By Morgan Prewitt
This year was a season of firsts for the LSU softball team.
From opening the 2015 season with the best start in school history (25-0) to earning the program’s first No. 1 ranking, the Tigers (44-11, 15-9 Southeastern Conference) dominated ranked opponents throughout their conference schedule with a combination of a dynamic lineup and deep pitching rotation.
Despite its record-breaking early success, LSU ended its historic season in a downward spiral by losing five of its last seven Southeastern Conference games, including a second round exit from the SEC Tournament in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers hope to use their recent losses as motivation when they host the Baton Rouge NCAA Regional as the No. 5 national seed and look to earn their second trip to the Women’s College World Series under LSU coach Beth Torina.
LSU will face Texas Southern at 6 p.m. on Friday at Tiger Park.
“They’ve proven that they can be the best team in the country,” Torina said. “They’ve proven they can play with anyone in the country. They did it all season long. That’s going to help build their confidence heading into this weekend.”
After winning five of its first six conference series, LSU dropped its final two series against Missouri and Auburn in the last two weeks of the regular season, marking the Tigers’ first back-to-back losses since March 2014.
The Tigers stalled at the plate and committed mistakes in the circle in the first two games of both series before rebounding with a dominant win in each series finale.
In Game 1 and Game 2 against Missouri and Auburn, LSU scored only five combined runs on 14 hits. The Tigers’ inefficiency stemmed from their inability to string hits together with runners in scoring position, tallying only 2-for-30 while stranding 34 runners on base.
While the lineup failed to produce runs, LSU’s pitching staff collectively allowed 19 walks and 13 earned runs in the Tigers’ four losses against Missouri and Auburn while striking out 14 batters.
Despite their struggles in Game 1 and Game 2, the Tigers turned the tables in Game 3 of both series, outscoring their opponents 16-1 and allowing only six combined walks.
“We beat ourselves in the games that we’ve lost,”
said senior center fielder A.J. Andrews. “We just did not do what we needed to do to win.”
Although LSU came into the SEC Tournament determined to turn its fortunes around, the Tigers fell to No. 5 seed Tennessee, 7-5, on Thursday night as their woes in the circle continued.
Despite the reemergence of an efficient offense, LSU could not overcome freshman pitchers Carley Hoover (14-4) and Allie Walljasper’s (13-5) inability to adjust to a power-laden Tennessee lineup, which translated into three home runs and three extra base hits.
“The difference was [Tennessee] being so aggressive early in counts,” Torina said. “They had a very good strategy, and we didn’t do a very good job of making an adjustment to what they decided to do.”
In the first two innings, LSU’s offense took advantage of leadoff walks.
Junior shortstop Bianka Bell got LSU on the board in the first inning with an RBI double to left field, driving in Andrews who drew the leadoff walk. Freshman left fielder Emily Griggs added another run in the second by driving in sophomore designated player Constance Quinn, who earned the
Despite allowing only one hit in the first three innings, Hoover’s control unraveled in the fourth inning as the Lady Vols lineup blasted two-out home runs to dead center field.
After Tennessee opened the inning with back-to-back groundouts, freshman infielder Meghan Gregg hit a solo homer to center field, her 12th homer of the season. Just two at-bats later, sophomore infielder Taylor Koenig hit a two-run homer off Hoover to give the Lady Vols a 3-2 lead.
“[Hoover] was doing a great job of getting us on the first pitch, so we needed to change our mentality into attack mode,” Koenig said. “That worked pretty well for us.”
The Tigers answered in the fifth with a three-run inning of their own by continuing to make Tennessee’s pitchers pay for free passes.
After Bell sparked LSU with a leadoff homer to tie the game, 3-3, junior catcher Kellsi Kloss and junior first baseman Sandra Simmons drew back-to-back walks. Then, Quinn and freshman second baseman Sydney Bourg drove them in with RBI singles to extend LSU’s lead to 5-3.
But the Lady Vols battled back in the sixth with a three-run two-out rally. After replacing Hoover in the fifth, Walljasper struggled to get ahead of batters and allowed back-to-back doubles that drove in three runs, putting Tennessee ahead 6-5.
In the seventh, sophomore infielder Megan Geer smashed a homer off the first pitch she saw from Walljasper and extended Tennessee’s lead to 7-5 with a leadoff homer, which proved too much for the Tigers to overcome in the bottom of the seventh.
“Other than on the mound, my team played a really good game,” Torina said. “Our offense was really solid. We played really good defense. It was encouraging because we haven’t seen them do some of those things in a while.”
Despite its recent ups and downs, LSU will host Texas Southern (25-16, 14-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference), Nebraska (34-21, 17-6 Big Ten) and Arizona State (34-20, 12-11 Pac-12) in the Baton Rouge Regional.
Heading into their matchup against Texas Southern, Torina said she will focus on honing the Tigers’ own strengths before studying their opponents’ weaknesses later in the week.
Texas Southern rolls into Baton Rouge with a balanced lineup and deep pitching rotation after notching its second straight SWAC softball title.
Senior infielder Thomasina Garza spearheads a lineup that features six players hitting more than .350 and nine players with one or more home runs this season. She leads Texas Southern’s starters with a .445 average, .731 slugging percentage, 24 walks and 48 RBIs.
In the circle, Texas Southern relies on a pitch-by-committee model with only eight complete games this season. Freshman pitcher Jasmin Fulmore (9-1) leads the rotation with a .210 opponent batting average, 60 strikeouts and 2.24 ERA.
As an experienced competitor in the Women’s College World Series, Andrews hopes to help her teammates focus on the task ahead.
“It’s a moment when you really can’t overlook any competitor at all,” Andrews said. “That team knows who you are, and they’re ready to play you. That was our mentality my freshman year [when LSU went to the WCWS] and that’s going to be the mentality of everyone else.”