COLUMBIA — The Missouri softball team's disappointing 2018 season was not only a lesson for the Tigers, it was a learning opportunity for the rest of the Southeastern Conference, too.
After Missouri was the odd team out of the SEC Tournament it hosted last year as a reward for building a shiny new complex, the league's coaches voted in the offseason to expand the tournament to include all 13 teams. It had previously been 12, since Missouri and Texas A&M joined the conference in 2012, as a matter of convenience, as Vanderbilt does not field a softball team.
The Aggies should be thanking Missouri for its 6-17 conference record a year ago. Texas A&M hosts the SEC Tournament this year, which starts today, at its new Davis Diamond in College Station, Texas. The conference's western outpost will likely see better gate and concessions cash with the 13-seed Aggies competing than did Columbia, the SEC's northernmost point, in 2018.
Missouri sophomore outfielder Brooke Wilmes said Sunday the rule change to add a No. 13 seed stings "a little bit."
"But at the same time, it's a new year, and every team gets an opportunity," she added. "This year, we're only focusing on this year, and last year's in the past, so we're going to go forward and continue to do the best we can."
Seventh-seeded Missouri (32-22, 12-12 SEC) plays at 3 p.m. today against No. 10 seed Auburn (35-18, 10-14) on the SEC Network. The winner faces No. 2 seed Tennessee in the quarterfinals at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
An NCAA investigation into academic fraud at Missouri concluded Jan. 31, resulting in sanctions including postseason bans for softball, football and baseball. But Missouri's appeal of the decision, which is not expected to resolve until the end of summer at the earliest, will delay bans for the diamond sports until the 2020 season if upheld.
Missouri is almost certainly a lock for its 13th consecutive NCAA Regional appearance, with SoftballAmerica.com's April 29 projections sending the Tigers back to Norman, Okla., as a No. 2 seed, facing national No. 1 seed Oklahoma, Oregon State and Marist in the four-team bracket.
But the team can assure its name is called Sunday evening during the selection show by winning four games in four days at the SEC Tournament.
"We want to win the SEC Tournament, and we know we have the ability to," Wilmes said. "If we come out and compete and we do the best that we can, we know we can come out on top."
The game will be a reunion of two of the most successful Colonial Athletic Association's head coaches this decade. Missouri's Larissa Anderson (Hofstra, 2015-18) and Auburn's Mickey Dean (James Madison, 2013-17) are no strangers to one another, facing off 12 times in three seasons, with Dean winning nine times.
But there's reason to believe this time will be different for Anderson and the Tigers, and that's because Auburn's offense has faded in the last month.
Since their series starting April 12 at home against South Carolina, Auburn is 3-10, has scored 27 runs (2.07 per game) and allowed 70 runs (5.4 per game). Auburn is 2-10 in its last four SEC series and has scored 19 runs total in series against the Gamecocks, Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas.
Auburn's No. 1 pitcher, Makayla Martin, suffered a hand injury in late March, and if she returns for the SEC Tournament, it will be her first time throwing in more than a month. Missouri will likely face either Chardonnay Harris (9-5, 2.79 ERA) or Ashlee Swindle (9-8, 3.21 ERA) today.
Auburn has talented Nos. 1-5 hitters, highlighted by leadoff hitter Casey McCrackin, who is hitting .343 with 16 doubles and seven home runs, and is 14-of-14 on stolen bases this season. Cleanup Kendall Veach is hitting .306 but slugging .778 with 20 home runs and a team-high 47 RBI. Alyssa Rivera and sisters Tannon and Taylon Snow are each hitting better than .320.
Auburn's first five hitters total 246 of the team's 397 hits this season (62 percent), 182 of the team's 305 runs (60 percent) and 182 of the team's 274 RBI (66 percent).
Auburn has not scored more than five runs against an SEC opponent in a month since beating Tennessee 10-5, and has been shut out four times since April 21.
Wilmes was named to the All-SEC first team Tuesday, and Jazmyn Rollin was named to the all-conference freshman team, as voted on by SEC head coaches.
Wilmes earned one of four outfielder spots on the team and is Missouri's first selection to the first team since current volunteer assistant coach Emily Crane was named to the first team in 2016, and is the first underclassman since Taylor Gadbois in 2014.
Wilmes slashed .357/.439/.565 and led the team in hits (60), doubles (16) and triples (two, tied with Regan Nash), and she hit even better in SEC play, with a .366 batting average and .585 slugging percentage. Wilmes did all of it while hitting leadoff, after hitting mostly in the seven-hole as a freshman, and moving to the outfield defensively after earning the starting job as second baseman a year ago.
Wilmes' already-great plate discipline also improved. She struck out 11 times and drew 16 walks in 156 at-bats as a freshman, striking out seven percent of the time and walking 10 percent. As a sophomore, she struck out five times in 168 at-bats — the fewest of any SEC player with at least 50 at-bats — and walked 19 times, lowering her strikeout percentage to less than three percent while bumping her walk rate up to 11 percent.
She had a streak of 29 consecutive games without a strikeout, and between her final two at-bats against Alabama on March 8 and her first at-bat against Mississippi State on April 28, Wilmes came to the plate for a staggering 93 at-bats without going down on strikes.
Wilmes was also named SEC co-player of the week Monday after hitting .600 during the final week of the regular season, and 4-for-5 against South Carolina on Saturday, including a walk-off solo home run in the eighth inning.
Rollin missed out on one of her preseason goals — SEC freshman of the year — to Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts, who had a 14-3 record and a 1.00 ERA in 126 innings, gave up zero home runs and allowed a .156 batting average against.
Rollin slashed .339/.451/.637 after earning the roles starting shortstop and third hitter in the order. She led the team with 40 runs scored, 21 walks, and she and Nash were both 16-for-19 in stolen base attempts.
Missouri has had a player named to the SEC all-freshman team for a seventh consecutive season. Rollin joins Wilmes (2018), Braxton Burnside (2017), Nash (2016), Amanda Sanchez (2015), Paige Lowary (2015) and Tori Finucane (2014).