Tigers look to make return trip to WCWS

January, 31, 2011
01/31/11
8:37
AM ET

Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.

No. 10 Missouri
Last season: 51-13, lost in Women's College World Series
Who returns: It would almost be easier to just skip to the next item. Coach Ehren Earleywine didn't stick with a single lineup last season, but 12 of the 14 position players who started at least 10 games return, as do Chelsea Thomas, who entered last season as the ace, and Kristin Nottelmann, who took over as the de facto ace when Thomas was forced to redshirt with an arm injury.

Thomas had a small setback when she injured her back last fall, but she's been pitching since Christmas and is pain free and in the best shape she's ever been in, according to Earleywine. She made a name for herself by lighting up radar guns to help Missouri reach the World Series in 2009, but perhaps lost in the shadow of the injury last season was a new and improved pitcher. With a rise ball an an increasingly reliable changeup complementing her drop ball, she earned wins last season against Alabama, Arizona and Michigan before her redshirt.

With Thomas healthy and Nottelmann now a proven commodity, the Tigers have one of the country's best pitching situations.

Who departs: Gina Schneider is the most notable statistical loss. Schneider started 52 games last season, primarily at second base, and provided contributions across the board.

Who arrives: Four freshmen and a senior transfer who are going to have a difficult time wedging into the lineup. Sophomore Princess Krebs isn't a newcomer, but after totaling just 23 at-bats last season, she could find her way into the starting lineup.

Statistically speaking: Thomas threw hard as a freshman, but a rate of 5.5 strikeouts per seven innings that season was an indication that good hitters eventually caught up enough to at least make contact against her favored drop ball. In 77.1 innings last season, including plenty against top-tier lineups, she averaged 11.1 strikeouts per seven innings. If she had enough innings to qualify, the latter number would have ranked 10th in the nation.

Preseason question: Is Rhea Taylor the most dangerous offensive player in the game?
Only two players in the nation ranked in the top 50 in both slugging percentage and stolen bases last season. One was Cleveland State's Tess Sito; the question above reduces the suspense as to the identity of the second. And taking nothing away from Sito, there's an undeniable difference between doing that double in the Horizon League and for a World Series team in the Big 12.

The speed was nothing new -- Taylor was second in the nation in stolen bases as a freshman. But last season's power (26 extra-base hits, including eight home runs) marked the progression of an offensive game that focused almost exclusively on slapping as a freshman (when she totaled just seven extra-base hits). Taylor was valuable as a one-dimensional slapper, but she might just be unrivaled as a multi-threat run producer this season.

"Here we are in her final season, her senior year, and it's really nice because now she has the bunt, she has the slap and she has the power," Earleywine said. "So now we actually get an opportunity to fine tune each of those and try to figure out when to use each of those in a game. … Now we're really getting into the fun part of her career, where she has all three weapons"

That's a much more pleasant choice for him in the third-base coaching box than the choice confronting and confounding pitchers deciding what to throw her, or as a former infielder for Team USA in men's fastpitch can attest, the choice confronting infielders trying to figure out where to play her.

"When you play against a guy who can do all three, it was just really scary because if you scooted up to take that slap or that bunt away, they might knock one down your throat -- literally just absolutely hurt you with one," Earleywine said. "But if you scooted back and tried to protect your health, they'd drop a bunt on you and then your coach is mad at you for playing too far back. So you just couldn't wait until those guys were done batting."

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

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