A funny thing happened in Columbia this weekend.
Missouri played Kansas.
It’s a rare sight these days. And one that happens only on an impromptu basis now, except in club sports where the two teams still schedule each other because they aren’t governed by the universities’ athletic departments themselves, which are of course the birthplace of conference loyalties.
But in NCAA-sanctioned sports, the two ancient adversaries don’t schedule each other anymore, despite having a rivalry on the playing field that dates back to 1891 and a rivalry on the battlefield that dates back to the 1850s.
And we all know why they don’t schedule each other anymore. From Kansas’ point of view, Missouri is like the cheating spouse who bolted from years of commitment to the allure of newer, greener pastures, while Missouri views Kansas as the stubborn ex-spouse who ran off with half the stuff even though they couldn’t use it, then refused to negotiate a way to move forward which would be good for both parties.
But even since the two disappeared from each other’s schedules in 2012, they’ve run into each other now and then during the postseason, though not to the fans’ delight in football or basketball. They played once in softball last spring, once in soccer last fall, and then twice this weekend in the double-elimination Regional of the NCAA softball tournament.
The Jayhawks haven’t won any of those games. And they won’t win any games against Missouri until they can beat them in the postseason or finally agree to play them during the regular season. In fact, MU has now won 10 consecutive games against KU in softball, including one on Saturday to clinch their spot in the Regional championship, and then again on Sunday once Kansas won its way back to the championship.
(For what it’s worth, I think KU will agree to start scheduling MU again sometime in the next few years, maybe 10 at the most. Time will eventually make the struggles of the past irrelevant and the proposition of a profitable, renewed rivalry more important. And for those of you who don’t care about anything but football and/or basketball, I’ve included at the end of this article some interesting numbers comparing those programs and the other team sports which both schools sponsor.)
Nonetheless, Sunday’s game was only the fourth game in the old Border War in any sport in the last three years. And so, with so much on the line in such a unique opportunity to see such a rare thing, I had to go to Columbia. It’s good to know people who can get you access, even though I don’t take advantage of it much. This was actually the first MU game I’d been to since New Year’s in any sport.
And the game I saw Sunday, to borrow words from MU head coach Ehren Earlywine, was a very strange one. But also a very interesting one, full of twists and turns, even merely on the surface.
kU scored the first two runs and had baserunners everywhere, but MU came back to seemingly take control and led 7-2 after a grand slam by catcher Kirsten Mack. The Tigers had to hang on by the skin of their teeth, though, after kU scored four unearned runs in the sixth inning and had the bases loaded before MU finally got out of the inning. kU finished the game with 15 runners stranded and lost 7-6.
But to actually see everything that was going on in person and to hear the comments firsthand in the press conference after the game added even more perspective for me.
The most intriguing storyline was the desperate situation MU had with their pitching staff and the unexpected efforts that came forth as a result. They found themselves unusually thin in the circle after ace Tori Finucane had thrown 12 of the 14 innings of the tournament entering Sunday, with No. 2 starter Paige Lowary having become virtually homebound due to illness. She was running a 102-degree fever and spent much of the weekend doubled over with acute nausea.
Earlywine told Lowary simply to stay home and rest Sunday when he was in touch with her early in the morning. But much to his surprise, less than an hour before the game she showed up in uniform anyway. Still, it looked like she was only going to be available for emergencies. I didn’t even recognize her when I was walking to the hospitality area down the first-base line and saw someone wearing No. 14 behind the dugout. I thought to myself, “Why can’t I think of who No. 14 is?” It took me a minute to realize it was her. She did not look like Paige Lowary. In fact, if I remember correctly, Earlywine said she’d lost 10 pounds during the week. She looked so pale she was downright ashen, and she went to lay face-down on the trainer’s table.
Mizzou’s only other pitching option was Cheyenne Baxter, who had started only two games all season. So it appeared to be Finucane’s game to pitch and championship to win.
But from the beginning, something wasn’t right. Finucane was most likely fatigued, hopefully was not hurting too much, but definitely was uncharacteristically wild, and only 13 of the 34 pitches she threw were strikes. She gave up two runs in the first inning, and Earlywine had to take her out after she walked the first two hitters of the second.
Lowary hadn’t even begun to throw a ball yet, and Earlywine’s only choice was to put in Baxter. That’s when this game became almost an underdog story.
Cheyenne Baxter grew up as a Tiger fan near a wide spot in the road called Norborne, Mo. (pop. 708), about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City. Not many Division-I athletes come from Norborne High or any school in Class 1, the group of the smallest high schools in Missouri. She went to Mizzou softball camps as a high schooler, but when the Tigers got commitments from pitching stalwarts like Finucane (Virginia High School player of the year), Lowary (Iowa HS player of the year), and Casey Stangel (Idaho HS player of the year), there was simply no room for her on the staff.
Earlywine said the coaches liked Baxter when they saw her in camp, but they couldn’t promise her any innings. She ended up signing at a mid-major, the University of Nebraska at Omaha. After her freshman year, in which she didn’t pitch much, she decided to transfer and looked headed to Division-II Northwest Missouri St. But at the last minute, MU gave her a second chance. Stangel ended up transferring, and there was a spot open for a third pitcher.
Flash forward to Sunday. Here was Baxter, originally turned away as a girl from a small town with a dream to play for her home state’s flagship school, now thrust into a position where she was pitching in the regional championship for that school against its most-hated rival. And it looked like she might have to pitch the rest of the tournament. Since MU hadn’t lost yet, it would’ve taken two losses Sunday to eliminate them, so there was potentially a long day ahead.
Baxter had never been in a situation like this. A reporter asked her point-blank after the game if she ever though she would be in such a position, and she answered with unusual candor: “No. I never did.”
And though there’s something to be said for experience, there’s also strangely a little something to be said for inexperience. Cheyenne Baxter may have never before had success in a spot like this, but she’d also never failed in a spot like this. And she looked fearless. Like she didn’t even know what there was to be fearful of. She showed incredible poise, and she escaped the jam in the second inning without allowing any runs, and she continued to throw goose eggs up on the scoreboard through the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, as MU took control of the game.
Even when kU finally got on the board in the sixth, all the runs were unearned. But as well as Baxter pitched, she couldn’t get out of the sixth on her own. The bases were loaded, the lead had been narrowed to 7-5, and this was the emergency the Tigers had hoped wouldn’t come. But it had.
Enter Paige Lowary.
She was still clearly in pain, with a grimace on her face. But she also was still throwing her usual heat. She walked the first hitter she faced to make it 7-6, but finally the inning ended with the third out settling in the glove of LF Kayla Kinglsey, and the Tigers still had the lead.
Lowary went on to get the save, closing out the seventh inning and clinching a berth in the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. The last kU batter fouled off seven pitches, and finally on the 11th pitch of the at bat, she hit a grounder to 2B Sami Fagan, who tossed to it to SS Corrin Genovese for the force out.
Lowary’s effort was undoubtedly one of the grittiest that I’ve ever seen at any game I’ve ever been to. In any sport. But she isn’t the only woman in black and gold who has gravel in her guts. So does Baxter. And so do most of them, as has been apparent throughout.
Missouri moves on to the Super Regionals, where they’ll have a best-two-of-three series against UCLA in Los Angeles. The winner advances to the Women’s College World Series.
It will be an extreme challenge for the Tigers. UCLA’s team batting average is .372. Their team on-base percentage is .472. Their ace is 29-6 with a 2.14 ERA and a .184 opponents’ batting average. They beat Mizzou 8-0 earlier this year.
But after seeing the way the Tigers played on Sunday, one thing is sure. They won’t lie down without a fight. An upset in this series wouldn’t be quite as shocking as the one Mizzou almost pulled on UCLA in basketball 20 years ago. And Tyus Edney is retired.
The pitchers weren’t the only standouts on Sunday. Here are some other notes and observations:
- Amanda Sanchez, unable to play 3B with an ankle injury but still able to hit, was limping like 50 Cent on Sunday, even when she walked to the plate. She walked through the press area after the game rocking Das Boot, but if you think she won’t play in the Super Regionals, think again. She’s a Latina from L.A., and she’s rawhide tough. A bum ankle isn’t going to stop her.
- It was really good to see Angela Randazzo contributing so much in the lineup as the third baseman with Sanchez limited. She went 2-for-2 with an RBI, and although the box score will tell you she made two errors, really one of them came as a result of Baxter getting in her way on a bunt. Randazzo hasn’t gotten as much playing time this year as she got last year, but her solid play is definitely encouraging for MU’s chances.
- Nobody realized how important it was at the time, but Kelsey Roth made an outstanding, diving play on a ground ball to her right in the sixth inning. There was nobody on, and that was the second out with MU leading 7-2. But after kU mounted their rally, some in the press who were near me realized, looking back on it, how vital that play was in keeping kU from making it an even bigger inning.
- Mack said after the game that she didn’t know off the bat if her grand slam had enough to get out of the park. But I was pretty sure when it left the bat that it was gone. Any doubt was erased when the fans behind left field starting celebrating while the ball was still hanging above the outfield and they saw it was going to sail clear over their heads and over the bleachers. Mack finished the game with five RBI, and she is now one of seven MU hitters out of Sunday’s starting nine who are batting over .300.
- When Genovese made the final putout of the game, she spiked the ball into the ground in celebration. Genovese is known for her finesse in the field, but she is as much of a bulldog as anybody else. And the improvement in her hitting throughout her career has been remarkable. She batted .220 as a freshman, but as a junior and a senior she’s batted .359 and has only struck out 12 times in those two seasons, spanning 284 official AB.
- Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the way kU carried themselves Sunday. MU wasn’t the only team with a lot of guts. kU fought to the bitter end. Though they were beaten, they were far from being disgraced. And after the game, those players who were interviewed in the press conference held their heads high, and deservedly so. They have a lot to be proud of. When this year’s seniors were freshmen, they went 6-17 in conference and got shut out all three times they played MU. This year, they went 40-15 overall. They’ve made a great deal of improvement, and my hat is off to head coach Megan Smith and their team. We will hear from them again.
Also, as promised, below is a brief comparison in the histories and success of the team sports which both MU and KU sponsor. Somewhat of a tale-of-the-tape.
I haven’t yet had time to do the individually-oriented sports in which a team usually doesn’t have an overall win-loss record, per se. That would require a lot of digging. It should be noted, though, that in those sports kU has definitely been superior to MU historically in men’s and women’s track, men’s cross country, and women’s tennis. In fact, kU has six national championships in men’s track (totaling indoor and outdoor), as well as a national championship in both men’s cross country and women’s track. MU excels in wrestling, women’s gymnastics, and men’s swimming – sports which kU doesn’t sponsor. The only sport kU sponsors which MU doesn’t is women’s rowing. And finally, as far as I can tell from limited observations, the two programs are fairly comparable in men’s and women’s golf, women’s swimming, and women’s cross country, though I’ll probably amend my stance upon further research.
In a way to compare all these sports, the two schools had a, “Border Showdown,” points system for the last 10 years that MU was in the Big 12, in which each school would earn points based on their performance in events they faced each other in. MU won the overall competition in eight of those 10 years. Combining all of those years, MU totaled 239.5 points, while kU totaled 157.
Anyway, below I’ve made a table for each team sport in which comparisons can be made. The team which has the advantage in each particular category has their total in bold. After that, I also added in some fun facts I came across and some footnotes where explanations of the tables are appropriate.
- (*1*) The head-to-head football wins listed reflect the official ruling of the conference and NCAA that MU be granted a forfeit win over kU in 1960 based on impermissible benefits given by a kU booster to one of their players. kU’s records still reflect the victory they had on the field in that game, which would’ve given them the conference title instead of MU. Elsewhere in the table, such as in the win-loss record and number of conference titles, each school’s claim of victory is reflected.
- (*2*) Bowls defined as major bowls include those which currently comprise the New Year’s Six: Rose, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, Peach, and Sugar.
- (*3*) Prior to the institution of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the NCAA documented national titles given by entities whom they determined to be Major Selectors. Not all Major Selectors represented a result which was defined as, “Consensus.” MU earned a non-consensus national title from a Major Selector after the conclusion of all bowls by finishing No. 1 in the Poling System in 1960, and they did the same by finishing No. 1 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings in 2007.
- (*4*) NCAA Tournament totals reflect postseason appearances only after softball became an NCAA sanctioned sport in 1982. Win-loss totals include all results, including those prior to 1982.
- (*5*) Prior to the institution of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1939, various selectors have named national title-winners on a non-consensus basis. kU was retroactively given national titles by the Helms Foundation for the 1922 and 1923 seasons. MU was retroactively given national titles by the Premo-Poretta Rankings for the 1921 and 1922 seasons.
- (*6*) National tournament totals reflect both appearances in the NCAA tournament since 1982 and the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) tournament in 1982 and years prior.
Fun Facts (shut up, they’re fun to me):
- Men’s basketball is the only team sport which kU has an all-time conference record above .500. Overall records can sometimes be deceiving based on non-conference scheduling or the success a team had before the sport was conference sanctioned, and this appears to be the case for KU’s other sports. A good scheduling example is kU’s football team. The last six years they’re 13-7 in non-conference games and 4-48 in the Big 12.
- As far as men’s basketball goes, though, kU’s dominance has been nothing short of remarkable. Their 58 regular season conference titles are far-and-away more than any other basketball program in the country.
- Though MU has a paltry winning percentage against kU in men’s basketball, so does everyone else. When MU left the Big 12, no other team that had ever been in the Big 12 had a better all-time winning percentage against kU than MU did.
- Few know how good MU’s baseball program has been. Not only did they win the College World Series in 1954 with a pitcher named Norm Stewart – who threw the first no-hitter in team history – but they also set a single-season record as a team in 1964 that I don’t think will ever be broken. Their team ERA was 0.65 for the entire season. That is not a typo. They were runners-up at the CWS that year.
- kU’s volleyball team plays their home games at the Horejsi Family Athletics Center. Horejsi, according to the media guide, is pronounced HOR-ish. I don’t know how I didn’t know this until now.
- If you think it’s bad that Nebraska once beat kU 36 consecutive times in football, or even that Nebraska did the same to MU football 24 consecutive times, listen to this. kU has played Nebraska in volleyball EIGHTY-SEVEN times and never won a single match. That’s 87. Although, they did once manage to beat Nebraska’s JV in 1977. I wouldn’t even make that up. For what it’s worth, kU volleyball has also lost to University of Missouri-St. Louis, VCU, Northwest Missouri St., Graceland, Emporia St., and Florissant Valley Community College. They trail their all-time series with Central Missouri 17-6 and with Missouri St. 21-6.
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