Missouri Softball was a shining example of excellence for the Mizzou athletic department for over a decade under head coach Ehren Earleywine. But with EE’s firing less than two weeks before the start of the 2018 season, the program is truly at a crossroads.
Of course, not everything was hunky dory leading into the upcoming season to begin with. After a 2016 investigation under former AD Mack Rhoades brought the program into an unwelcome national spotlight, the Tigers in 2017 — minus two top transfer pitchers and having lost three of the school’s all-time greats to graduation — struggled to their worst season since 2006. What caused that, you ask?
No depth in the circle
After Tori Finucaine and Paige Lowary transferred, Madi Norman seemed the best bet to lead the Tiger staff in 2017, but she struggled mightily in the second half of the season. Sophomore Danielle Baumgarner, meanwhile, failed to display the pinpoint control that made her an effective reliever in her freshman campaign. And freshman Parker Conrad struggled with injuries and never seemed to settle in, as evidenced by her transfer to Oklahoma in the offseason.
Without a surprising and gritty season from senior Cheyenne Baxter, Mizzou may never have even made a regional.
There’s no replacing greatness
The graduation of Emily Crane, Sami Fagen, and Taylor Gadbois left a gaping hole in the Mizzou offense, which was emphasized further by the injury to returning star Amanda Sanchez and the massive decline in power numbers from Chloe Rathburn.
As a team, Mizzou dropped 47 points in batting average from 2016 to 2017, hit 21 fewer home runs, stole 85 fewer bases, and took 55 fewer walks.
The SEC is good
Mizzou did not match its usual success in non-con play in 2017, dropping a number of games in early season tournaments to teams they would normally be expected to beat. However, they held their own for a while in SEC play, scoring two big wins over Alabama and an opening game win against Auburn that put them at 5-7 in conference play. But from that point, they won only two more games in 11 SEC matchups, finishing 7-16.
All of this puts interim head coach Gina Fogue into quite a position, as she attempts to revive the team after a tough campaign while also handling whatever personnel and clubhouse issues arise in the wake of firing a head coach.
Under Earleywine, the program was loath to put out any information about the team, and if that is to change under new leadership, it has not yet. Furthermore, we can’t be sure how Fogue’s approach may change the playing time distribution. But here’s a look at the roster as we know it.
Mizzou brought in a large freshman and transfer class for 2018, and with the struggles in 2017, this could mean a lot of them get playing time as Coach Fogue tries to discover who is ready for the spotlight.
Of course, some positions/players can be written in ink:
- 1B: Riley Pierce has handled first for two seasons now and is a solid performer with pop in her bat. I expect her to remain here this season.
- 2B: Kolby Romaine failed to demonstrate the power she flashed in 2016, but hit for good average again.
- SS. Braxton Burnside was one of the shining members of the 2017 team, earning Freshman All-SEC honors and setting the Mizzou record for RBI in a single game.
- 3B. Amanda Sanchez dropped weight before the 2017 season specifically to keep her spot at third base, and as a veteran player coming off injury, I expect her to get every chance to keep it.
- CF. Regan Nash is the Tigers’ leading returning batter (.340 average) and stolen base threat (17 in 2017). She should man center again, as well as hit at or near the top of the lineup.
- OF. Cayla Kessinger played solid defense, hit six home runs, and had the fourth-highest average on the team in SEC play. She’ll likely hold down a corner spot again this season.
That leaves three positions unfilled: catcher, outfield, and designated player
According to mutigers.com, the catcher position appears up for grabs. Three freshman catchers came in with the 2018 class and are currently competing for the spot.
Trenity Edwards is the highest-ranked recruit of the three, while Hatti Moore was twice named defensive MVP of her high school team that was at one time ranked No. 1 in the country. Plus, Katherine Kadlec is a CoMo product who shined offensively in high school.
Edwards and Moore each started at catcher in the Black and Gold game, while Kadlec was the DP for Team Black.
At one point last year, it appeared that Gabby Garrison might lock down the third outfield spot. But some defensive mishaps and late struggles at the dish may have created a competition. As a speedy slap-hitter, Garrison certainly fits the mold of recent Mizzou standouts who have batted near the top of the order, and she should have a leg up on the competition.
Other top competitors for the position are freshman Taijah Ellison (a top-200 recruit and another speedster) and freshman Callie Martin (a top-50 recruit who set her travel team’s HR record in 2016 and was a high-school All-American in 2017), both of whom were tapped to start the Black and Gold game.
The designated player role has been held the last two seasons by Chloe Rathburn but is now up for grabs. While this spot often goes to a DH-type power hitter, it is possible to simply put a hitter with a high average here.
If enough slap-hitters showed well in fall ball (and in spring practices), it would certainly be possible to see one in the DP spot as well. Given the need for Mizzou to rebound at the plate, this should be an open competition that almost anyone on the roster can win if they get on a roll.
- Mizzou team ERAs from 2008-13: 2.41, 1.47, 2.25, 1.40, 1.53, and 2.30.
- Mizzou team ERAs from 2014-17: 2.72, 3.15, 3.11, and 3.33.
Historically good offense kept Mizzou afloat during the first few post-Chelsea Thomas years (while still limiting their ability to make real noise in the post-season), but last year’s .500 ball club suffered the full effects of inconsistency on the mound.
Once again, the Tigers enter a season without a defined ace and with plenty of questions in the circle. The one upside for 2018 is that the Tigers have a lot of options.
Danielle Baumgartner is the longest-tenured pitcher on the roster, but she struggled mightily in her sophomore campaign. As a freshman in 2016, she went 14-4 with a sub-2.00 ERA and only 24 walks in 109 innings. But her ERA nearly doubled in 2017, and she pitched only 73 innings. The key to her success will be finding the accuracy that defined her early in her Tiger career and pitching to contact in her favor.
Madi Norman goes into her second season with Mizzou as a redshirt junior. The Louisville transfer started 2017 very strong but had troubles in the middle of the season and was ultimately supplanted at the top of the rotation by Cheyenne Baxter.
Norman finished the season with a 7-10 record and an ERA just over 4.00. She did show the ability to avoid contact, though, throwing multiple 10-strikeout games early in the year, including against No. 7 Washington. More consistency game-to-game will be key for Norman.
Lauren Rice is this year’s star pitching recruit, coming from Morrison, IL. She was the No. 38 recruit in the class and can touch 70 mph with her fastball. Mizzou has had poor luck with high-level pitching recruits lately, so they’ll be hoping that Rice breaks the streak.
Nalani Scates is a CC transfer from California and was 2017 California Community College pitcher of the year. She tallied a 27-4 record, with a 1.21 ERA and 342 strikeouts in 265 innings pitched. She also showed spectacular control, walking only 46 batters.
The SEC will be a big step up for Scates, but pitchers in similar situations have proven capable of making the jump before.
Finally, Eli Daniel is another transfer, coming from the NAIA ranks. As the 2017 NAIA pitcher of the year, Daniel posted a 0.56 ERA and … this is not a typo … 579 strikeouts in 327 innings. In 34 of her appearances, she allowed zero earned runs. As with Scates, there is a steep increase in competition level, but the numbers are mind-boggling.
All five pitchers are right-handed, which probably won’t make a lot of difference. With no standouts or obvious candidates for the “ace” role, it is quite possible that Fogue uses the team’s non-con tourneys to give everyone on staff the shot to prove themselves.
The question will be whether anyone can manage to do so prior to the start of SEC competition.
CPC put together a look at the schedule, which sums up pretty well the competition Mizzou will face this season.
The early-season tournaments set the groundwork for SEC play; Mizzou will have four of those tournaments before they get into any conference action. Here’s a quick look at those tournaments and Mizzou’s opponents, with last year’s season-ending RPI in parentheses (Mizzou finished 37th, for reference):
Kajikawa Classic — Tempe, Ariz. (Feb. 8-11)
- San Jose St. (53), UTEP (240), CSUN (69), Oregon (1), Oklahoma St. (28), Oregon St. (49)
Michele Smith Pediatric Cancer Invitational — Clearwater, Fla. (Feb. 16-18)
- South Florida (50), UMass-Lowell (189), Oklahoma St. (28), Marshall (31), Florida Atl. (57), South Florida (50)
Mary Nutter Classic — Cathedral City, Cal. (Feb. 22-25)
- BYU (21), Arizona (5), North Carolina (32), Wisconsin (40), Bethune-Cookman (229), UCLA (2)
Mizzou Tournament — Columbia (Mar. 2-4)
- 2 games each vs. Southeastern LA (158), Drake (131), Creighton (212)
There are so many questions this year that it’s difficult to know what will happen. For what it’s worth, SEC coaches tabbed Mizzou 11th (of 13) in their preseason rankings, ahead only of South Carolina and Mississippi State. That is the same place they finished 2017, although then it was ahead of Arkansas and Georgia.
Toward the end of the preseason tourney part of the schedule, we’ll check back in and attempt to dial in some predictions for SEC play.