Thomas' power arm translates at Mizzou
OKLAHOMA CITY -- If you throw it 70 miles an hour, people will come.
After a 15-year absence, Missouri's return under coach Ehren Earleywine to collegiate softball's biggest stage, the Women's College World Series, has more than a little something to do with a dad, his child, an Iowa cornfield and one man's willingness to suspend his disbelief in pursuit of a dream.
Like anything Hollywood might produce, it also required hundreds of hours of work and a lot of technology behind the scenes to create the conditions for an illusion of one magical moment.
Granted, the story could open with a voice coming out of nowhere one day, but it wasn't so much whispering vague instructions about construction projects to Earleywine as electronically pleading for a chance. All Rich Thomas wanted was for the coach to take a look at his hard-throwing daughter.
"We probably only get 17,000 of those a year," Earleywine deadpanned during Wednesday's news conference at Hall of Fame Stadium.
But a video followed from Thomas, a high school coach, complete with a sound that spoke far more authoritatively than any ghostly whisper -- or even anything James Earl Jones might say.
"It was kind of blurry, but every time the ball hit the mitt, it kind of sounded like a shotgun going off," Earleywine said.
Intrigued by what he saw from Chelsea Thomas, or more precisely, what he heard from her arm, Earleywine agreed to make a scouting trip to Pleasantville, a small Iowa town about 200 miles southwest of a certain baseball field carved into the corn. It was spring, but Iowa peculiarly plays its high school softball in the summer, meaning the coach of a big-time program wasn't going to watch a game between two teams.
Instead, he was making the roughly four-hour trek from Columbia to watch a game of pitch-and-catch.
There are few lengths college coaches won't go to in order to shore up their pitching for the next four years, but each mile on this trip made Earleywine wonder whether he'd crossed the dividing line between due diligence and delusion a short time after crossing the state line.
"When I drove up," Earleywine said, "I'm thinking, 'This is a big mistake.' I mean, I'm in a cornfield, and it's her and her dad and it's a rickety old backstop. I'm thinking, 'This is the stupidest thing I've ever done.'"
What followed was, in the world of college softball, about as likely as seeing Shoeless Joe Jackson wander out of the corn and start swatting home runs from the wrong side of the plate.
"First pitch was 73 [miles per hour], and I told her dad, I said, 'Hold on a second, something is wrong with my gun here,'" Earleywine said. "I really thought my gun had gotten bumped in the travel of whatever. So I went over and was knocking the calibrator on a tree and looked like a fool over there. But [I] came over and stuck it up there and the next pitch was 74, and then the rest was history."
First pitch was 73 [miles per hour], and I said, 'Hold on a second, something is wrong with my gun here.'
--Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine, on first seeing Chelsea Thomas
Thomas has emerged in her freshman season as the de facto ace of one of the most balanced pitching staffs in the nation. She's 16-5 with a team-best 1.23 ERA entering the World Series and has started four of the team's six games in the NCAA tournament. But if the mythical nature of the coach's discovery makes it seem like the Tigers are the beneficiaries of some magical benevolence, the truth is that the tale is closer to a conjurer's sleight of hand.
It's a good story, and it's true, but if you look at it closely frame by frame, you start to get at the true secret of Missouri's success.
All of the Tigers, including Thomas and the pitchers, make use of video technology with an intensity shared by few other programs in the country. Earleywine is a believer in the RightView Pro video system, which among other elements, allows players to view side-by-side video breakdowns of a player's swing compared to another player's swing or the same player's swing at different point in time.
During the fall and winter, players with sit down with coaches and study the tape on at least a biweekly basis. Since the coaches are concerned about too much thinking and not enough reacting during the season, the sessions are less frequent in the spring. But when slumps arise, it's easy to let the video tell the story.
"When a kid does start going bad or get in a slump, we will bring up swings from the past when they were swinging it good," Earleywine said. "Then we'll bring up swings currently, where they're in a slump, and we'll put those side by side on the computer and say, 'What are we doing different here, and how do we get back to good?'"
It is not a magical process. By Earleywine's estimation, a fast learner will take around three months to get comfortable with the technology and transferring what she's seeing to practical application in the batter's box. A slow learner could take years.
"What's been neat for this year is it's my third season, and so now kids are into their third season of a new swing, a new feel, a new philosophy. There's no surprises; it doesn't stir up their brain or their world when you show them something in the fall now because they've seen it for two years. So instead of working on steps one, two and three, we're able to go steps four, five and six a little more often."
It's not just the hitters who put technology to use. Earlier this season, Thomas had a biceps tendon strain. Through video, coaches were able to show her that her hand had started separating from her body too much when she released the ball, putting undue pressure on the tendon. With the visual reinforcement, she was able quickly to make a correction and do some of her best work down the stretch of her first college campaign.
Thomas may have arrived with the kind of miles per hour on her pitches that led Earleywine to think his radar gun had malfunctioned, but the same lack of exposure to high-level summer travel ball that kept her off the recruiting radar meant she arrived in Columbia as a work in progress. And like all elements of Missouri's game, from offense to pitching to fielding, it's the rapidity with which the coach and his staff have made that progress that carried Missouri to a super regional last season and the World Series this season.
"In high school, I got away with just throwing fast," Thomas said. "And now here, it's definitely increased movement and change of speed. And you face good hitters -- every hitter's a good hitter. You can't just say the bottom half of the order is bad, because that's not true at all in college."
One of the things Earleywine pointed to as a potential area of improvement for Thomas is her pregame preparation, in which she'll sometimes overdo things with hundreds of pitches. Perhaps increasing comfort with video breakdowns of her motion and release point will eventually allow her to gain the same confidence without the fatigue.
"Sometimes we've got to be careful that the things that helped her be successful in high school, we can't let her think that those are also always going to be the same things that help her in college," Earleywine said. "Sometimes you've got to change things and make adjustments. So we can't let her bring Pleasantville to Columbia; we've got to bring Columbia to Pleasantville."
Sometimes the real secret of capturing a magical moment is doing enough takes to get it right.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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