Blum's Banter: Despite NCAA Tournament elimination by JMU, Mizzou softball proved program's revival
The pain was evident instantly after the conclusion of Game 3 of the Columbia Super Regional on Sunday.
James Madison upset Missouri softball to make its first ever Women's College World Series and the drought for the Tigers without an appearance will reach at least 11 years.
The final out came on a line drive off the bat of MU catcher Hatti Moore, who made it a few steps down the first base line before crouching over, tears visibly streaming down her face.
In the on-deck circle was designated player Cayla Kessinger, who collapsed to her knees and then on all fours before being consoled by Tigers; head coach Larissa Anderson, who doubles as the team's third base coach.
The Tigers deserve their time to process this season, which will be impossible to figure out overnight. There are parts of Missouri's 2021 campaign that tied up loose ends dating back to 2018.
That turbulent campaign three seasons ago started with former head coach Ehren Earleywine being dismissed two weeks before the Tigers' first game and a last-place Southeastern Conference finish under an interim coach where Missouri missed the league tournament, played at Mizzou Softball Stadium.
Yes, the Tigers haven't missed an NCAA Tournament since 2006. But there's a difference between qualifying from a Power Five Conference and making an impact.
Missouri lost that luster during the transition from Earleywine to Anderson. And just past the 3-year anniversary of her hiring, Anderson had MU on the doorstep of heading back to Oklahoma City.
Isn't that worth a minor celebration in itself? The fact that Sunday's defeat hurt so bad to the team was evidence the Tigers believed they were good enough to hang with anyone and belonged among college softball's elite.
No pitcher active for Missouri during the NCAA Tournament had completed a full year of college softball. Experience won out over the weekend in Columbia, with Dukes' ace pitcher Odicci Alexander carrying JMU's load to Oklahoma City.
Even at that, one or two at-bats go differently on Friday or in the early innings of Sunday's game, and Missouri advances.
What Anderson has accomplished in three years in Columbia is nothing short of fantastic. She'd be the first to give credit elsewhere, and did in her tearful responses to questions after the Tigers' elimination.
The head coach of any program is responsible for everything. The good, the bad and anything in between. Anderson owns it when things go wrong. So she deserves praise for the heavy majority of time all is well inside MU softball.
Taking over a once-storied program in disarray, navigating a global health pandemic and dealing with NCAA violations for past academic fraud — which no player Anderson coached at MU was involved in — hasn't stopped the Tigers' return to national prominence.
That's a spectrum away from where the program stood at the end of 2018.
Watching the world series, instead of playing in it, will hurt. Sunday's loss might be the start of another era for Missouri.
In 2008, the Tigers fell in the super-regional round to Alabama. They were outclassed by a more mature and world-series ready Crimson Tide squad.
In the three seasons that followed, MU made a trio of trips to Oklahoma City. That era of the program's history is the gold standard.
There's a ton of work and skill involved in upholding that precedent. Yet, the current crop of Tigers might be better than their 2008 counterparts. The softball realm is no doubt better around them too.
Kessinger and Moore are the only two expected losses from Missouri's starting lineup with Brooke Wilmes and Kim Wert both returning to Columbia in 2022.
Every other major contributor is expected back too, and once you add in impact recruits and a few transfers to round out an already stout squad, those factors all should put Missouri back in the hunt to host a super regional next season.
Missouri softball's next game is about eight months away. That's a long time to keep the chip created by James Madison on the shoulders of those who will play for the Tigers moving forward.
That's the biggest blessing, and maybe the only one, for MU coming out of Sunday. Maybe Joni Mitchell said it best: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone."
Now the Tigers know just how badly they wanted to be in Oklahoma City. It was evident they weren't just happy to be hosting a super regional — and being among the final 16 teams standing wasn't the equivalent of playing with house money.
Missouri was all in on making the world series this season. It just didn't pan out that way.
While Kessinger and Moore won't get that opportunity to compete at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, Wilmes and Wert will help lead the charge to not be down in the dumps this way to end a second-straight May.
Once this season has been processed and each Tiger has had time for a debrief, their focus will shift.
And 2022 will sneak up on all of us with how quickly it gets here.
As will Missouri's chance at redemption.
Contact Eric Blum at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.
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