Ashtin Stephens has been waiting for this weekend for more than a decade.

Ashtin Stephens has been waiting for this weekend for more than a decade.

The University of Missouri second baseman and former Blue Springs High School softball star has dreamed of playing in the Women’s College World Series since she was 8 years old. With two wins over Louisiana State in this weekend’s Super Regional, Stephens’ dream will become a reality.

A year ago, Stephens sat in the stands and watched Missouri in the WCWS with the players’ families. When the Tigers’ season ended on a walk-off home run to Baylor, Stephens said she was as dejected as anyone.

Now, she’s truly a part of the program’s latest postseason run.

“It was weird to think that this could be me in the next couple years,” Stephens said. “And it’s so surreal that it’s coming. We’re one weekend away. We’re two wins away from going to the World Series and it’s awesome. I’m so excited.”

And Stephens is more than a bit player as the ninth-seeded Tigers (46-12) aim for their fourth straight trip to the WCWS. On Sunday, Stephens helped Mizzou clinch its fifth consecutive regional championship by stroking an RBI single in  2-1 win over Illinois State.

 Despite her freshman status, Stephens has started in 47 of Missouri’s 58 games while batting .252. She’s also only committed five errors at second and sports a .967 fielding percentage.
With no time spent as an understudy, Stephens has faced a steep learning curve.

“I think that’s the hardest part – to come and be a freshman and be a starter,” she said. “Because if you don’t start, then you have that time to make that adjustment and figure everything out.”

Stephens said she was blown away by just how much attention Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine pays to edging the competition. That includes tactical on-field strategies like finding ways to most effectively relay signs, but extends off the field where the Tigers closely monitor what they eat and are always trying to better team chemistry.

“I think there’s a whole different side of the game that we all are starting to really understand – the game inside the game,” Stephens said.

Stephens added that she has an ideal relationship with Earleywine. The two trade barbs practically every day with Earleywine taunting Stephens that the only reason he recruited her was because at 5-foot-4, she’s shorter than he is.

But Stephens also recognizes and appreciates the softball expertise of the coach who in five seasons has built Mizzou into a softball juggernaut.

“He loves to win, and I like to win too,” she said. “We have some conversations that are really deep about softball so I always try to get as much knowledge from him as I can. He’s so smart and he knows the game and I just try to soak it all up.”

Stephens isn’t the only Wildcat product making an impact for the Tigers as Mackenzie Sykes, a 2010 Blue Springs graduate, has received 34 starts as a utility player and has taken over as the Tigers’ regular center fielder and leadoff hitter.

Sykes is hitting .267 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Her emergence coincided with the start of Big 12 play as she hit .333 with a pair of homers, eight RBIs and nine runs scored in the conference season. That earned her a spot on the All-Big 12 first team.

“It’s really cool to be back with her,” said Stephens, who has played softball with Sykes since she was 12 years old. “We played high school ball together and we were really successful. She was actually my best friend and still kind of is. It’s just like high school again except it’s more fun, more competitive.”

Missouri begins its best-of-three series against LSU at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Columbia, Mo. Game 2 is at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Game 3 – if necessary – would follow at 5. All games will be broadcast on ESPNU.