It was fitting, Ehren Earleywine’s ceremonial first pitch Friday night at brand new Mizzou Stadium.
The 11th-year Missouri softball coach, who’s played a giant role in Missouri softball’s strides — both with the $16 million stadium project and the Tigers’ 10 consecutive NCAA Regionals — stepped up to the rubber, neon ball in hand, and fired one right down the pipe ahead of 24th-ranked Missouri’s home opener against No. 4 Oregon.
However, his team didn’t follow suit in the opener for the 1,242 fans in attendance. The Tigers fell to the Ducks, 10-3, but they grabbed their first win by knocking off Stephen F. Austin, 14-6, in the second of the doubleheader.
After the first game, freshman shortstop Braxton Burnside said “it was awesome” playing in the venue.
“We came out here and got to practice yesterday and kind of got a little taste of it,” Burnside said postgame. “... This town, Coach (Earleywine), the team, the program is so deserving of this stadium. It was awesome to see (him throw out the first pitch).”
Earleywine, on the other hand, wasn’t all too happy.
“I’m very grateful for the stadium and all that comes along with it, but the product that we put on the field tonight was not representative of a team that deserves a new stadium,” Earleywine said. “We owe it to our fans and the state of Missouri to be better than what we were tonight.”
Excusing Burnside’s big fly in the sixth inning, though, as well as a home run hit by junior Amanda Sanchez in the third, Missouri (8-6) struggled against Oregon.
The Tigers did from the get-go.
The first home run hit in the stadium’s first game came in the top of the first inning when Oregon (16-0) junior catcher Gwen Svekis smashed a pitch from Missouri sophomore Madi Norman to left center that reached the peak of the Columbia skyline.
The bomb put the Ducks up 2-0 and they didn’t look back.
“Obviously, no one wants to lose their first game in a brand new stadium, but it’s also nice to have someone like Oregon come in here and challenge us at the very beginning of the season,” Burnside said.
Ann Stafford, 64, thought back to her time spent at University Field, which housed the Tigers’ softball program for the past 36 years and saw 10 NCAA Regionals, four NCAA Super Regionals and a Big Eight conference tournament.
A Columbia native since 1976, Stafford has attempted to go to every softball game the previous four years.
And her thoughts when she first walked up the concrete steps to the stadium built just off Stadium Boulevard and adjacent to the Hearnes Center on Friday?
“It’s amazing. It’s like a real stadium,” Stafford said. “It’s big, it’s new — it’s just great.”
Mike Parnell, a 60-year-old Columbia native who’s come to games since 2009, agreed with Stafford, although he was upset to leave his seats at University Field.
Of Mizzou Stadium, Parnell said: “It’s a great view. Of course it’s a little cool today, but I think it’s going to be pretty awesome.”
Both Parnell and Stafford said they weren’t sure the stadium that was first proposed to fans in June of 2015 was going to be complete for the home opener.
Stafford said she drove by all week and there were workers galore. Parnell said he was worried about its completion for weeks.
He wasn’t the only one.
“There was a point where it was like, is it even going to happen?” Burnside said. “But we are super excited to be here tonight.”
For the Paragould, Ark., native in Burnside, the stadium the features a locker room with both heat and air conditioning — unlike University Field — was a longtime coming.
The team’s home runs leader with six, two of which came on Friday night, Burnside recalled an unofficial visit in which she saw the stadium virtually.
Oregon and Stephen F. Austin saw the stadium for the first of many times this weekend as the Ducks are competing in the Mizzou tournament that spans until Sunday and will feature a total of 13 games.
Not only did Burnside say the tournament would be an opportunity to get used to their new home, but it would also provide an opportunity for her team to grow.
Earleywine said his team will have to to accomplish its goal of returning to the NCAA regionals.
“We’re going to have to battle to stay above .500 it looks like right now,” Earleywine said. “... If that doesn’t end, then we won’t play in the postseason.”
How will Missouri rebound?
“(We) just (have to stick) along with what we know and what we’ve been doing in practice,” Burnside said. “I think we continue to progress every day. … If we stick together as a team and stay behind Coach (Earleywine) and stay patient, the time will come for us.”