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Around the Columns

Softball and baseball seasons swing away

Chelsea Thomas

Sophomore pitcher Chelsea Thomas will try to lead the Tigers to a third-straight Women’s College World Series appearance.

The Mizzou baseball and softball programs have established some welcome commonalities during the past decade. Beyond leather gloves, metal bats and sunflower seeds, both clubs have developed reputations for fearsome pitching and recurring NCAA postseason appearances.

After losing 2009 ace Chelsea Thomas to a wrist fracture early in the season, the 2010 softball team (51-13) rallied behind the stellar pitching of Kristin Nottelmann of Fenton, Mo., for a second-straight trip to the Women’s College World Series. But Mizzou went 0-2 in the WCWS, also for the second year in a row, falling to Hawaii and Florida.

The 2011 Tigers are a favorite to return to Oklahoma City thanks in part to one of the most talented position players in the country. All-American center fielder Rhea Taylor led the Big 12 in batting average, hits, triples and stolen bases.

Scoreboard

17: Seasons at Mizzou for baseball skipper Tim Jamieson, who will also coach the 2011 Collegiate National Team for Team USA starting in June. His 544 career victories trail only Gene McArtor’s 733 wins among Missouri baseball coaches. Jamieson made his Team USA debut as an assistant coach in 2005.

6,822: Career passing yards for Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who announced in January that he would forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility and enter the 2011 NFL Draft April 28 in New York City. Gabbert led the Tigers to 18 wins, threw for 40 touchdowns and posted a quarterback rating of 132.59 in three seasons at Missouri.

14: Years at Mizzou for tennis coach Blake Starkey, who resigned in January to become director of tennis at the Country Club of Little Rock (Ark.). Steven Stuckenschneider, Green Tennis Center manager, will serve as interim head coach while the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics conducts a national search.

3: Games scheduled for April 16, 2011, at the Mizzou Sports Park. Football’s annual Black and Gold game is tentatively set for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium. The Mizzou softball team hosts Big 12 preseason favorite Oklahoma at 3 p.m. on University Field, and the baseball squad takes on archrival Kansas at 4 p.m. in Taylor Stadium.

“You can argue that she is the best leadoff hitter in college softball,” says Coach Ehren Earleywine of the senior speedster from Buford, Ga. “She is the toughest kid on our team in all circumstances.”

Returning at shortstop is sophomore Jenna Marston from St. Louis, who received USA Baseball’s Sportswoman of the Year honors for her play in the team’s bronze medal performance last August in Venezuela. Marston finished second in Big 12 batting behind Taylor last season.

The Tigers return 17 players, and between sophomore Thomas (Pleasantville, Iowa) and junior Nottelmann, they boast a tandem of elite pitchers who will share time in the circle.

“If one of us is having an off day, the other one can step in,” Thomas says. “We also have nine seniors coming back this season, and we’re all sick of going two-and-out in the World Series. That’s not going to happen again.”

The baseball squad missed the postseason for the first time in eight years, its 29-26 record due mostly to inconsistent and injured pitching.

“This year, the pitching staff is a combination of first-year pitchers and veteran pitchers who don’t really have prominent roles,” says Tim Jamieson, who enters his 17th season as Mizzou’s head baseball coach.

Without a clear-cut No. 1, right-handed community college transfer Matt Stites from Festus, Mo., and freshman lefty Rob Zastryzny from Corpus Christi, Texas, are expected to contribute immediately. The staff’s strength resides in its bullpen depth, led by sidearm lefty Phil McCormick (Wildwood, Mo.) and closer Brad Buehler (Festus), both seniors.

Around the diamond, the Tigers should benefit from underclassmen who gained playing experience in 2010.

Heading into 2011, both Tiger ball clubs hope to transform increased experience and higher expectations into postseason excitement. They might even figure out what to do with all those sunflower seed shells on the dugout floor.