Tigers vs. Gators. Sounds like something from an animal kingdom movie. In reality, it’s the matchup of No. 5 and No. 6 nationally in tonight’s opening round of the 2011 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
The Big 12 champion Missouri Tigers (46-7), ranked fifth in the country according to the most recent NCAA Division I college softball rankings, will meet the No. 6 Florida Gators (47-9) in the late game tonight at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. Ninth-ranked Oklahoma is matched up with Arizona State (50-6), the overall top seed in split-pool, double-elimination tournament, in the early-evening contest immediately preceding Missouri’s game.
This is the Tiger’s third consecutive appearance in the Women’s College World Series. The previous two trips to Oklahoma City ended in speedy disappointment, with Missouri being the first team eliminated after losing its first two World Series games. The Tigers are hoping the third time is charm as they return virtually everyone from last year’s World Series roster.
“You bring a certain level of experience and poise with you into the World Series with you now and a certain level of frustration and resolve from what we have not done in the past,” said Missouri coach Ehren Earlywine.
The X-factor this year that wasn’t there a year ago is one Chelsea Thomas, who just happens to be one of the best pitchers in the country. The outstanding redshirt-sophomore mowed through opposing hitters all season long like a newly sharpened blade through a week’s worth of spring grass growth. She has recorded 31 wins this season, just one shy of the school record, against only six losses and a super-stingy 0.83 ERA.
Thomas was with the team at the WCWS a year ago, but forced to watch from the sidelines, recovering from a stress fracture in her pitching forearm. “It feels great to be back here in Oklahoma City and not sit on a bucket and watch,” Thomas said in an interview with Mike DeArmond of The Kansas City Star.
Although she was unable to contribute in the postseason last year, Thomas took the Tigers’ quick elimination from last year’s World Series personally. Then-sophomore Kristin Nottelmann stepped up in Thomas’ absence last year and helped lead Missouri to its second straight trip to the World Series with a 24-9 season record, but she wasn’t able to get the job done at the season’s final stop. Thomas felt deep in her heart that things might have been different if she were able to play.
But that was a year ago. Heading into this year’s WCWS, Earlywine tried to put this team’s situation into perspective. “Everybody says, ‘Look, we got Thomas this year,’” he said. “But we didn’t lose last year because of Nottelmann. We lost last year because we couldn’t hit.” Said another way, it probably didn’t make that much difference who was on the mound for Mizzou this time a year ago.
Needless to say, no one on the Tigers’ roster is arguably more fired up about this year’s College World Series than their star pitcher, who is a candidate for national Player of the Year.
“You can’t dwell in the past,” Thomas said. “It was something that I couldn’t control. They know that I would have loved to be in the circle for them. But I get a second chance this year, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
That second chance begins tonight.