Who can break Mizzou's SEC championship drought? Start with Anderson's surging softball team

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri head softball coach Larissa Anderson claps during a 2019 game.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — In the nine years that Missouri has been a member of the Southeastern Conference the Tigers have captured just two SEC team championships, both belonging to the women's volleyball program.

The Mizzou trophy case has been so barren that when longtime women's soccer coach Bryan Blitz announced his retirement earlier this week his two banner seasons — a Big 12 postseason tournament title (2008) and a regular-season Big 12 crown (2009) — represent two of only 12 conference championships Mizzou has won in the Big 12 and SEC over the past 25 years.

(Of course, we're not counting the stash of Mid-American Conference championships Mizzou's vaunted wrestling program has piled up, nine straight since Mizzou ditched the Big 12 for the SEC, which doesn't have another wrestling school.)

So, who's Mizzou's next team to hoist an SEC championship trophy? Don't look past Larissa Anderson's rising softball program. Free from the shackles of an NCAA-imposed postseason ban, the Tigers are 32-10, ranked No. 18 nationally in the coaches' poll and sit three games behind first-place Arkansas in the SEC loss column heading into this weekend's three-game series against the No. 8 Razorbacks.

In Anderson's third season on campus, the Tigers have one of the nation's most potent offenses with power threats up and down her lineup card. Mizzou, which features Grain Valley High School graduate Kendyll Bailey as its starting second baseman, heads into the Saturday-Sunday-Monday series leading the SEC in runs, hits, doubles and total bases and among the top three in batting average, slugging, on-base percentage and home runs.

"The whole philosophy is just hit the ball hard, square it up and smoke it," Anderson said. "We're not afraid to swing and miss. We're just going to try to hit the ball as hard as we possibly can."

A program that made three straight Women's College World Series appearances under former coach Ehren Earleywine lost its way during a surge of off-field controversies that ultimately led Mizzou to fire Earleywine two weeks before the start of the 2018 season. In 2016, he had come under investigation by the athletics department and later the school's Office for Civil Rights and Title IX for allegedly mistreating players. Earleywine kept his job, but MU never extended his contract, leading to a messy departure two years later.

After one season under an interim coach, Mizzou hired Anderson from Hofstra University. A New York native, Anderson wasn't exactly a household name in this part of the country. She coached in a mid-major conference and had zero ties to the powerful SEC but came with a strong national reputation as one of the sport's most respected voices. While Earleywine sometimes relished his role as an outcast from the softball coaching community — "I think people want a bad guy," he once said. "I'm the only close one to it" — Anderson has chaired the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Ethics Committee while serving in multiple other roles with the national organization.

Others were in the running for the job, but "sights were set on her from day one," MU senior deputy athletics director Sarah Reesman said.

"We did a lot of research on her and one of the things with Larissa was she's very involved at a national level with the coaches association and as a leader in the sport," she added. "Just getting to know more about her before we even met her gave us a lot of confidence."

In her debut season, the Tigers had measured success, finishing 35-25 and 12-12 in the SEC with an NCAA regional appearance. Anderson believes MU was poised for a breakout last spring, but the pandemic shut down the season after the Tigers' first SEC series.

A year later, the Tigers are positioned for the kind of postseason run that became a spring ritual under the past regime. Freshman shortstop Jenna Laird (.431 batting average) has become one of the SEC's most feared hitters, complementing a core that includes third baseman Kim Wert (41 RBIs), catcher Hatti Moore (14 home runs) and center fielder Brooke Wilmes (15 doubles).

All the while, the Tigers have become one of the most stable and successful teams on campus, free from the volatility that once defined the program. Roster turnover has been at a minimum, even when NCAA sanctions for past academic violations lingered for several years.

"When you're at a program that has some turmoil and they had the investigations and the negative press, it's getting (players) to refocus on what we can control," she said. "That's why our motto has been 'Own it'— to not blame anybody else, to not point the finger, to not say things should have been done differently. It is what it is. But we need to accept our own responsibility. ... I'm never ever going to badmouth anybody that was ever in this program before because they did a phenomenal job with great players. And I wasn't here, so I have no room for judgment.

"Now it's what do I need these players to do to stay focused on what we need to accomplish?"

How about an SEC championship? The sights are set.