For a program that just last summer underwent one of the most tedious newsless stretches in recent memory, Mizzou Softball sure is an interesting program.
The coach is a notorious hothead who nearly got fired due to [your guess is as good as anyone's] and [probably some stuff he brought on himself] and maybe a little [something Mack Rhoades related]. Oh, and the fanbase loves him.
The players are a scrappy bunch who quite nearly toppled an all-star Michigan squad in a tough Super Regional round in May. Oh, and their three best players graduated, and four more transferred.
The stadium is an unfinished construction site scheduled to open in less than month. Oh, and the first game is against highly ranked Pac-12 power Oregon.
On top of all that, you have a new assistant coach — long-serving ace recruiter Pete D'Amour finally left for his shot at a head gig — for the first time in a while, another transfer ready to contribute, and yet another season in the absurdly loaded SEC staring the team in the eyes. (There is also the matter of an 11-player recruiting class for the 2018 season...but we’ll get to that down the line.)
Although the team's success may well be tied mostly to what it didn't lose (head coach Ehren Earleywine), any look at the team's fortunes has to start with figuring out how to replace what it did lose: an all-time Mizzou trifecta of Emily Crane, Taylor Gadbois, and Sami Fagan, plus transferred starting pitchers Paige Lowary (Oklahoma) and Tori Finucane (Minnesota).
Pitching has been the downfall of Mizzou Softball more often than it has been the savior in recent years.
Since losing Chelsea Thomas to some silly rule about having only four years of eligibility, the Tigers have overwhelmingly fixed the offensive issues that stymied Thomas' best teams. However, they have been unable to find any real consistency in the circle over any period of time.
Both Finucane, in her freshman season, and Lowary, in stretches of both her seasons in the Black and Gold, made their cases. But due to a combination of injuries, bad luck, and confidence concerns, neither became the force Mizzou needed.
In 2017, the squad is rolling with a foursome of very different pitchers. Joe Vozzelli goes into quality detail on that arrangement.
If Earleywine truly does find that ace, odds are that it is Parker Conrad, a freshman with the speedball to qualify for the role. However, in the early part of the season, I expect him to tinker with the pitching staff in a number of ways, which could include any or all of the following:
- Not revealing starters until the last moment, in order to best play matchups with opposing lineups. This could be effective given that all four pitchers have different strengths.
- Planning to use multiple pitchers in each game for shorter stints. This would help ease strain on arms in the tourney-heavy early season, and would also play into the matchup game.
- Experimenting with the concept of a true "closer" role.
- Using Madi Norman as a batter, which he did multiple times in fall ball and could lead to some interesting position shifts between innings.
While I would certainly love for the Tigers to have a number one starter ready for week one, I am excited to see how their squad of what might be four legitimate number two arms can do. It's worth remembering that development over the course of a season is very common in softball, and that Kristen Nottleman once pitched Mizzou to a WCWS.
Fortunately, the Tigers will have four weekends of tournament action -- and 21 games in total -- to explore their options prior to heading to Gainesville to open up SEC play.
From practice reports, we know that the infield is pretty well set for Mizzou:
- C - Kirsten Mack (Sr.)
- 1B - Rylee Pierce (So.)
- 2B - Kolby Romaine (So.)
- SS - Braxton Burnside (Fr.)
- 3B - Amanda Sanchez (Jr.)
Throw in Chloe Rathburn (Sr.) as the usual designated player, and 6 of the spots are taken. We also from the above article have the clue on the primary infield backups: Paige Bange (Jr.) and Jolie Duffner (R-Fr.) are named as "super-utility" players, with indications that Duffner is the primary 2B backup, and Bange the primary SS/3B backup. Rathburn may fill in at 1B and catcher at times as well, although Mack will mostly likely not get many off days.
The outfield is less settled. Regan Nash (So.) can be written in as the likely heir-apparent (in speed and CF duty) to Taylor Gadbois, after her freshman year saw her bat .336 with 22 stolen bases. The corner spots will most likely be occupied by some combination of Natalie Fleming (Sr.), who battled injuries throughout 2016, Cayla Kessinger (Fr.), and Anna Reed (R-Jr.). I am predicting that Fleming and Reed will ultimately get the most playing time, with Kessinger and a couple other players battling for backup/platoon time.
This group is sure to produce at a lower level than the 2016 lineup, but it might not be as dire as one might think after losing 3 all-time Tiger greats. Nash is primed to step into the Gadbois role very effectively, while Braxton Burnside is a superstar recruit who is being given the starting job from day one at short, and has displayed pop in practice and in fall ball. The biggest gap in the lineup will be in RF, where Emily Crane played stellar defense in addition to hitting for power and average.
Predicting a lineup is a pretty futile exercise given how much Coach E likes to tinker, especially early in the season, with both unsettled positions and batting order. But there usually comes a point when the lineup is pretty firm and I expect that to happen once again this season. Here's my official mid-season "settled-in" lineup prediction:
- CF - Regan Nash
- 1B - Rylee Pierce
- 3B - Amanda Sanchez
- DP - Chloe Rathburn
- SS - Braxton Burnside
- LF - Natalie Fleming
- C - Kirsten Mack
- RF - Anna Reed
- 2B - Kolby Romaine
Highest averages will be concentrated in the 1-4 spots, with power from Rathburn and Pierce for sure and possibly also from Sanchez, Burnside, and Fleming. Speed will be less a factor than in previous years, but Nash should steal a lot of bases, and as many as four or five other players might steal as many as 10 over the course of the season.
Under Earleywine, Mizzou has often faced difficult schedules befitting a team who expects to make the WCWS year in and year out. This year, Mizzou appears to have taken a slightly lighter approach to the non-con schedule, but still will face a number of challenging foes in early season tournament play. Using RPI from the end of the 2016 as our measuring stick (Mizzou finished #11, for the record), here is a breakdown of Mizzou's opponents for 2017:
- RPI 1-25 (5 games): # 7 James Madison (2), # 9 Washington, #10 Oregon (2), # 22 USF
- RPI 26-50 (8 games): #30 Texas, #32 Notre Dame, #34 Nebraska, #38 Arizona St., #40 The Ohio State University, #43 Wichita St. (3)
- RPI 51-100 (2 games): #53 USC Upstate, #54 North Dakota St.
- RPI 101-200 (13 games): #113 Illinois St. (2), #116 Rutgers, #126 UC-SB, #131 Butler, #135 Stephen F. Austin, #166 Monmouth, #183 Maryland (2), #184 Charleston Southern (2), #188 Iowa (2)
- RPI 201+ (5 games): #221 Western Ill. (2), #234 SEMO (2), #244 South Dakota
Conference (with home and away indicated):
- RPI 1-25 (18 games): @ #2 Florida (3), @ #3 Auburn (3), vs. #6 Alabama (3), @ #8 LSU (3), @ #17 Texas A&M (3), vs. #18 Kentucky (3)
- RPI 26-50 (3 games): vs. #27 Ole Miss (3)
- RPI 51+ (3 games): vs. #71 Arkansas (3)
As you can see, it's still a very challenging schedule, but with 18 games against teams with a lower RPI than even the worst SEC squad, there is room to rack up some wins. Additionally, Mizzou managed to avoid two top SEC schools in Tennessee and Georgia, but any SEC schedule is bound to be tough.
Even more foolish than the lineup prediction is the prediction for the season record. In recent years, Mizzou has gotten used to a pretty high standard, even when things didn't work out quite as planned. Despite not being in the WCWS since 2011, Mizzou has earned a national seed in seven consecutive tournaments, and advanced to a Super Regional in eight of the past nine seasons.
This season appears to be quite a challenge on paper, but it is worth considering that the losses to the roster might be less troubling a factor than at first glance. This team rallied hard behind Coach E last season, and as seen in the Midnight Madness video, in which E was mic'd up, he seems to have a strong rapport with his team.
While I am more optimistic than some about Mizzou Softball's chances this season, I do think the streak of being a national seed will come to an end. The offense is likely to regress a bit due to youth and the loss of three great hitters. Despite the loss of their primary pitcher, though, there is a solid chance that the pitching output can remain level - or even improve depending on the development of Parker Conrad and Danielle Baumgartner.
All of that adds up to a few less wins than in recent years. I am predicting that Mizzou will finish within a couple wins of 40, probably on the lower side. Let's say 38-19. In the SEC, that record will be about .500, putting them somewhere around the 8 or 10 seed for the SEC tournament. And it ought to be good enough to make a regional, but most likely without the benefit of home advantage. In '08 and '09, Mizzou won regionals from an unseeded position. If put in that position again, perhaps they'll do it once more. But those are predictions that can wait until May.
Enjoy the season starting this coming weekend with five games in the Charleston Southern tournament, and our first look at a new look Missouri Tiger softball team. And check in throughout the season as I preview important tournaments and conference series, and provide updates on the progress of this young Tiger team. Thanks for reading!