by Darren Hellwege
The Missouri Tigers came into Saturday’s doubleheader with Iowa State knowing they needed to win both games to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 Conference championship. They knew they needed solid pitching, they knew they needed to score runs, maybe get a couple of home runs. So, for the power they needed on the biggest day of the season they turned to…
Vock channeled the punch that made her the unexpected hero in a crucial series against Oklahoma into home runs in consecutive innings, leading Mizzou to an 8-1 victory in the second game. That win, combined with a 8-2 win in the first game, gave the Tigers their first Big 12 conference title since 1997. On the day, Vock was 3-5 and scored four runs…oh, and graduated from the university. Asked which meant more, she didn’t have to think at all.
“Winning the championship. I knew I was going to graduate!” she said with a big smile.
Vock’s joy was shared by her teammates, who hold her in very high esteem.
“It’s great to have somebody like Abby succeeding, just seeing the smile on her face, how happy she is, it’s priceless,” said Ashley Fleming.
The Tigers will learn tomorrow if they share the championship with Texas, which must defeat Baylor in Austin to be co-champs. The Tigers also automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament. Tomorrow they’ll also learn if they will host an NCAA regional, which seems likely. They’ve hosted regionals the last two years, winning both on their way to back-to-back appearances in the Women’s College World Series.
The first game was scoreless through two innings, but after a Vock single and base on balls to J.J. Marston, Ashley Fleming belted a three-run homer to put the Tigers on top. The Cyclones responded with solo homer by Sara Davison and looked to be on their way to a big inning, as a single, fielders choice and an error combined to load the bases with nobody out. But, starting pitcher Chelsea Thomas struck out three straight ISU batters to put out the fire.
Mizzou extended their lead with three more runs in the fifth, highlighted by a two-run double by Princess Krebs, and added two more runs in the sixth. Iowa State would threaten in the seventh off relief pitcher Nicole Hudson but failed to score, and the Tigers had the first of the two wins they needed.
In game two the drama ended early as six runs in the third inning put the Tigers on top to stay. The first of Vock’s two homers brought in two runs, and Fleming followed with another three-run blast. Coach Ehren Earleywine said Fleming’s hitting had been off lately and he welcomed her big bat as a key for the Tigers in the postseason. Since April 3 Fleming has had only three multi-hit games, two in relatively meaningless non-conference games.
“I felt good at the plate today. I’ve been struggling a little bit, I needed a good day going into the postseason,” Fleming said.
“We need a little shot in the arm in the offense and Fleming hasn’t showed in the last few weeks, I think she got comfortable again and that’s a big, big deal going into the postseason. Hudson’s been doing great, but she tapered off a bit and now Fleming picked it up. If we ever get them both going at the same time, we’re going to have something really special going on,” Earleywine said.
Mizzou picked up two more runs in the fourth on Vock’s second homer. It was followed by a rocket off the centerfield wall by Marston then one by Hudson, which brought Marston home for run number eight. It appeared the Tigers might be able to celebrate early, but a fielding error allowed an Iowa State run in the top of the fifth, preventing a mercy rule win and extending the drama.
With the win Missouri was finally able to celebrate the accomplishment of a goal that’s eluded the program for 14 years. It’s a win that means a lot to the women on the team, but as Earleywine noted after the game, it also means a lot to the athletic program at Mizzou, the university and perhaps the whole state.
“I vowed when I got this job, we will win championships here. There’s not going to be excuses or settling. I don’t care what people think this school is supposed to be like, I’m telling you we can win championships. It’s good for the state of Missouri because there’s been frustration, like yeah, we had a good team but we can never win the championship. I know not a lot of people follow softball, but when you have teams and coaches winning championships, it can carry over. Maybe not a lot, but it can carry over.”
So, whether or not it excited Tigers fans from Rock Port to New Madrid or leads to more championships in football and golf, at least Mizzou can celebrate this one. And if the Tigers continue to get big hits from the big bats from whom they are expected, like Ashley Fleming and from the unexpected heroes like Abby Vock, there may be an even bigger championship to celebrate in Columbia soon—one the school and state haven’t celebrated since 1961—a national championship.
Fleming and Vock weren’t the only big hitters on the day. Jenna Marston went 4-7 on the day and scored five runs. Princess Krebs was 3-3 in the first game and reached base in five consecutive at-bats.
Chelsea Thomas had nine strikeouts in the first game in six innings of play. She gave up only four hits but didn’t look as sharp as she has in the past. Earleywine and catcher Megan Christopher both agreed she didn’t have her best stuff, with the coach theorizing she may be a bit tired. He said to expect Kristin Nottleman to start the first game of the NCAA regional unless they face a team that she’s not well-suited to beat.
There’s little doubt the Tigers will host a regional, but the answer won’t be long in coming. The Tigers will gather tomorrow at 9 p.m. at the Clinton Club inside the Mizzou Arena to watch the NCAA selection show.
Following the game the Tigers honored their senior class of 2011. Tigers Rhea Taylor, Catherine Lee, Megan Christopher, Marla Schweisberger, Kathryn Poet, Abby Vock, Alaina Burkhardt, Lisa Simmons and Shana White and manager Lauren Okruch were joined by family members on the field after the game.
The Tigers also recognizing Rachel Zabriskie, the sole senior on the Iowa State team, who received a bouquet of flowers from Earleywine and warm applause from the Tigers fans. The Iowa State team showed a similar respect for their hosts, staying in their dugout well after the end of the game and applauding as each Tiger senior was introduced.