An already tumultuous week took a stunning turn Wednesday for the Missouri softball team, which blew a four-run, seventh-inning lead in the opening game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament and was eliminated in extra innings by South Carolina.
The No. 11 seed Gamecocks scored four runs with two outs in the seventh and prevailed 7-4 in eight innings against the No. 6 seed Tigers at Nusz Field in Starkville, Miss.
Junior Taylor Williams’ pinch-hit three-run homer off Mizzou freshman Danielle Baumgartner, who came on in relief for the eighth, proved to be the difference.
Before that, coach Ehren Earleywine’s crew appeared to be cruising toward an easy win.
Twice in the bottom of the seventh, South Carolina was down to its final strike.
Sophomore ace Paige Lowary had mowed through the Gamecocks’ lineup for six innings, but the Gamecocks scratched across a two-out run to make things interesting.
With one on and two out, freshman Kennedy Clark brought the tying run to the plate when she dropped a 1-2 pitch into right field. Junior Kaylea Snaer then hammered an 0-2 pitch from Lowary over the center-field wall for the game-tying home run.
Williams provided the Gamecocks’ first and only lead of the game an inning later and Nickie Blue, who had a no-hitter through four innings, worked a scoreless eighth for the complete-game victory.
Missouri, 39-14, found itself embroiled in controversy Saturday when the team announced it was playing under protest for “a wholly unsubstantiated investigation of our softball program and the softball coaching staff,” according to a statement passed out in the University Field press box before the penultimate game of the regular season.
Later Saturday, Missouri confirmed that Earleywine is under investigation for complaints received “both inside and outside the program.”
Speaking Sunday with reporters after the regular-season finale, Earleywine confirmed that the investigation had been ongoing for a month and defending his “throwback” coaching style.
“We’ve had probably more meetings in the last month than I’ve had in the last five years of my coaching career,” Earleywine said during an interview with the SEC Network before the game. “It’s been very volatile. There’s times where we feel great and there’s other times where we feel defeated.”
Earleywine said the Tigers had an hours-long meeting Tuesday night before the SEC tourney commenced.
“We’re still just trying to figure all this out,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotions. Every kid has a slightly different spin on it. You can’t blanket a statement that covers everyone.”
He praised his team for blocking out the distractions during and playing well, including 10 wins in 11 games entering the conference tournament.
“It would be understandable if we just laid a big, fat egg and played terrible, but it hasn’t happened,” Earleywine told the SEC Network. “I’m just really proud of the girls for their resiliency.”
He declined to go into specifics of the most-recent team meeting other than to say “the general consensus is that we’re united as a team” and refused to speculate on his future with the program.
“The blanket statement I’m supposed to tell you is I can neither confirm nor deny my understanding of what’s going to happen, and there’s probably a lot of truth to that,” Earleywine said.
He reiterated that he hopes to coach at Mizzou for the remainder of his career.
“That’s my home,” Earleywine said. “That’s where my kids have grown up and been raised. All of my family’s there and it’s my dream job. That’s why, when I came back, I didn’t come back to coach. I came back to come home. I hope that it will work out.”
Missouri confirmed Tuesday that two players — freshman second baseman Chase Nelson and sophomore outfielder Morgan Walters — had left the team.
Walters’ mom said on Twitter her daughter’s decision had nothing to do with the protest and that she wasn’t asked to leave the team.
As for Wednesday’s battle, Missouri freshman Rylee Pierce broke up Blue’s no-hit bid on the first pitch in the fifth inning.
The Tigers scored two in that inning on RBIs from seniors Taylor Gadbois and Sami Fagan.
An inning later, junior Chloe Rathburn launched a two-run home run, her 14th of the season, that seemed like it would ice the win.
Instead, South Carolina mounted a stunning rally and Missouri now awaits its NCAA Tournament fate on Sunday night.