Missouri burns out in second half of season, finishing 29-28 and struggling against SEC opponents

The 2017 season was highlighted by personal accolades for new and veteran players.

Maneater File Photo

The Missouri softball team ended its season on May 20 with a loss to the University of Illinois at Chicago in the NCAA Eugene Regional. Despite finishing with their worst record since 2006, the Tigers still managed to break several Southeastern Conference and team records.

After an encouraging start, the Tigers struggled in the second half of the season, failing to win a series after April 18 when they were swept in a doubleheader against Southeast Missouri State. The Tigers finished the season with a 29-28 record, marking the team’s lowest win total in head coach Ehren Earleywine’s 11 seasons at Mizzou. The only other time the team has won less than 40 games under Earleywine was in 2013 (38-14).

Despite his team’s struggles, Earleywine has found comfort in the fact that he is still with the Tigers. Earleywine was investigated last year for “alleged verbal abuse” by the athletics department and the MU Office for Civil Rights & Title IX. It concluded with a statement in August from Interim Chancellor Hank Foley saying, “It was determined that there was no violation of our non-discrimination policies.”

“I have a lot of perspective because of what we went through last year, and these girls are trying hard, and they’re all on board,” Earleywine said after a 4-2 loss against Arkansas on April 9. “And had I not had that season last year, this season might’ve been really difficult to go through, but I’m happy to be employed at the University of Missouri, and so I keep reminding myself of that.”

The team went 7-16 in SEC play. Even though wins failed to surface as they had in the past, the team showed promise through individual player awards and the growth of new teammates.

Braxton Burnside’s outstanding performance was one of the season’s highlights, and the freshman shortstop proved to be one of Earleywine’s most reliable players, starting all 57 games and finishing with a .297 batting average. In her first season with the Tigers, she led the team in home runs with 12.

“I had a lot to learn, and literally every single day at practice and every single game that we’ve played up to now has been a learning experience for me,” Burnside said on March 9. “And I think just soaking that all in, so I can add on to that for the next three years here, has been pretty awesome.”

Burnside received several awards throughout the season. Most notably, she was named week six SEC Freshman of the Week on March 21 after she set a program record with 10 RBIs in a single game against North Dakota State on March 18. Her 10 RBIs tied the SEC record for most individual RBIs in a single game, according to a press release from the team. Burnside was also named to the 2017 Freshman All-SEC team.

Three years ahead of Burnside was senior veteran catcher Kirsten Mack, who hit .333 on the season, her best average in her four years at Mizzou. Among other honors, Mack was named to the 2017 NFCA Third Team Southeast All-Region team, as well as the 2017 CoSIDA Division I Academic All-American team.

The pitching staff lacked depth and experience with freshman Parker Conrad and redshirt sophomore Madi Norman, both new to Missouri softball. Senior Cheyenne Baxter became the main starter, starting 29 games compared to a combined six in her past two years with Mizzou. Baxter finished with a 2.47 ERA and 16-10 record.

Looking to next season, the team will lose both senior utility players Natalie Fleming and Chloe Rathburn, outfielder Anna Reed, Baxter and Mack to graduation. Burnside will serve as a much-needed offensive pillar, filling a void left by Mack. In the field, current sophomore first baseman Rylee Pierce will be asked to serve as the defensive leader for a team that committed 59 errors on the season.

The key for the Tigers in 2018 will be finding a pitcher who can shoulder the innings Baxter took this season, as well as a new catcher to replace Mack. A freshman catcher will not compare to Mack in terms of game knowledge, but a new, confident catcher is imperative to the Tigers’ 2018 success.

Although the record is far from what Missouri softball fans have enjoyed in previous years, the team has found plenty of positives.

“We’ve arisen to the challenge well, but it’s definitely been different than the other three years that I’ve been here,” Mack said on April 20. “And so, I’m grateful for the adversity because, without that, you know, you’re not able to grow.”

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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