seem to be making incremental, small baby steps of making improvements. And if you put four or five little things together, you can change the entire softball game. And we will.”

Distractions consumed part of last season when it was announced that coach Earleywine was under investigation by the athletic department and the MU Office for Civil Rights and Title IX. The investigation concluded in August when interim Chancellor Hank Foley released a statement that said, “it was determined that there was no violation of our non-discrimination policies.”

With the investigation concluded and new players on the squad, it seems that last season’s drama has passed. Earleywine is in his 11th season coaching at Mizzou.

“He’s probably one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever had,” Norman said. “He’s very straightforward, and he tells you what you need to work on....he’s one of the most brilliant people in the game of softball that I’ve ever met, so it’s awesome to come into a program and have total confidence in your coach.”

Earleywine was impressed by the new stadium and felt that the atmosphere would only improve as the team’s record does.

“These stands will be completely full when we get back to our real winning ways, which we will. I don’t know when that’s going to be … but it will be in the very near future,” he said after the tournament.

Moving forward

The team has a solid pitching staff, new hitters and a passionate head coach. The key for the rest of the season will be pulling everything together to make a cohesive team.

“We obviously haven’t had the outcomes that we were looking for — that everyone was looking for — but I think the process has been really good,” Burnside said.

The team struggled against No. 1 Florida this past weekend in a series that was cut short because of inclement weather. Norman struggled in the game Saturday, letting up six runs and four walks. Sunday’s game, a pitcher’s duel, was much closer. Baxter pitched a complete game, letting up the solo run of the game in the first inning and holding the Gators to five hits.

“I felt comfortable all night long and I was really able to get into a groove after that first inning,” Baxter said after the game in a press release. “Coach [Adam] LaLonde and Kirsten [Mack] did a great job with our pitching game plan tonight and we did a good job executing.”

The team plays next on March 15 at home against Iowa in a doubleheader starting at 3 p.m.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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