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In what is becoming an annual tradition (both in Columbia and on RMN), it is time to preview the Columbia Regional, which will start up at 4:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon. It is a standard, four-team, double-elimination format, so the #1 seeded Tigers will take on the #4 seeded Redbirds of Illinois State while the #2 seeded Indiana Hoosiers will take on the #3 seeded Depaul Blue Demons.
As the action gets ready to get going later this afternoon (weather permitting I suppose), let's go ahead and put the template to the test against our home team. Obviously, we will not need the common opponents, but let's break this down preview-style to see what we come up with.
Overall, the Tigers finished the season at 46-7 with a 15-3 record in the Big XII Conference. They went 23-1 at home, 17-3 on the road, and 6-3 at neutral site games. Their RPI is 5th per the NCAA site (linked here). They run-ruled 13 opponents, were not run-ruled themselves, and went 2-0 in extra inning games.
Mizzou went an impressive 31-4 in the non-conference season, though we may find the schedule was not quite as strong as years' past, nor did Mizzou defeat any BIG name team. With their first tourney of the year wiped out mostly to weather, the Tigers fell to #7 (RPI) Cal and #36 Fresno St, but also lost a chance to play potential super-regional opponent Washington (#13 RPI). Heading to the USF tournament, they would fall 3-1 to #4 Alabama, and their season actually sat at just 3-3 at that time. Of course, the Tigers would win their next 21 non-conference matchups in a row, and their first four in conferences before falling to #93 North Texas for their fourth and final non-con loss on the season. The best non-con win of their season would be against Illinois State (#40), Illinois (#41) and San Diego State (#43). Like I said....not terribly strong
Big XII Action:
The 15-3 record in conference was good enough for the Tigers to capture their first regular-season title since 1997. Considering the conference is sending eight teams to the NCAA tournament, all currently in the top-30 in RPI (including 7 inside the top-21), the Tigers most certainly made up for a so-so non-con slate. They would be tripped up against Whitney Canion and #11 Baylor for their first loss, then by #16 Nebraska, both on the road and by the same 3-2 score. Their only other loss would break the nation's longest home winning streak, as they fell 2-0 to #3 Texas before coming back to beat them the following day 6-3 to set up their chance to win the regular season title. And who could forget their pair of extra-inning, home wins against #9 OU and all the amazing pitches thrown by Chelsea Thomas and Keilani Ricketts. All in all, the Tigers would sport a record of 17-6 against teams inside the top-43 of the current RPI poll.
While Mizzou averaged close to 6 runs per game, the offense did not necessarily come from the people you might have expected it to coming into the season. Senior Rhea Taylor had what could only be classified as a disappointing senior campaign, hitting .350, which is a good 50 points off of her career average. Her power numbers dipped significantly from last year (just 2 HR's) and she only had 9 RBI's. Her OBP was a mere .377, as she managed only 7 walks on the season. She did lead the team in hits (56) and still stole 34 of 36 bases while setting all sorts of school and conference career records, but the offense needed to come from other people to some extent.
Enter junior Ashley Fleming. Fleming led the team in most offensive categories, staring with the her .372 batting average, 15 doubles, 12 HR's, 55 RBI's, .738 slugging, 107 total bases, and her perfect 15-15 on the bases, while going errorless in the field. As the season wore on and Fleming cooled off a bit, she was very much bolstered by sophomore Nicole Hudson, who finished on an absolute tear to come in at .342 (3rd on the team) with 11 HRs (2nd on the team), 44 RBI's (also second) and .638 slugging (once again...second). Hudson was almost the most durable, as she was one of only two players to start 52 games (as no one started or even played in all 53).
The other was sophomore Jenna Marston, who batted a solid .338 on the team, while leading them in runs (49), doubles (15), walks (34) and OBP (.462) She also did lead them in errors with 12 at shortstop, but Marston was also a perfect 10-10 in stolen bases. For power, the TigerS relied upon senior Catherine Lee, who was tied for third on the team with 6 HR's, but who took something of a backseat for the surprise which was senior Abby Vock, who also contributed 6 HR's with a .326 batting average, .558 slugging, and .453 OBP (thanks in part to 13 walks and NINE HBP's). Vock is best known for her flair for the dramatic with her Vock-off against Oklahoma, but she should also be commended for only making 4 errors in the field (.970 fielding) and having a tremendous senior campaign.
One thing which has been consistent all year has been the fact that the lineup has not been very consistent. That has lent itself nicely to a lot of different players seeing a lot of time. True frosh Maddison Ruggeberg started her MU career on an absolute tear, but cooled as the year wore on, finishing with a .339 average with 4 HR's. Senior Marla SCHWEISBERGER saw time in 41 games this year with 31 starts on her way to batting .312. Her defense (only one error) makes her a strong candidate to see time this weekend. Princess Krebs had some big games for the Tigers in conference, finishing with a .291 batting average with 3 HR's. Finally, despite a REALLY slow start, Lisa Simmons has come on very strong down the stretch and may have played her way into the lineup this weekend. Folks like Alaina Burkhart and Brianna Corwin are likely to be first off the bench in pinch-running spots, as they combined to go 4-5 in limited chances.
MU posted a very solid fielding percentage of .972 on the season. Marston did lead the way with 12 errors, but no one else had more than five (Hudson). Senior catcher Megan Christopher was named Big XII Co-Defensive player of the year for her work behind the plate (in a year she had initially intended to redshirt) where she made only two errors (.993 fielding) and threw out 10 of 21 runners who attempted to steal off of her.
What is there to say that has not already been said? The alpha and omega of Mizzou's tournament hopes likely rest on the thunderbolt which Chelsea Thomas calls an arm. 27-5, 0.81 ERA, 32 starts with 24 complete games and 11 shutouts, even the three saves. She gives up less than a hit every TWO innings, and walked more people in 208 innings (39) than she gave up earned runs (24). She struck out 323 batters and people only batted .145 against her. And still, lurking in the shadows is junior Kristen Nottelmann, with her 15-1 record and 1.51 ERA in 101.2 innings. Kristen did improve on her strikeouts, setting down 113 while only walking 29 and giving up 29 walks and 62 hits. Batters only touched her for a .173 average, and yet, she may only see action the rest of the year against Illinois State this coming weekend.
Mizzou did spread around another 40+ innings among Simmons, Fleming, Hudson and Lindsey Muller. I dont imagine a scenario in which any of these four throw this coming weeeknd, but Hudson saw the most time with just under 20 innings and an ERA of 3.62.
In a perfect weekend (where weather and altered game times are not an issue), the Tigers will have an easy time with Illinois State with Nottelmann in the circle, clearing the weekend for Thomas to throw one game each on Saturday and Sunday. According to MUTigers.com, Mizzou has actually won their last nine regional games, dating through this current run of three straight Super Regional appearances. As chronicled in the Illinois State preview, this is both a tough regional from an RPI standpoint, and I also believe Illinois State is better than their performance against us would suggest. Indiana has a true ace in their corner, and Depaul has experience and marvelous coaching on their side. In the end, I really do not believe it will matter. My only concern is with the weather and how that might alter the schedule. If rain forces suspensions along the way, it could throw a wrench into the Tigers' ability to throw Thomas in the final two games. That is the only potential factor I really see disrupting MU's run to another Super Regional (and beyond).