Youth movement consumes dominant Missouri softball program

Ten freshmen look to contribute to a steadily rising program.
Senior Kristin Nottelmann pitches the ball Friday evening against North Central Missouri College at Taylor Stadium. MU finished the game with a 13-0 shutout.

First baseman Kelsea Roth is walking through an empty field with three of her nine freshman teammates. It’s about 9 p.m., but clouds block the moon from illuminating the players' way. The women just got their first-ever experience on a college softball diamond in a double-header on this starless Friday and they can't tell where they’re going. The path is so dark they can hardly make out the U-shape of a field goal post just steps ahead. For now, the freshmen’s destination is unknown.

All 10 of them are stepping into a rocket-ship program, one that has made three consecutive Women’s College World Series appearances, one of the nation’s highest rising. Young players are filling the wide void left by nine graduates. Gone is the electric Rhea Taylor, who flooded the stat books last year and led the team slugging .718. The hitting services of Marla Schweisberger, Catherine Lee, Gina Schneider and Shana White are no longer available. Jana Hainey and Lindsey Muller have departed the pitching staff. All their duties fall to a batch of highly-touted youngsters.

Here’s second baseman Corinn Genovese walking to the plate, the team’s competing starter at second base. It’s game one of the day. She comes to MU from Williamsville, N.Y., with a population of roughly 5,100. She’s a three-time Under Armour All-American.

“Come on, ‘Vese’!” shouts junior shortstop Jenna Marston from second. “You got this! Let’s go, baby!”

Genovese already knows she will swing at whatever comes her way. Visions are dancing in her mind of the ball cracking against her bat.

“Line drives, baby,” she’ll say with a Southern drawl escaping her voice. With a swift motion, she smacks the pitch and it is indeed a laser that goes out 220 feet. Marston crosses home.

“I love it,” she says of the college game. “It’s like three levels above what I’m used to.”

She has family at the game, lots of family. They’re beaming at her when she says of her older teammates, “I know I can go for them for anything. They’re like my family here 15 hours away from home. They’re just helping us out being our big sisters. I’m sure every freshman feels the same way I do.”

It was Bailey Erwin pitching the first game of the night. She’s 6-foot-4, one of the more imposing women you might ever see on a mound and one of the more imposing freshmen you’ll see in the game.

She’s coming off a 103-32 high school record and steps into a program where she’ll be counted on to eat extra innings and rest the All-American arm of Chelsea Thomas.

Erwin commanded the team to victory in the first game, despite allowing two consecutive homers. After the inning, she trudged to the dugout. Thomas stood barring the entrance, taking her aside and giving her pats on her tall back.

Roth said it helps to have freshmen teammates who are relatable.

“We’re all gonna have our struggles and tough times,” she said. “But we know we have each other to go to and seniors too. We couldn’t ask for better seniors.”

The man responsible stood by the dugout after he watched his recruiting class win 18-2 over both games. Coach Ehren Earlywine is the general behind the rise of Missouri softball. Since 2005, Earlywine has converted a 26-win team to a 40-win team the next season. He put together the first 50-win team in school history and then coached two more the next seasons. He has lifted a program off its knees into nation-wide prominence.

He now holds the reins of the youngest team he’s ever coached at Missouri as the fall season begins.

“I’ve been coaching about 20 years and I think this is going to be the most significant fall I’ve ever coached,” he said. “There’s a lot of development needed. This will be the hardest, most work-oriented fall I’ve been a part of.”

He has reporters already bombarding him about a rebuilding year. “Rebuilding” does not register with Earlywine.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” he said. “I think this program is going to be good every year. Our expectations are very high.”

The group of freshmen reach the end of that unlit field and they’ve arrived to the Athletic Complex, exchanging laughs all the way to the door.

“We’re going to have to lean on them quite a bit,” Earlywine said. “But they’ll be ready to answer the bell.”

It’s tough to mistake the sound of certainty when he says it.

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