Kim Wert on Mizzou softball’s success
Larissa Anderson inherited more than just a softball program when she became Missouri’s newest head coach 10 months ago.
The former Hofstra coach took on a team that saw its coach fired two weeks before the start of the previous season and went 6-17 in conference play, which caused MU to miss the Southeastern Conference tournament it was hosting. The program was also tied to an NCAA investigation that, months later, resulted in a postseason ban and recruiting restrictions.
Her strategy to deal with it all? To not talk much about it.
When Anderson said at her introductory press conference that every player would get a clean slate, it wasn’t intended to be taken as coach-speak. She simply didn’t see the value in discussing old topics that stemmed from a previous coaching staff.
So far she’s proven silence is the best approach. After being picked last in the conference preseason poll, MU is currently 30-21 heading into its final regular season series against South Carolina this weekend. Missouri didn’t win its 30th game last season until May 19. The Tigers are 10-11 in conference play and are already in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament. A series win over the No. 16 Gamecocks could put MU’s resume over the top. Regardless, Anderson is already a major candidate for SEC coach of the year.
“Last year there were a lot of things that were out of our control,” MU senior pitcher Madi Norman said. “We definitely got dealt a tough hand. We can’t focus on last year and what happened in the past.”
Missouri is currently tied for seventh in the SEC with Auburn and could end the regular season as high as fifth, depending on the results of other conference series this weekend. The Tigers have had a strong first season under Anderson despite not being elite in any part of their game.
In most key statistics, Missouri finds itself in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the conference in categories such as earned run average, batting average and home runs. Missouri is tied for the SEC lead in saves with 10 and is currently third in stolen bases.
Anderson didn’t know what she had on the roster until the fall when she had everyone on campus going through workouts. She intentionally didn’t do much research on players in order to keep every position battle open and not develop any favorites based off statistics or experience.
“We had a lot of talent, but I needed to develop camaraderie,” Anderson told The Star in her office on Wednesday. “The philosophy in the past was survival of the fittest and only worry about yourself, and I wanted to develop more of a team chemistry atmosphere.”
Anderson knew MU would need to pull out a lot of ugly wins to be competitive this season before getting the roster to reflect her core values, which are pitching and defense. She said as long as she’s at MU, Missouri will never lose a game because of poor defense. Anderson’s optimism in the team rose at one of its lowest points, after MU got swept at No. 5 Alabama in its conference-opening series.
MU hung with the Crimson Tide in all three games, and Anderson thought all three losses were due to fixable issues and not inferior talent. Missouri responded the next week with a three-game sweep of No. 13 Kentucky, which told her that players were buying into her system.
“Kentucky was the biggest turning point for us,” Norman said. “That’s when we really started to believe.”
Part of MU’s success has come from sophomore third baseman Kim Wert, who originally signed with Anderson at Hofstra and followed her coach west. Wert, who has a team-high 18 home runs, turned heads in softball circles when she elected to sign with Hofstra out of high school over bluebloods such as Michigan and Stanford. Wert cited her relationship with Anderson as part of her reasons to spurn some of the sport’s biggest programs.
Wert had five home runs in 12 at-bats as a freshman for the Pride. Her first three hits in college were pinch-hit home runs. When Anderson told her Hofstra team she was leaving for MU, she said she’d keep an eye on any player that elected to transfer from Hofstra, but due to NCAA rules, she couldn’t say more.
After Wert followed Anderson to MU, Anderson expected Wert to have a transitional year as she adjusted to SEC pitchers.
“I was lucky to get her at Hofstra,” Anderson said. “I did not think I had any shot. When she first came on campus I thought she’d be beaten out because there were other people that had more experience than her. She’s just outworked the system.”
Wert said Missouri’s locker room resembles a lot of what Anderson had at Hofstra, but is still far from a finished product.
“She’s definitely trying to bring the blue-collar mindset here,” Wert said. “It’s working.”
Anderson’s success has come with the NCAA’s ruling of a postseason ban, scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions all hanging over the program. Athletic director Jim Sterk said he brought up the investigation during the interview process, but Anderson said she first found out in November, when the NCAA was investigating the program.
The Tigers are postseason eligible while MU appeals the decision, which also affected its football and baseball programs.
Anderson said the team only discussed the issues when the ruling came down and hasn’t talked much about it since, except for keeping the team in the loop with the process. Anderson said she isn’t a bulletin-board kind of coach, using preseason polls and press clippings as motivation, but discussed what success would look like nationally, if the team could win while under a postseason ban.
“Let’s put ourselves in such a great position that it’s going to embarrass the NCAA in saying ‘how could we not have Mizzou in the top-64 teams?’” she said. “And we’ve essentially done that.”