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Anderson, Missouri softball aiming for bounce-back 2024 campaign

Tigers coach Larissa Anderson spoke to the media on Tuesday ahead of the team’s season-opening tournament in Clearwater, Florida.

Syndication: The Oklahoman SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

Add Missouri softball to the list of teams with ‘something to prove’.

Picked to finish 11th in the 2024 Southeastern Conference Softball Preseason Coaches Poll, the Tigers enter the season with lowly external expectations in a highly competitive SEC. Internally, however, Missouri is confident in where it stands.

“It’s just about us,” MU softball coach Larissa Anderson said Tuesday in her final preseason press conference. “We understand polls are political. Polls aren’t really a true representation of the body of work ... I’d rather be at the bottom and prove everyone wrong than be at the top and have the bullseye on our back.”

The Tigers, in Anderson’s sixth season, are attempting to bounce back following a tumultuous 2023 season that ended in a quick departure from the NCAA Tournament in Norman, Oklahoma. Missouri made the regionals with a 35-26 record but finished conference play with a 7-17 mark, worst in the league.

Aiming to avoid a second consecutive bottom-three finish, the Tigers are hoping that the experience they gained last season can propel them going forward.

“The biggest thing is we need to take care of ourselves,” Anderson said. “The biggest message all preseason long has been just to compete, compete in every single aspect.”

Missouri returns its top-five offensive weapons from last season, headlined by Preseason All-SEC selections Alex Honnold and Jenna Laird. Honnold, a senior center fielder, led the team with a .396 average, 14 home runs and 49 RBI last season. Laird, a senior shortstop, tallied a team-high 70 hits en route to a .354 average and 30 stolen bases.

“We have the core of our lineup returning, and now it’s fitting the (rest) of the other pieces into place,” Anderson said. “But the consistency is that leadership piece, and Alex and Jenna really lead the entire team. And they lead by example.”

Leadership will be of upmost importance for Honnold and Laird, who are two of five seniors on a roster that boasts more than two times as many underclassmen. Laurin Krings, the projected workhorse for Missouri’s pitching staff, represents the lone senior pitcher.

A three-year starter, Krings led the Tigers with 12 wins last season and ranked second on the team with a 2.75 earned run average. Her 12 losses muddied an overall impressive season, which included 145 strikeouts over 163 innings.

Syndication: The Oklahoman SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

Krings will likely work alongside sophomore Cierra Harrison, who led Missouri with a 2.48 ERA last season, and highly-touted freshman Marissa McCann to anchor the rotation. On the back end, southpaw Taylor Pannell is set to serve as the Tigers’ primary closer.

“(McCann) has so many tools, and it’s really exciting,” Anderson said. “She's got a screwball that I haven’t seen in quire a while, and she’s got a curveball that is a different velocity. So, every pitch she throws is a different speed (and) it’s extremely hard to get on-time with her.”

The former Premier Girls Fastpitch All-American is one of several freshmen that Anderson raved about, including up-and-coming standout Madison Walker. Named the 2022-23 Kansas Gatorade Softball Player of the Year, Walker is a player who Anderson said will be a force in the lineup and someone that the team relies on heavily.

One of the names that flew under the radar during the press conference was freshman catcher Stefania Abruscato, the 13th overall in the 2023 Class, according to Extra Inning Softball. The highly-touted freshman impressed in the Black & Gold scrimmage and figures to be a solid addition alongside junior Julia Crenshaw and freshman Abby Hay at catcher.

A few other impact players include junior Kara Daly (10 home runs, 46 RBI in 2023), senior Maddie Gallagher (.273 hitter in 2023), Northern Iowa transfer and 2023 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Mya Dodge as well as returners Chantice Phillips and Katie Chester.

On a team full of youth, though, several players have an opportunity to make an early impression and rise up the depth chart as the season progresses.

“The most successful teams are the ones that collaborate together and understand that it’s about the team, it’s not about individuals,” Anderson said. “If you focus on the team, then you’re not going to be so caught up in your playing time, your stats, the pressure ... (because) you’re doing everything for the success of your team.”

One of the keys to generate that success is to replicate what Missouri did defensively last season. The Tigers led the conference in fielding percentage (.978), and Anderson said that the team is stronger and faster than they’ve ever been.

“We’re always going to be a very strong defensive team,” Anderson said. “But now it’s taking it from making routine plays to now let’s make great plays and take more risks. ... (By taking risks) we’re going to be pushing ourselves outside of our own comfort zone, and that’s when we’re going to really start to see true success.”

Syndication: The Oklahoman SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

The first pitch of Missouri’s season comes at 3 p.m. Friday in Clearwater, Florida, when the Tigers face No. 13 Utah (in front of Karen’s parents). Mizzou then plays NC State at 6 p.m. Friday before rounding out the NFCA Division I Leadoff Classic with Liberty (Saturday on MLB Network), South Alabama (Saturday) and No. 5 Clemson (Sunday).

“Our No. 1 goal is to play regionals back in our own stadium,” Anderson said. “That’s what we’re going to work toward and that’s what we’re striving to be, and we have a schedule to be able to do so.”

Projected Depth Chart

C: Julia Crenshaw (Jr.), Stefania Abruscato (Fr.) and Abby Hay (Fr.)

1B: Katie Chester (So.), Hay

2B: Maddie Gallagher (Sr.), Adi Koller (Fr.)

3B: Kara Daly (Jr.), Madison Walker (Fr.) and Chester

SS: Jenna Laird (Sr.), Crenshaw

OF: Alex Honnold (Sr.), Mya Dodge (Jr.), Chantice Phillips (Sr.), Danielle Blackstun (Fr.), Claire Cahalan (Fr.) and Abruscato

DP: Walker, Hay, Abruscato and Kayley Lenger (So.)

Rotation: Laurin Krings (Sr.), Cierra Harrison (So.), Marissa McCann (Fr.), Nathalie Touchet (Fr.), Lilly Whitten (R-Fr.)

Closer: Taylor Pannell (So.), Jaycee Kruse (Jr.)

*This is purely based on speculation and previous knowledge, and readers should wait for a more comprehensive rotational depth chart once Missouri softball begins play Friday.*