Feb. 15, 2012
With the 2012 Mizzou softball season just days away, we're going to take an in-depth look at how the Tigers can expect to look this year at each position. While we've already taken a look at what competition Mizzou can expect to see this weekend, this will provide some analysis into a squad that looks to replace a large portion of their lineup with 10 newcomers.
The Tigers open their season this weekend at the Quality Inn Classic in Troy, Ala., hosted by the Troy Trojans. Missouri opened the year ranked fifth in the ESPN.com/USA Softball rankings and sixth according to the USA Today/NFCA Division I Poll, and they held at those spots after being off their first week.
Missouri advanced to their third straight Women's College World Series last year, and won their first WCWS game since 1991 with a 4-1 win over Oklahoma. The Tigers also captured the Big 12 Championship, going 15-3 in league play. They broke the school record for wins for the third consecutive season, winning 53 games. Mizzou returns 10 letterwinners from 2011 and welcomes in 10 freshmen who are expected to make a huge impact.
One of the biggest tasks to fill on this team is having the ability to catch Missouri's pair of elite pitchers. Megan Christopher did a fantastic job behind the plate for the last four years but she graduated last season, leaving just one regular catcher on the roster in junior Rachel Hay. The coaching staff brought in three potential catchers in this recruiting class, but a familiar face will be making the most notable position shift on the team as former shortstop Jenna Marston moves behind the plate.
"The idea came to me last spring during our season, but I didn't mention anything to JJ until the season was over," said head coach Ehren Earleywine. "She was a little shocked, but also receptive, and she'll do whatever is asked of her to help the team. She has all the tools for catching - she's smart enough, has a great arm, good field knowledge and is a left handed hitter to boot."
Marston is coming along nicely behind the plate and is without a doubt the best defensive catcher on the squad. The coaching staff and pitching staff have complete confidence in her as she continues to learn the spot.
Potentially, freshman Angela Randazzo and Hay will compete for the No. 2 spot behind the plate, filling in when Marston needs to rest her legs.
The infield has the potential to be entirely full of freshmen, beginning with freshman Kelsea Roth who is penciled in as the everyday starter at first. Filling in for graduates Catherine Lee and Marla Schweisberger, Roth provides Mizzou with a big power bat in the middle of the lineup and should give the Tigers that offensive boost that they need. She led the team in home runs in the fall and can hit for a very high average.
"Lindsey Muller and Mackenzie Sykes will also compete for time at the position," said Earleywine. "Both players have looked very good at the plate during spring practices, and if they continue, we will have to find ways to get them into the lineup."
Abby Vock broke out in a huge way offensively last year after three years of being an elite defensive player, earning All-Big 12 honors and leading the league in slugging percentage during conference games. Two freshmen have the potential to step in and start in Corrin Genovese and Ashtin Stephens. Both provide plus-defense, have good speed and hit well. Genovese, a three-time Under Armour All-American, can hit to all fields, while Stephens, the Missouri state record holder for hits, has the ability to bunt, slap and swing away, making her a three-way threat at the plate for the Tiger offense. Stephens is currently playing through a hip injury, so it will be a day-to-day process determining how she feels and if she can give it a go.
With Marston stepping in behind the plate, someone has to fill the role that she has played at shortstop in her first two years. One of the potential prospects to take over this year is Princess Krebs, who mostly played in the outfield last season. Krebs has a very good glove and can get to most balls hit in her general direction. She also has an above average arm and can throw out a high number of runners at first on tough place. Krebs showed signs of having some pop at the plate as well, as she hit three home runs last year in limited action. Genovese will share time at the position as well, as she can step in and play at second, third, or short when needed. The starter at shortstop will often be dependent on the health of Stephens and who is playing second base.
The starter the last two years, Nicole Hudson is still very much in the running to be the go-to player at the position, but for the first portion of the season she will be sharing time with Randazzo.
"Each of them will be in the lineup in some way, shape or form, since they are both big bats for us. Once we determine who gives us the best defense, we will move the other to somewhere else on the field. That will most likely come 15-20 games into the season," Earleywine stated.
Last season, Hudson was second on the team in home runs (13), runs batted in (51), slugging percentage (.625) and walks (33), and third on the squad in batting average (.337) and doubles (14). Randazzo has shown some impressive power during practice and figures to give the Tigers another strong offensive bat in the top half of the lineup.
Last season, left field was considered a "revolving door" for Missouri as they tried to find someone to step in and emerge as the starter, a role that was filled by Lisa Simmons, who had a strong senior campaign. The situation will be the same this year, as the Tigers again have several options at the position. Those that stand out include Sykes, Hudson and freshman Kayla Kingsley, all of which provide different offensive styles. Sykes is as steady as it gets, will put the ball in play and occasionally get ahold of one, while Hudson's numbers speak for themselves. As for Kingsley, she, like Stephens, has the ability to swing away, slap or bunt. Her speed may give her an advantage at the position in the long run. Earleywine expects to left field to be open for about half of the season until conference play gets underway, when hopefully someone will emerge.
Missouri has to replace arguably the best offensive player in the program's history in center fielder Rhea Taylor, who holds every major offensive record and was a three-time All-American for Mizzou. Just like left field, several Tigers will have the opportunity to take control of the position. Along with first and left, Sykes is also a prospect to start in center, while Kingsley is as well. Another newcomer to the squad in Taylor Gadbois will also see plenty of time in center field, as she's potentially the biggest speed threat the team has this season.
"If no one takes control in center, there's a possibility that (Ashley) Fleming slides over and takes over the reins this season," claimed Earleywine. "Marston will also see time at the position. When we need to give her legs a rest behind the plate, she will play center field because we need her bat in the lineup."
As mentioned, Fleming will be the starter in right field unless she is needed to take over center. If she is, freshman Kelsi Jones is a strong option to play right. Earleywine says she has "a right field-caliber arm" and has good power at the plate. Jones was an Under Armour All-American last year.
Missouri returns their top-two starters this year in redshirt junior Chelsea Thomas and senior Kristin Nottelmann, teaming up to make arguably the best 1-2 combo in the nation. Thomas was an All-American and finalist for National Player of the Year last year after leading the country with a 0.95 earned run average and breaking Mizzou's strikeout record with 397. Nottelmann broke the program record for best winning percentage in a season (.944) after going 17-1 with an ERA under 2.00.
"I wouldn't trade our pitching staff for any in the country," Earleywine said. "Not only do we have returning Pitcher of the Year in Chelsea Thomas, but our "1b." pitcher Kristin Nottelmann will have a great year as well. Kristin has worked harder in the offseason than ever in trying to add good weight to her frame. In doing so, she has improved velocity and she is spinning the ball as well as I've ever seen. In our new conference series format with three games per opponent, having two great pitchers will make a difference."
Missouri also brought in a freshman pitcher in Bailey Erwin, who was a two-time Conference Pitcher of the Year in high school. Erwin will eat up some crucial innings. Fleming is the team's No. 4 pitcher and ideally will not be needed.
"If Bailey can eat some innings, that will allow Chelsea and Kristin to be fresh when we need them to be their best," Earleywine stated. "If Bailey continues getting outs like she has been so far in spring practice, we should be just fine with three pitchers."
Missouri opens their season at 2 p.m. CT on Friday against Ball State and plays Troy at 7 p.m. that same day. Stay tuned to mutigers.com and follow the team's Twitter page (@MizzouSoftball) for more information.