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In front of the third record crowd in as many days, Missouri softball saw its season wither away at the hands of James Madison. The Dukes took the decisive third game of the Columbia Super Regional 7-2, advancing to their first-ever Women‘s College World Series.

James Madison out-hit Missouri 12-4 and committed no errors in comparison to the Tigers’ three.

“You can’t make mistakes like that against a quality team like JMU,” Missouri coach Larissa Anderson said. “It just puts too much pressure on the pitchers. It puts too much pressure on the offense because when you feel like you have to score, now you’re trying to do too much.”

The top of the seventh saw James Madison come alive. Singles from Jubas and Alexander got runners on the corners with no outs. The Dukes added their first run of the inning on a single from Logan Newton to make it 4-2, and there was a lot more where that came from. Alexander touched the plate to make it 5-2 on a controversial safe call, which on replay appeared to be a tag out from catcher Hatti Moore that was not called.

Emily Phillips hit a deep single off the left-field wall to bring in another run to make it 6-2, with another insurance run coming from a fielder’s choice to make it 7-2, leaving Missouri with an Everest-sized mountain to climb to save the season.

The bottom of the frame saw the Tigers go up and down nearly in order. Abby George, the reliable slap hitter with a history of getting on base, was unable to do so. Brooke Wilmes, who hit her fifth home run in six games in the first inning, grounded out to second. Jenna Laird was walked, giving Missouri a crucial baserunner.

With two outs and one on, Moore was tasked with saving the Tigers’ season.

With the count at 1-0, Alexander squared up her pitch, and Moore liked what she saw. Moore made solid contact with the ball.

Unfortunately for her and the Tigers, it was straight into the glove of JMU third baseman Lynsey Meeks. Her catch ended the game and Missouri’s season and sent the Dukes to their first-ever Women’s College World Series.

“It’s such a surreal feeling,” Meeks said. “I don’t have any words, there’s not words to describe to you what that means. What it means to get the last out for my team, it’s one of a lifetime. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other girls.”

As the final ball landed in Meeks’ glove, Moore slumped to a crouch just in front of the left-handed batter’s box and slightly to the left of the first-base line. Cayla Kessinger was visibly emotional in the on-deck circle. The two longtime Missouri starters witnessed their careers end with one swing of the bat and smack of a glove. With that, one thing was evident for both of them.

It was over.

“What’s so hard is it’s the end of their career,” Anderson said. “There’s professional softball if they want to keep playing, but they’re not going to make a living off of it. So when you say goodbye to something that has been such a huge part of your life, and then when you have such a great year and you absolutely love playing with the people next to you, to have to say goodbye to that — it hurts.”

With NCAA sanctions taking away the possibility of a postseason last year before the outbreak of a pandemic, Anderson said throughout the season that her team knew how to play every game like a championship. She said that the team has been working toward making it this far and that it will continue to work to make it again.

“This mission has been almost two years in the making,” Anderson said. “So many teams across the country could have folded. There could have been more sanctions and drama and the team could have fallen apart, but they continued to battle.”

Anderson said that she is proud of the progress that her team made this season. She said that this season can be used as motivation for her team in the future so that it can make it back to super regionals and to the Women’s College World Series.

“They had their sights set on what they just accomplished,” Anderson said. “It’s going to motivate them from here on out to say, ‘We’re getting back there. We’re hosting every single year, no question. And we’re going to just put this program in the situation that it’s in right now.’”

Anderson hailed the legacy and the impact that her team’s seniors had on the younger players and how that will affect them going forward. She expects her team’s young core will come back in seasons to come and be determined to do as well as, or better than, this year’s team.

“It’s the experience that your freshmen pitchers, your Jenna Lairds, your Alex Honnolds, your Riley Frizells of the level that you need to compete at all the time and how you uphold those standards,” Anderson said. “Next year, you don’t want to come back and do anything less than what this team did.”

The feeling postgame was one of grief for the Missouri team. Despite the emotions of the day, Anderson said she was proud of the program’s progress since she took over and of the legacy that the seniors left.

“It’s tough, it’s real tough,” Anderson said, fighting back tears. “It’s tough losing. It’s tough saying goodbye to seniors. We just didn’t play perfect today, and we needed to play perfect.”

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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