Notebook: MU weathering the storm

Courtesy of Missouri

Tori Finucane, along with fellow freshman pitcher Casey Stangel, will try to help Missouri find success without graduated star Chelsea Thomas.

Missouri always knew there would be some challenges moving forward from the era of Chelsea Thomas, the pitcher who shattered school records and was equally the ace and the face of multiple Women's College World Series teams.

So the Tigers really didn't need Mother Nature making it difficult to move in much of any direction without her.

Weather left much of college softball scrambling last weekend. Georgia Tech couldn't get to Arizona for a tournament and had to scrape together a home tournament at the last minute. That, in turn, meant Arizona and Alabama played twice in the tournament Georgia Tech missed, instead of once as originally scheduled. Hofstra had to scrap its plans altogether when it couldn't reach a tournament in Florida. Dozens of teams faced similar scenarios as schedule changes popped up all over the map.

Set to fly to Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday, Missouri coaches and staff learned Wednesday afternoon that their connecting flight through Atlanta had been canceled. Unable to find enough seats on alternate flights for the entire traveling party or to afford a charter flight for softball and baseball that coach Ehren Earleywine said cost $120,000 and unwilling to spend more than 20 hours on a bus, the Tigers sent out a mass email asking if any teams had openings. Baylor responded almost immediately, short a team for its Getterman Classic after East Carolina had to cancel because of travel issues.

Come on down, Baylor told its former Big 12 rival.

That left first-year director of operations Lisa Simmons, who is just three years removed from a playing career at Missouri during which she was probably blissfully unaware of such chaos behind the scenes, only a few hours to arrange new lodging, transportation and food details in Waco, Texas. And she wasn't the only one staying late.

"She spent all night working on it," Earleywine said. "But as tough as that was trying to prepare ourselves for four new teams. We had been putting together scouting reports and videos on the other teams we were playing over the weekend, and then when it changed, we really went down there a little bit unprepared in that regard. We got together all the notes and scouting reports we could and what video we could find, but really it was by the seat of our pants."

Finding an alternate tournament was all the more important for Missouri because Earleywine elected not to schedule any games during the season's opening weekend. It's the fourth consecutive season that he's passed on opening weekend. He explained his reasoning by saying he ascribes greater value to extra practice than to games. But with two freshmen, Tori Finucane and Casey Stangel, expected to shoulder most of the innings in the circle and youth at a number of other positions on the diamond, including freshman catcher Kirsten Mack working with those pitchers, game experience at some point becomes necessary.

While the team's defensive deficiencies against the short game in Sunday's loss to Baylor irked Earleywine and a number of hitters will spend extra time in the video room after failing to meet his expectations, what the rest of the country wanted to see was how things looked in the circle. Missouri won four out of five games and allowed just four runs, so something worked.

A hard thrower, Finucane got the extra start when she entered the circle against Baylor on Sunday, the only game of the weekend against a major conference opponent. The two freshmen split that appearance evenly, three innings each. Named national high school player of the year by one organization as a senior in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, recognition of her prowess as both a pitcher and hitter, Stangel has the wider repertoire but struggled to consistently locate the drop ball that sets up her other pitches.

"It's really been, I don't want to say hard, but it's been a challenge trying to figure out what patterns to put together and when to call what pitch because she does have so many options," Earleywine said. "When we're watching these games that she pitches this weekend, we're devouring information, almost like overinhaling it, trying to figure out what are the combinations that work best for her."

One thing that jumped out was that the two pitchers struck out just 12 batters in 27 innings. One weekend is all but meaningless as a sample size, but that's a far cry from life with Thomas.

"I had hoped they would be strikeout pitchers and strikeout-per-inning-type kids, but after this weekend, I don't think that's going to be the case," Earleywine said. "In the past we won with a lot of strikeouts, and that meant we didn't have to field as many balls. So a lot of times I got away with putting kids in on defense that were good hitters that weren't great defenders, knowing that Chelsea was going to strike out 10 to 15 every game."

It's worth remembering that while Thomas was the cornerstone around which Missouri built a championship-caliber program, it also made it to Oklahoma City in 2010, a season in which it was mostly without her because of injury. It made the trip behind Kristin Nottelmann and Jana Hainey, two pitchers who worked to contact. And Earleywine expressed optimism that if the coaching staff can mix in Finucane's changeup more often and if Stangel can put her drop ball where she wants, the strikeouts would rise.

Either way, Missouri solved the first challenge of life without Thomas: getting on the field.

"We're still going to win. It just may look different now," Earleywine said. "I may have to sacrifice a little offense so we have better defenders out there because it looks like more balls are going to be put into play."

Players of the week

Aimee Creger, Tulsa: With wins this season against Ohio State, Louisville and Oregon State (twice) entering Sunday, Tulsa had accumulated quality victories against major programs but still needed a signature result. It got it with a 5-2 win against Texas A&M on that team's home field in College Station. Creger struck out 11 batters against Texas A&M, the final impressive start in a weekend that included wins against Oregon State on back-to-back days in which she struck out 29 batters in 13 innings and allowed just four hits and one earned run. She's the best pitcher in Oklahoma.

Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State: The senior came up with an early contender for pitching performance of the season in Friday's win against Oklahoma. Escobedo struck out 12 Sooners and came within a two-out single in the seventh of a no-hitter. She followed that with 11 strikeouts and a two-hitter the next day against Illinois State. That makes 55 strikeouts in 33 innings this season. From the file of there is no luck but bad luck, Escobedo walked just one batter all weekend. So of course the lone home run she allowed came against the next batter, the only runs she allowed.

Brooke Foster, North Texas: As if there weren't enough great shortstops out there. Foster may lack the name recognition of some peers, but she has the career résumé, including a .549 slugging percentage and 14 stolen bases a season ago. The Mean Green senior hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday to erase a two-run deficit against Northern Iowa and complete her team's unbeaten weekend. Overall, Foster batted .588 (10-for-17) in five games with eight runs. She filled out the stat sheet with a double, triple, home run and stolen base.

Lauren Haeger, Florida: Haeger was good as a pitcher last weekend, throwing a two-hitter with six strikeouts to beat Seattle University. She was even better providing run support for Florida's other pitchers. In the four games in which she didn't pitch, she hit .583 (7-for-12) with four home runs, a double and eight RBIs. She even added her first stolen base of the season in the rare instance she wasn't entitled to all four bases immediately. And it wasn't like she beat up on weaklings, doing that damage against Hawaii, Ohio State, Cal State Northridge and Minnesota.

Griffin Joiner, Kentucky: This makes back-to-back appearances for Kentucky's catcher, a distinction with which Texas clearly concurred by the end of the weekend. Joiner went 5-for-12 with three home runs in Kentucky's first four games at a tournament in Austin, including a two-run home run in the first game against host Texas. In the title game, also against the Longhorns, she didn't see a single strike, waking four times on 16 pitches. She also had two RBIs between a 1-0 win against Louisiana Tech and 2-1 win against IPFW. She's the MVP of a program-record 10-0 start.

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