COLUMBIA — Ehren Earleywine swallowed his words and glanced downward, his eyes fixed on the table before him for the next 30 seconds.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
It was a significant moment for Earleywine, Missouri’s softball coach, if only because he’s known more for his bravado than his sentimentality. But on Friday night, only minutes after his team’s season-ending loss to Washington in the NCAA Super Regionals, the sadness of the moment was just too much.
“I’m not good at showing it, but I care about each of these three kids deeply,” Earleywine said, as seniors Nicole Hudson, Chelsea Thomas and Jenna Marston sat nearby. “They’ve done a lot for this program, they’ve done a lot for me and my family, and I’m going to miss them a great deal.”
Those three, along with Rachel Hay, Princess Krebs and Lindsey Muller, make up a senior class that helped Missouri go 189-51 during 2009-2013 while reaching the NCAA Super Regional four times and Women’s College World Series twice.
Thomas, in particular, leaves behind a decorated legacy. After being chosen the Big 12’s pitcher of the year as a sophomore and junior, Thomas — a two-time first-team All-American and MU’s career leader in wins with 111 — did the same as a senior in the Southeastern Conference, despite being left off the preseason all-league team by the coaches.
“I feel like she’s as good a pitcher as there is in the country and I feel like the rest of us kind of let her down, to be honest with you,” Earleywine said of his team, which totaled more errors (seven) than hits (six) in Thomas’ Super Regional losses to the Huskies.
“When you have a pitcher of her caliber, you should play for national championships often,” he continued. “That’s my fault. I’m not only the head coach, I’m the hitting coach. I take all the responsibility for that. I feel like we missed a great opportunity in her four years here to maybe win it all.”
Thomas harbored no resentment after the game, instead thanking Earleywine — who recruited her to Missouri, despite the fact she was lightly-recruited out of high school in Pleasantville, Iowa — and her teammates for the memories.
“Obviously this wasn’t the end result to the season we wanted, but I tried to look back on my career the last couple of weeks … and it’s been more than I could have ever expected,” Thomas said. “The support has been unreal and I wouldn’t pick any other place (to go to college).”
Now, Earleywine faces the task of replacing Thomas and a strong group of seniors that has left an indelible mark on the program. But even on a day marked with sadness about the present, MU’s coach couldn’t help but be excited about the future, particularly with two of the nation’s top high school pitchers — Tori Finucane of Germantown, Md., and Casey Stangel of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — set to join the team in the fall, and other top recruits apparently on the way.
“Our team is going to be really, really good for a long time,” Earleywine said. “It’s that simple. If I didn’t recruit another kid, we’re set for the next seven or eight years.”