COLUMBIA, MO. • There’s been nothing ordinary about Ehren Earleywine’s 11th season as Missouri’s softball coach. A program accustomed to piling up victories and cruising into postseason play on its home field has lost eight of 10 games heading into this weekend’s NCAA regional. And for the first time in nine years, the Tigers have to pack suitcases for the postseason.
Every year from 2009-16, the Tigers hosted a four-team, double-elimination regional, and seven of those eight years survived to reach the super regional round. To do the same this year, Mizzou must not only capture a regional on the road in Eugene, Ore., but somehow outlast No. 3 overall seed Oregon on the Ducks’ home field.
It’s a challenge Earleywine welcomes.
“All these experiences make you a better coach and better player,” said Earleywine, whose Tigers (29-26) open regional play at 8 p.m. St. Louis time Friday against Wisconsin at Oregon’s Jane Sanders Stadium on ESPN. “We’ve hosted so many times and been the team with the target on your back. It’s completely different this year. We’re fighting an uphill battle but looking forward to it.”
The Tigers head west with the fourth-most losses among the 64 teams in this year’s NCAA field. But thanks to playing in the nation’s strongest conference — the Southeastern Conference landed all 13 teams in the field — the Tigers secured a No. 2 seed in the Eugene Regional, drawing a first-round game against No. 3 seed Wisconsin (38-20), the sixth-place team from the Big Ten. Oregon plays the later game Friday against No. 4 seed Illinois-Chicago (38-20).
As Mizzou continues to recover from the offseason transfers of pitchers Paige Lowary and Tori Finucane, plus the season-ending elbow injury to third baseman Amanda Sanchez, Earleywine can’t imagine where the Tigers would be without Cheyenne Baxter, the Tigers’ savior in the circle.
“Probably in big trouble,” he said of the senior righthander. “It’s always fun seeing who emerges and has that big year nobody expected. Thank God it was somebody on our pitching staff because we needed that more than anything.”
With Lowary gone to Oklahoma, where she’s 13-2 for the Big 12 champion, and Finucane (5-1) pitching for Big Ten champion Minnesota, Earleywine expected to piecemeal together his rotation, hoping an ace would emerge from the mix of Baxter, a reliever her first two years at MU, sophomore Danielle Baumgartner, freshman Parker Conrad and Louisville transfer Madi Norman.
Gradually, as the Tigers emerged from a bumpy stretch against nonconference opponents, Earleywine settled on Baxter as Mizzou’s best arm for its biggest games, especially once she recaptured control of her riseball, a pitch she struggled to tame when the season began.
An afterthought on the staff her first two years, when she was 6-2 with six starts in just 85 innings, Baxter has been MU’s most consistent pitcher since SEC play began. Baxter, 16-9 overall with a 2.30 ERA, earned all seven of MU’s wins in SEC play and dropped her ERA to 1.84 against league competition. MU’s other pitchers are a combined 13-17 with an ERA of 3.99.
“I like taking on the role,” Baxter said. “I like being the one who’s in control, knowing that I have that effect on the game. It’s rough when you’re sitting on the bench thinking, I wish I could be out there, I wish I could be in that situation.”
“I’m sure it’s life-changing for her in many ways,” Earleywine said. “She’s a kid we didn’t know if she could throw a strike before she could throw four balls. We had a real short leash. She got real limited innings when we were up or down six or seven. Now here she is thrust into being our Friday night starter.”
Baxter has always been a late bloomer. Back home in Norbonne, Mo., she was mostly a first baseman in high school before earning more trips to the circle as a senior. She didn’t pitch the one time Earleywine sent an assistant coach to her small town in Carroll County to watch her team play. She landed a scholarship at the University of Nebraska Omaha then transferred to Mizzou in 2014 after her freshman season, joining the Tigers as Earleywine’s third pitcher behind Finucane and Lowary.
When both pitchers left the team last summer as the university wrapped up its investigation into allegations that Earleywine mistreated players — he was cleared of violating any federal laws by MU’s Title IX Office — Baxter challenged herself to earn their innings.
Not once this spring has Earleywine formally declared Baxter his ace, but she earned the title with her command and poise.
“I just kept seeing my name more and more (in the lineup),” she said. “That’s when I was like, OK, he’s relying on me more. Then I started to expect it.”