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March 8, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Miles and miles of central Iowa corn and soybean fields cease, pausing their sprawl to make room for Pleasantville, a tiny town of 11 or so square blocks sitting almost entirely inside a single square mile of land. The miniscule oasis about 27 miles southeast of the state’s capital, Des Moines, is home for Chelsea Thomas, a 22-year-old MU pitcher and one of the best college softball players in the nation and perhaps, in the world.
6 Number of years Ehren Earleywine has coached the team.
According to the March 6 USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll, the team’s current NCAA ranking is 12.
15 Games are left in March for Tiger fans to cheer on the MU softball team at home. This weekend at home, Missouri will face Alcorn State, Boise State and Northern Illinois. Go to mutigers.com for the start times of the games and the rest of the schedule.
Chelsea and her rapidly wind-milling right arm have contributed to three straight MU College World Series trips, the NCAA’s end-of-season national competition. Only the best eight teams make it. Although the 2012 college softball season is still in its infancy, Chelsea and the Tigers take the field with a fourth trip in mind. Chelsea also leads a second softball life. She is one of 17 players on the USA National Softball Team.
The mental and physical fortitude needed to withstand the pressure of national and international competition originally took root and grew out of that unassuming Pleasantville soil. Only about 1,700 people live in the small city. It’s a rather diminutive stage from which to leap into superstardom.
“[Pleasantville] is small, very small — everybody knows everybody,” Chelsea says. “I love that town, and everybody has been so supportive and great. I’m a small-town girl, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to live out the dreams I created for myself since I was young.”
Chelsea always wanted to be a USA softball player. Her father and high school softball coach, Rich Thomas, remembers her saying so when she was in fourth grade.
She would be playing in the Olympics this summer had the International Olympic Committee not eliminated the sport after the 2008 Beijing Games. No matter. She already has a pair of medals that she is proud of. Back home there are two of gold being fitted for a shadow box, last year’s prizes for helping Team USA win the World Cup of Softball in July and the more prestigious Pan American Games in October.
And, almost immediately following the 2012 college season with the Tigers, Chelsea will again meet up with the USA national team for another World Cup romp in Oklahoma City.
Softball is a huge part of her life, but it isn’t all of it.
“I wouldn’t say it defines life,” Chelsea says. “It’s given me the opportunity to come to college and experience a lot of things I never would have without it.”
The medals and softball accolades do enough to detach her from a typical experience. Yet she adds to that the life of an atypical college student, attempting to shove six days worth of practice, games, cross-country travel and a work-intensive biology major into the 168 hours of the week.
Chelsea is busy, but she stays focused on academics and finds time to participate in other activities. She received Big 12 Conference academic awards in 2010 and 2011. She earned those grades by working hard in the classroom and studying and taking exams on road trips. Chelsea also joins her teammates for charity food drives, helps out with Little League softball camps and is a member of MU’s Student-Athlete Activities Committee.
“A lot of people say, ‘How do you do it?’” she says. “I know all of us wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s hard, but I can’t imagine being a normal college student. I don’t know what I’d do every day.”
Rich and Dana Thomas, Chelsea’s parents, were both star athletes in high school. From athletic parents came sports-gifted children. Chelsea’s little brother, Collin, is a standout basketball and baseball player who is getting major-college attention for his work as a pitcher. It’s a gene pool kind of thing.
Rich can remember his daughter beginning to pull ahead of her softball teammates in fourth grade. By the time she reached sixth grade, he realized she had a special gift. She was tall for her age, athletic and exuded an overall determination that made her stand out. Chelsea had never pitched, and her dad was not a softball expert. So he hired a pitching coach, and the father-daughter duo learned together.
High schools in Iowa play softball in the summer. Most other Midwestern states play in the fall or spring when school is in session. The Iowa schedule allows for outgoing eighth-graders — if they are especially talented — to play with the high schoolers.
And so, there was Chelsea, 14 years old, standing in the pitcher’s circle, staring down opposing batters, some two, three or four years her senior.
Dad and daughter regularly practiced on their own time. “She’s very much a perfectionist,” Rich says. “When she and I would go to the gym, she would keep throwing, even when I would tell her we were done.” He served as guide but says Chelsea cast herself in the role of motivator. They wouldn’t leave until she was satisfied.
“I never once would say to my daughter, ‘You need to throw,’” Rich says. “I never had to use that type of pressure.”
Chelsea played varsity for five years, and for five years, she was recognized and honored as one of the best players in the state.
It takes more than talent to get noticed in a small town. So Rich hired a friend with professional video experience to assemble a highlight tape showcasing Chelsea’s skills. He shipped it out to several colleges around the Midwest.
“Coach E” took notice.
On to Mizzou
Ehren “Coach E” Earleywine eventually made the trip to Pleasantville. He liked what he saw, and Chelsea liked what she heard. She says Earleywine sold her on his direction. He was in his first year at MU and wanted to improve a program that hadn’t finished first in its conference since 1997. Chelsea signed on.
As a freshman, Chelsea tossed 10 shutouts — a mark that tied her for 10th best in school history. She followed that up with a solid start to her sophomore season, recording 12 wins to just one loss. She appeared well on her way to heaping more success upon success.
But Chelsea felt a numbing ache in her right forearm that she could no longer ignore. In late March, X-rays revealed a stress fracture. She was shut down for the rest of the 2010 season. The NCAA granted Chelsea a medical hardship waiver, which allowed her to maintain a year of softball eligibility. Even though she is a senior in class status, she is a junior on the field and can stick around for 2013.
Chelsea is focused on 2012 and is hoping to build off a 2011 season that earned her the bulk of her college recognition and the attention of the USA team. A perfect game is one of the rarest softball achievements. It’s when a pitcher does not allow a single player on the opposing team to reach base. Chelsea managed that three times last season — twice in a single week. One of those was shared with fellow pitcher Kristin Nottelmann. Last weekend, Cheslea threw another solo perfect game.
Clearly missing in this story is the inevitable struggle for the small-town player to adjust to the heat of the big-time spotlight.
“You’d think, ‘Well, the competition is going to be better, she’s never been in a program this rigorous, she’s away from home,’” Earleywine says. “To this day, I have not seen any effect that any of that had on her. She’s a perfectionist. She’s extremely driven. She’s surprisingly poised.”
Chelsea says she has a split personality: The stoic one she takes with her onto the field and the goofy and talkative one she unchains when the cleats come off. Off the field, her brow unfurrows, and the smile returns. She says she loves malls and her hair and makeup. She loves ice cream, and she prefers goofy Will Ferrell movies to drama but will make time for a midnight Twilight premiere with friends.
On the field, watch out.
“Everyone is like: ‘How are you like that? You don’t smile out there,’” Chelsea says.
That on-field stoicism stems from something her father taught her when she first started playing: Show no emotion; opponents feed on emotion.
Ken Eriksen likes a good demeanor. The USA softball coach spends his springs coaching at the University of South Florida. Until the USA team holds in-person tryouts in June, much of what he assesses in a player is viewed from afar — televised games, highlight reels, phone calls or references.
In MU’s first game of the 2011 College World Series on June 2, Chelsea didn’t pitch in her usual dominating form. The game was televised live. Eriksen was watching.
“I wanted to see her response,” Eriksen says. “Thankfully, the cameras went into the dugout and showed the emotion of Chelsea after she came off the mound in the first inning. Her emotion didn’t change. I liked the way she approached the game.”
Eriksen had also heard of her three perfect games.
“The comparison note of throwing three perfect games is like a bowler throwing three 300 games,” he says. “It’s like the president winning two times in a landslide. It’s like the most perfect day 365 days out of the year. It’s just not going to happen that often.”
So Chelsea earned an invite to try out for the team in Chula Vista, Calif., on June 12 through 16. She was one of 35 players vying for 17 spots during the five-day camp.
After the camp, she boarded a flight knowing that the news would come while she was in the air. Stormy weather forced the plane to land in Kansas City instead of St. Louis where her teammate was waiting to pick her up. Somewhat frustrated by the diversion, she took out her cellphone after landing and turned it on. Her phone buzzed and beeped incessantly as it caught up with all of the messages people sent while it was turned off. Chelsea smiled from ear to ear. She had made the team.
“That’s my childhood dream,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to do since I started. … I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I was thinking maybe after college, but for it to happen this soon is a bonus.”
Chelsea pitched in five games during the World Cup of Softball last summer. In the finals, USA beat Japan to win its fifth World Cup title. Then in October at the XVI Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, Chelsea picked up two of USA’s nine wins. USA won gold again.
As a girl, Chelsea wondered what it would feel like to stand atop the Olympic podium while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. She knows what that feels like now.
“I can still remember every detail,” she says.
The podium was set up on the field. Ironically, she says she was standing next to Baylor University’s Whitney Canion and the University of Oklahoma’s Keilani Ricketts — teammates on that day but conference rivals on any other.
“I know a lot of us were tearing up,” she says. “You hear about how people feel. And when it really happens to you, it’s like, ‘Wow — that’s intense.’
“It’s a great honor. And what better country to represent?”
Forever a role model
For Earleywine, Eriksen and father and daughter Thomas, success is a word that needs dividing before defining. The goal of the game is to win, but it’s not the only goal.
After home games, kids line the fence, and the players stick around to visit, take pictures and sign autographs — win or lose. The closeness and accessibility to the star is more intimate in a sport that falls outside of the relative limelight, and with that closeness comes a responsibility.
“In an athletic department, it’s usually football, men’s basketball and then everybody else nobody knows about,” Earleywine says. “We’ve been fortunate to be on TV quite a bit and have some success, and because of that, our players have been able to have a bigger platform of being a role model, leading by example, sharing autographs and their time with kids.”
Chelsea considers being a role model one of her most important jobs. “I put that in the back of my mind with every decision I make,” she says.
Rich says the most important part of being an athlete is being a good person and remembering your roots.
Chelsea remembers. She remembers that life’s definition does not lie just in softball, but in the hand-written letters from young fans across Missouri who find her address each year, reminders that people are watching, and people are proud.