University of Missouri

Missouri tops Kansas again to claim NCAA regional softball crown

Missouri’s Natalie Fleming (left) celebrated with teammate Taylor Gadbois after the Tigers won the NCAA Tournament Columbia Regional on Sunday at University Field in Columbia.
Missouri’s Natalie Fleming (left) celebrated with teammate Taylor Gadbois after the Tigers won the NCAA Tournament Columbia Regional on Sunday at University Field in Columbia. The Associated Press

COLUMBIA Missouri senior shortstop Corrin Genovese released her inner Rob Gronkowski after junior second baseman Sami Fagan shoveled the ball to her for the final out Sunday in a 7-6 win against Kansas during the NCAA regional championship at University Field.

“It was just excitement to get the game over with, to get that win,” said Genovese, who singled, walked twice and scored two runs in the victory. “That was the last time I’d be playing on that field ever. I had to give it a little spike on the way out.”

Genovese’s exuberance served as the exclamation point for a weekend Border War sweep by the Tigers, but more importantly the win propelled coach Ehren Earleywine’s squad into the super regionals for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.

The 10th-seeded Tigers will face seventh seed UCLA in the best-of-three super regionals.

“After last year, losing it, it made me really appreciate winning regionals,” Earleywine said. “It felt easy there, quote-unquote, for a while. We won six in a row and last year kind of woke me up. I’m extremely grateful and really proud of my team.”

It was a strange victory replete with unexpected or unprecedented performances.

Cheyenne Baxter, a sophomore transfer from Nebraska-Omaha, picked up the win after coming on in the second inning for sophomore ace Tori Finucane.

Baxter — who seldom sees work in high-leverage situations or against top competition, much less in a regional championship — tossed 4 2/3 innings and scattered four hits with a walk and three strikeouts.

“She was awesome, absolutely as good as I’ve seen her all year,” Earleywine said. “To do it under the pressure she did it under was just amazing. … She was the MVP, for sure.”

When Baxter ran into trouble in the sixth, another unexpected hero emerged.

Freshman left-hander Paige Lowary had been unavailable, bed-ridden and running a fever throughout the weekend.

She texted Earleywine at 7:30 a.m. that she was unavailable again only to show up in uniform an hour before the first pitch.

Lowary earned the save, her fourth of the season, by working around two walks in 1 1/3 hitless, shutout innings.

“The girl has been hunched over for three days, hasn’t been able to get out of bed and running a 102-degree fever,” said sophomore catcher Kirsten Mack, whose career-high five RBIs helped stake Missouri to an early 7-2 lead. “To show up 45 minutes before game time and say, ‘All right, coach, I’m going to try to give it all I’ve got,’ when she went out there it looked like the same old Paige.”

Much like Saturday’s first Border War meeting of the weekend, a 5-3 win by the Tigers, the Jayhawks, 40-15, struck first with a two-run first inning.

Freshmen Jessie Roane and Erin McGinley delivered RBI singles after Missouri walked Daniela Chavez and Chanin Naudin to load the bases.

The Tigers, who have won 10 straight against the Jayhawks, countered with a three-run second inning.

Mack pumped an RBI double to the wall in right-center and senior Angela Randazzo followed with an RBI single to left.

Mack then scored on a wild pitch for a 3-2 lead. She delivered the big blow an inning later with a grand slam to left that cut through the gusting mid-Missouri wind.

“I was anticipating them coming in on me … so I took about a half a step off the plate from where I usually stand and was just focusing on trying to get my hands inside of (the pitch),” Mack said. “If I get my hands inside and I get extended, I feel pretty confident about what I can do.”

It was Mack’s team-leading 15th home run of the season and staked the Tigers to what proved to be an insurmountable five-run lead.

Not that the Jayhawks didn’t try.

Kansas pushed across four unearned runs and nearly erased that five-run deficit with a sixth-inning rally.

The trouble for Missouri started with a two-out error by Fagan. Randazzo also had an error in the inning, which also featured two hit batters and two infield singles before Lowary came on for Baxter.

Lowary immediately issued a four-pitch RBI walk to junior Chaley Brickey before ending the threat and preserving a one-run lead.

“It was a fun game to be a part of it,” KU coach Megan Smith said. “We were excited to be here Sunday playing Mizzou again, excited to get another chance to compete with them on the field. We attacked early and fought to the end. That’s what our team has done all season. … It’s fun to coach that group of girls.”

It was the fourth time Kansas, which left 15 runners on base, stranded the bases loaded, but Earleywine was never worried.

“We would have eventually won, whether it was that game or the next one,” Earleywine said. “They weren’t going to beat us twice.”

Asked why he felt that way, Earleywine said, “We’re better.”

Jayhawks senior Alicia Pille was saddled with the loss, allowing seven runs in 2 2/3 innings, but sophomore Sophia Templin, a De Soto graduate, picked Pille up with 4 1/3 shutout innings in relief.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @todpalmer.