Missouri has the tools to return to WCWS

May, 30, 2009
5/30/09
5:56
PM ET

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The team buses all come and go the same way at the complex that house Hall of Fame Stadium, but not all exits from the World Series are created equal. And so while Missouri's stay here this week bordered on stormy, the Tigers have at least a couple of potential routes to travel after bowing out of their first Women's College World Series in 15 years.

For now, the team's stay in the World Series may be primarily remembered for coach Ehren Earleywine's displeasure. After the team's opening loss against Arizona State, he voiced his displeasure about an infield he felt was unduly hard, to the detriment of his fielders against the Sun Devils' slap hitters. After Saturday's 5-2 loss against Georgia in an elimination game, illegal pitches were the focus of the discussion (although in this instance, Earleywine was more witness than prosecutor in answering postgame questions about his conversations early in the game with umpire Sally Walker).

But at some point in the next few weeks, the story will shift to how Missouri reached the World Series and whether or not it is positioned to make the trip a regular occurrence.

Many tackle the question; few come up with an answer.

For perennial participants along the lines of Alabama, Arizona or UCLA, an early World Series exit need not be a program-defining moment. But for many more programs, it does often represent a quiet end to the high-water mark for at least a few cycles of recruiting classes.

Many of those are teams that ride the momentum of a senior ace. Think Virginia Tech with Angela Tincher last year, Baylor with Lisa Ferguson in 2007 or Oregon State with Brianne McGowan in 2006. No matter how many other players return the next season for those programs, getting back to the World Series comes down to an ability to reload in the circle.

Oregon State is still searching for another ace in that mold, and Virginia Tech struggled this season without one. After an initial dip last season, Baylor took a step toward solidifying its place in the upper class when it landed freshman pitcher Whitney Canion and returned to a super regional this season.

But with Chelsea Thomas back for three more seasons, Missouri is in a different situation. No matter what befell her in Oklahoma City, Thomas has a chance to be the kind of pitcher who makes a team a contender every season.

"As long as she'll stay to the plan and be open-minded, she could end up being one of the best to have ever thrown because she does throw so hard," Earleywine said earlier this week.

And in paying tribute after Saturday's loss to the seniors he inherited three years ago, Earleywine simultaneously hinted at a confidence that he will surround Thomas with more and more pieces.

"We're playing with a lot of girls that weren't recruited by too many schools," Earleywine said. "I'm proud of the job that they have done. No one would really expect a group of kids that weren't recruited like they weren't to be able to make it this far. We had a great season. We recorded the most wins in Missouri softball history and made it to the World Series for the first time in 15 years."

That sounded a lot like Arizona State coach Clint Myers, who after his team lost its first two games in Oklahoma City in 2007 made clear that the returning players would need to learn from that feeling -- because there were new players coming in to push them. New and old celebrated a title last season.

Whether or not Earleywine's returning players -- and seven players who started against Georgia will be back next season -- make the same progress that Sun Devils such as Kristen Miller, Mindy Cowles and Rhiannon Baca made will go a long way to determining if Missouri's two-and-done this week is a one-and-done for the program as a championship contender.

And if Earleywine gets a chance for a slightly less combative trip to the big stage.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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