May 31, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine feared the worst when pitcher Tori Finucane was struck by a line drive during a Super Regional game a week ago against UCLA.

Finucane fell to the ground and clutched her face with both hands as players rushed to the mound.

''I thought it was going to be way worse than it ended up being,'' Earleywine told The Associated Press. ''I thought it was going to cause permanent damage. It came just an inch and a half or two inches away from hitting her temple, which would have been very serious.''

Earleywine said Finucane had significant swelling and ended up with a possible hairline fracture in her sinus cavity, but she's OK. The injury, which happened during a televised game, has prompted conversation at the Women's College World Series about whether infielders should wear facemasks. Earleywine said Finucane will wear a facemask when she plays this summer, and he'll let her decide if she wants to use it next season.

''For me, I'm OK with whatever the player thinks is in their best interest,'' Earleywine said. ''If they feel safer with a mask on, I think they should be allowed to wear it. If they don't feel comfortable with it on and are willing to take the risk, I think you should be able to take that risk.''

Dee Abrahamson, NCAA softball secretary-rules editor, said the governing body has been discussing the issue of facial protection for infielders for several years. She said the NCAA doesn't force them to wear facemasks, in part, because the equipment is in the early stages of development, and there's not enough research available to ensure that a product exists that would truly protect players.

NOCSAE sets the standards the NCAA uses for batting and football helmets, but the organization does not yet have a standard for softball facemasks for defensive players.

They are popular at other levels of the sport, but not in the women's college game. Florida pitcher Lauren Haeger, the national player of the year, watched Finucane's injury on television and said it was ''brutal.'' But like many, she hasn't worn protection, and doesn't plan to.

''It's kind of strange to me,'' she said. ''It's not something I grew up wearing. In situations like that, it could definitely help.''

Auburn first baseman Jade Rhodes said she wears a mouth guard, but she won't wear a facemask.

''I think more of it is a comfort issue,'' she said. ''I just don't like playing with anything on my face. I pretty much get the glove in front of my face. But if it comes down to where I need to wear a facemask, then I will.''

Florida third baseman Taylore Fuller said a mask would be a distraction for her, but she understands how helpful it could be.

''I do know friends that have been hit in the nose three, four times,'' she said. ''If they get hit again, it could be potentially very dangerous, so they do wear masks. But personally, I don't because it's mental. It's just about how that person feels.''

Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said he was concerned players thought coaches didn't want them to wear facemasks.

''I've never said that. I'm going to give them the option because I want them to feel safe,'' he said. ''I don't want them to think every time they throw a pitch they're going to get hit. And so I'm going to sit down - I'll have four (pitchers) next year - I'll say, `If you want to wear one, fine with me.'''

UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said that with the increasing information available about concussions, safety for infielders is a greater concern than in the past. Her 10-year old daughter is on a team that requires all infielders to wear protection.

''I'm not necessarily saying that's something that I would like to be a message in our sport,'' she said, ''but I do believe there's a safety issue we have to consider.''

Oregon coach Mike White said men's slow pitch softball players are essentially wearing hockey masks. One of his incoming recruits, Megan Kleist, wears a facemask.

''I'm not going to tell her she can't wear it,'' he said. ''Who would feel worse if something happened? I couldn't live with myself if I told her to take it off and she got hit.''

Fuller said worrying too much about getting hit can be a problem, too.

''That's just like playing football and not wanting to get tackled,'' she said. ''If it happens to you, you just pray that it's not too bad and that you can come back stronger from that and still continue to play like you do.''

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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