It’d be hard to blame Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine if he rolled sophomore ace Tori Finucane in bubble wrap this week.
The Tigers’ run of six straight regional softball championships ended last spring in no small measure because Finucane suffered a sprained thumb on her throwing hand during a bunting drill in practice three days before last year’s regional.
Missouri, 39-14, battled into the regional championship game without her, but couldn’t fend off Nebraska any longer in the championship games.
Earleywine said he learned a lesson from Finucane’s misfortune last spring when the Tigers limped into the postseason on a three-game losing streak.
“This week is going to be a lot less intense than the week that we had last year that got her injured,” Earleywine said. “What happened last year, we lost really bad to LSU in the SEC Tournament. When we got back home, I put it on them. We practiced really hard for two or three days. That was part of the reason Tori went down, so this year it’s a lot lighter practice and we’re bubble-wrapping her for sure.”
Finucane is 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 36 games, including 27 starts this season. She has struck out 129 in 137 2/3 innings.
Her partner in crime, freshman left-hander Paige Lowary, has been almost as good. She went 18-5 with a 3.12 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 152 2/3 innings.
It’s a dynamic one-two punch for the Tigers, who drew the No. 10 seed nationally for the NCAA Division I softball championship and open regional play at 6:30 p.m. Friday at University Field against Indiana State, 26-29.
The winner of the game will play the winner between Kansas, 38-13, and Louisville, 30-17. That game is at 4 p.m. Friday in Columbia.
It’s the second straight season the NCAA put the Jayhawks in the Tigers’ regional, but the Border War is a secondary concern this weekend.
“They just try to save money with travel on the nonrevenue sports,” Earleywine said. “For me, I don’t really care who’s in the regional, I just want to win it. A lot of people are excited about the rivalry factor, and it’s good for fans. But for me, it means absolutely nothing.”
Collectively, Missouri batted .321 with 72 home runs entering the regional
“We’re swinging the bats pretty good …,” Earleywine said. “It took us a while to get our wheels turning, but we finally became the offensive team that I thought we could be before the season started in the second half.”
Asked for the key to winning a regional, Earleywine said, “Playing good defense — several times defensively (we’ve) taken ourselves completely out of the ballgame with a throw that ends up in right field or a botched bunt play that starts a big inning.”
Missouri only played one game against its three regional foes during the regular season, a 5-1 win against Louisville in the season opener Feb. 13 during the Dot Richardson Invitational in Clermont, Fla.
Regular-season matchups don’t matter much at this point anyway.
“What matters now is who’s hot,” Earleywine said. “I like our regional. There were some other regionals that I cringed, thinking, ‘Oh, man, thank God I’m not in that regional.’ Ours is firm, but it’s doable. There are some regionals out there that just seemed undoable.”
The winner of the Columbia regional is likely to face No. 7 seed UCLA next week in super-regional action barring an upset by San Diego State, Texas or California State-Northridge.