University of Missouri

Ehren Earleywine ‘couldn’t be more happy’ as Mizzou softball returns to postseason

Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine is grateful.

The Tigers endured the worst regular season during his 11-year tenure, finishing 29-26 overall and 7-16 in the Southeastern Conference.

For the first time in eight seasons, Mizzou isn’t hosting an NCAA Tournament regional. Instead, the Tigers are bound for Eugene, Ore., and an opening-round showdown with Wisconsin, 33-15, at 8 p.m. Friday on ESPN. Host Oregon, the No. 3 overall seed, plays Illinois-Chicago in the other game.

“I couldn’t be more happy, and I mean that,” Earleywine said.

Earleywine endured a four-month university investigation into alleged verbal abuse of players last spring and summer.

The inquiry, which also involved MU’s Office for Civil Rights and Title IX, started under former athletic director Mack Rhoades, who told Earleywine to start looking for new job at one point.

By August, Rhoades had left for Baylor, Earleywine had been cleared in the Title IX investigation and his job was spared, but the ordeal took a toll. Seven players transferred from the start of the 2016 season.

“Last year, there were probably three months’ worth of every morning waking up and wondering if I was going to be the head coach anymore here at the University of Missouri,” he said. “I didn’t think that I could love being the coach here anymore than I already loved being the coach here until it was almost taken away from me.”

The program opened the new $17.5 million Mizzou Softball Stadium in 2017 and Earleywine has relished this season.

“It kind of rejuvenated me and reminded me how much I deeply love coaching this program and representing our state,” said Earleywine, who’s from Jefferson City. “It really revitalized me, knowing that I’m coming back and now working for an AD (Jim Sterk) and an administration that are supportive and believe in me.”

That’s not to say it’s been easy.

Missouri didn’t have its customary public watch party during the NCAA Division I Softball Tournament selection show, opting to gather as a team at the new stadium for the bracket reveal.

“If I had to put numbers on it, I was 90 percent sure that we were going to get in and 10 percent was wondering if the committee was going to overlook us, but I felt pretty good,” Earleywine said. “But since we knew there was a chance that we wouldn’t get in, we just made it us.”

Mizzou has never won fewer than 38 games in a season under Earleywine, but roster issues along with last season’s investigation, which included a weeklong player protest, derailed the 2017 campaign.

The Tigers lacked a true returning ace pitcher after Paige Lowary (Oklahoma) and Tori Finucane (Minnesota) elected to transfer last summer.

While MU’s offense pounded some home runs, the team’s batting average and stolen bases were significantly down. The Tigers also lost third baseman Amanda Sanchez, their top returning slugger, to an elbow injury.

“This season is an anomaly,” Earleywine said. “It’s not something we plan on repeating.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

Related stories from Kansas City Star