Missouri and Kansas will add another chapter to the Border War rivalry on Saturday, but just barely.
The host Tigers blew a four-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning against Bradley only to rally in the bottom of the inning and then escape with a 6-5 win in eight innings in the opening day of NCAA regional action.
The victory, coupled with the Jayhawks’ win earlier Friday against Nebraska, means the Border War is back on, at least for one day.
Before the matchup was set, the Jayhawks tried to downplay the possibility of resuming the rivalry.
“The media has talked about it a ton,” Kansas coach Megan Smith said. “We are just happy to play whoever is in that other dugout. It doesn’t matter to us.”
Asked if playing Missouri would add anything to the regional semifinal, Smith replied, “In our heads, no. We’re just excited to play whoever’s out there.”
But the smirk that crossed ace Kelsey Kessler’s face when she was asked about the prospect of facing the Tigers belied Smith’s nonchalance.
“I think it would be neat to play them, yes,” Kessler, a Blue Springs graduate who threw 135 pitches in her complete-game effort against Nebraska, said with a mischievous grin.
Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine didn’t shy away from declaring that the game is important because it’s against Kansas.
“Sure, it does (mean more),” Earleywine said. “Everybody that follows this program is going to be watching the results. We haven’t had the bitter type rivalry that typically exists between two teams, that may exist in other sports here, but it’s a rivalry nonetheless.”
The matchup almost didn’t materialize after Missouri, 42-16, came within a strike of ending the game three times before blowing a 4-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning.
Tigers lefthander Casey Stangel, who got the start when freshman ace Tori Fincane’s sprained thumb took a turn for the worse overnight, handcuffed Bradley through 6 2/3 innings.
Things went south when she issued back-to-back walks on 3-2 counts before Braves junior Alyson Clemente slammed an 0-2 pitch to left-center for a three-run home run.
“Walks were really what killed me in the seventh inning,” said Stangel, who allowed eight hits and four walks with four strikeouts. “I think that giving those away to them was bigger than the home run.”
Stangel allowed three more hits, including Madeline Lynch-Crumrine’s game-tying RBI double and Shannon King’s go-ahead RBI single before Earleywine turned to senior Alora Marble, a transfer from Central Missouri.
“Sometimes, the hardest out to get is that last one,” said MU junior Corrin Genovese, who went four for four with three doubles, two runs scored and two RBIs. “Our coaches tell us that, and one thing led to another in that inning. We were fortunate enough to get the win and rally back.”
Fortunately, the last out proved to be equally difficult for Bradley.
Genovese doubled with one out and knotted the game at 5-5 on a sacrifice fly to right by junior Kelsea Roth, forcing extra innings.
“She basically carried us today,” Earleywine said of Genovese. “Hopefully, we can continue to get a performance like that from somebody each day.”
With the help of her defense, including a spectacular leaping stab by Genovese, Marble cruised through the eighth before Genovese won the game with a one-out, bases-loaded, walk-off single through the left side.
Now Missouri and Kansas, 34-21, resume a rivalry that has been dormant for two years since the Tigers left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.
The only other meeting between the schools since conference ties were severed came in September 2012, when the Tigers and Jayhawks both played in the Golfweek Conference Challenge hosted by Iowa at Spirit Hollow Golf Course in Burlington.
Missouri finished first at the 15-team tournament, beating 10th-place Kansas by 45 strokes.
The head-to-head rivalry resumes at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Tigers/Jayhawks’ winner advances to the regional final, while the loser must beat the winner between Nebraska and Bradley to earn the other spot in the championship pairing.
Earleywine said there’s a less than 50 percent chance Finucane, the SEC’s freshman of the year, will return for the KU game.
“Truly, I feel like the underdog tomorrow,” Earleywine said. “They have their ace pitcher for sure going. I don’t have mine. It’s going to be an uphill climb. They played awesome today. They’ve got a lot of good hitters in their lineup. It’s going to be hard for us to win.”
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NCAA SOFTBALL REGIONAL
Kansas vs. Missouri, 3:30 p.m.
Bradley vs. Nebraska, 6 p.m.
Loser of KU-MU vs. winner of Bradley-Nebraska, 8:30 p.m.