After failing to qualify for the Southeastern Conference Tournament that their own school was hosting, Missouri softball players spent parts of last week watching other teams play in their home stadium. Outfielder Cayla Kessinger said she and her teammates even cheered for other squads.
“It’s the SEC,” Kessinger, a sophomore, said. “Everybody’s your friend, I guess.”
At least that’s how the Tigers have to feel, knowing that despite a last-place finish in the SEC, they made the NCAA Tournament for the 12th straight year because they play in the nation’s most well-rounded conference.
MU’s RPI of 24 is the 12th best in the 13-team SEC. Of the 16 teams hosting regionals, nine are SEC squads.
“We kicked (butt) in our RPI,” junior infielder Rylee Pierce said on Tuesday, before the Tigers made their bus trip to Norman, Okla., where they will play in a four-team double-elimination regional hosted by No. 4 overall seed Oklahoma. MU (28-27) secured a No. 2 seed in the regional — meaning it comfortably landed in the field of 64 — and it will face No. 3 seed Tulsa (33-23) at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
“I know our record doesn’t show much,” Kessinger said. “But we’re ready to go out there and compete.”
Believing that her team’s season wasn’t over when they failed to qualify for the conference tournament, interim coach Gina Fogue tried to maintain normalcy by still holding the regular amount of practices. The Tigers just couldn’t practice on their home field, so they used MU’s baseball venue, Taylor Stadium, and the football program’s indoor facility, Devine Pavilion.
When Fogue and her players were each asked what would make the weekend in Oklahoma a success, none of them mentioned advancing into the best-of-three super regional round. Each of them said some variation of playing to their potential, to proving that they belong. Fogue wants her team to avoid feeling any added postseason pressure.
The Tigers’ tournament will likely begin with a match up against Emily Watson, the 2017 American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year who has pitched 225 2/3 innings this season and owns a 1.55 ERA. She struck out 15 in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, which the Golden Hurricane won.
If Missouri beats Tulsa, it would likely face Oklahoma, the two-time defending national champions. That could mean facing Paige Lowary, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s National Pro Fastpitch League draft. Lowary once attended Missouri and made the All-SEC freshman team, but then she transferred to play for the Sooners.
A season ago, Missouri traveled to the regional in Eugene, Ore., and was eliminated in two games. If the Tigers do that again, they will finish with their first losing record since the program’s 2006 campaign, the season before now-deposed coach Ehren Earleywine took control.
“This year is this year,” Kessinger said. “Turn the page and move forward.”