Missouri Aims For Special Season Despite Postseason Ban
TEMPE, Arizona -- As she walked through the handshake line following her first win at Missouri, coach Larissa Anderson kept her left arm tightly at her side.
Dominating Utah in the season opener, 9-0, in six innings Friday afternoon was a highlight. Cruising past host No. 19 Arizona State later that evening at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe was even bigger.
Yet, nothing could come close to just being there, as Anderson wasn’t far removed from being diagnosed with Thorasic Outlet Syndrome, a pinching of an artery, caused by wear and tear, that created a blood clot in her passageway of the lower neck to the left armpit. It required surgery and called for a few weeks of bed rest, which threatened to disrupt the progress Anderson had made since arriving to Columbia from Hofstra.
She was cleared to fly with the team, and made sure to stay in the dugout as much as possible to protect herself. The bottom line was that she wasn’t missing these games.
“I worked so hard with this team for the last five months, I can’t be sitting in a bed watching these games on my phone,” Anderson said. “I need to be here for them, and I need to support them.”
Being there for her players carried even more meaning after the recent NCAA sanctions.
On Jan. 31, the NCAA announced a myriad of punishments to Missouri for an alleged violation of academic misconduct when, “a tutor completed academic work for 12 athletes across multiple sports.”
The softball team was banned from this year’s postseason. It faces a five percent reduction of scholarships next academic year, bans on both official and unofficial recruiting visits, recruiting communication and evaluation days, and a $5,000 fine plus a one percent budget cut.
The university has appealed the sanctions. But it was tough news to swallow just nine days before the season’s first pitch.
“I feel so bad for the seniors,” Anderson said. “They’ve had such a tough career. Lots of turmoil within the university, the athletic department and in the softball program, but we have no control over those things. We have to control the controllable.
“We feel for them. We talk about it. We keep them posted on what’s going on, but we’ve got to play ball.”
If the Tigers (3-2) were still rattled, it was hard to tell on the diamond.
Pitcher Madi Norman kicked off her redshirt-senior season with a two-hit shutout against Utah, and Merced Community College transfer Cassie Gasper followed it up with a five-inning shutout against the Sun Devils. Even the inexperienced trio of Eli Daniel, Nalani Scates and Missouri Baptist transfer Baleigh Koester forced a powerful Oregon lineup to play small ball. The Ducks (5-0) had just one extra-base hit in their 6-1 win.
The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Oregon State Saturday before ending the tournament on a high note, a 3-2 victory over rival Kansas. Norman got the win, allowing one earned run on eight hits and one walk with three strikeouts over six innings.
“She has the experience, and we know when to lean on her,” Anderson said. “We have six pitchers right now in our repertoire, and I told our pitchers that if we have to throw one every inning we will. But when Madi throws the way she did, we don’t have to.”
Missouri heads to Citrus Blossom Classic in Orlando this week where it could rack up some wins, facing Troy, Villanova, UMass, Iowa and Kansas, again. But Anderson knows this team will only go as far as its leaders can take it.
The way they handled the news of the sanctions gives Anderson hope that this season could still be special, even if it doesn’t result in a 13th-straight NCAA Tournament berth.
“The seniors were really upset and crying, but we expressed to the team that we’re playing for our seniors now, so that they go out with a bang,” Anderson said. “It’s great to see your seniors and leaders step up because they want to have a great year. We have no control over where we’re going to end up at the end of the year, but we’re going to play every single game as if it is an NCAA Regional.”