“Air Aliyah” still flying high as LSU softball heads into its last two regular season SEC series

As the younger sister of the first women’s professional softball player to win a Rawlings Gold Glove, LSU’s Aliyah Andrews simply wanted to create her own niche during her time in Baton Rouge.

Comparisons of older sister and former Tigers’ star outfielder AJ Andrews’ high-flying acrobatic catches were waiting for Aliyah five years ago at the door of Tiger Park when she reported as a freshman. But now as a senior, she’s left her distinct mark on the program heading into the final month of her college career.

“It’s been extremely rewarding and it’s because of the unexpected,” said Aliyah Andrews, who’ll lead the 16th ranked Tigers (28-15, 10-8) into a three-game home series vs. No. 10 Arkansas (38-7, 17-4) starting Saturday in Tiger Park. “I just went out and played the game and this is the result that I got.”

When the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the remainder of the 2020 season in mid-March, Aliyah Andrews believed that her collegiate career was over until the NCAA later offered seniors an additional year of eligibility.

Andrews’ career had plenty of memorable moments, including a trip as a freshman to the Women’s College World Series, but she still felt somewhat unfilled after the events of the 2020 season. She leaped at the opportunity to return for a fifth season to play the sport she ardently loved growing up in her hometown of Oldsmar, Fla. and as one of four seniors, have an impactful part of a youthful team with 23 freshmen and sophomores who would look to her for guidance.

“She’s not extremely vocal by nature,” LSU softball coach Beth Torina said. “She has been forced into a spot where she’s had to be more vocal. This is such a young team and there’s a big division of age among them. There’s a whole bunch of young kids and not so many older players.

“She’s had to use her voice and her voice is so powerful,” Torina said. “She speaks so many right things, stands up for the right things. I’m so glad she got this extra year. I’m so glad she showcased her ability, I’m so glad she’s used her voice to make everyone around her better.”

If softball needed a spokesperson or role model to continue serving as a catalyst in its growth, Andrews has literally leaped onto the national scene. Her series of jaw-dropping catches that made her a regular on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays this season have cemented her moniker as “Air Aliyah.”

In a way, it’s been surreal to Andrews. She believes there have been catches during her career that have required a similar degree of difficulty but resulted in far less fanfare than she’s received this season.

“It’s been so cool,” she said. “My last couple of years I’ve made some good, diving catches and they’ve gotten some exposure. Nothing crazy and it wasn’t as many as I’ve had this year.”

Through the proliferation of television in the sport of softball, Andrews’ heroics no longer go unnoticed. With the impact of social media, those highlight-reel catches have been able to cover as much ground as she has in center field.

It’s rare, if at all, LSU’s games aren’t carried on some ESPN platform whether streaming on the internet to national broadcasts on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. In the first month of the season, Andrews began diving her way onto the national consciousness of softball fans everywhere.

She debuted Feb. 26 on ESPN’s SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays with the No. 8 highlight on a spectacular catch she made in the top of the seventh inning in a 3-1 loss to Oklahoma State.

ESPN anchor Stan Verrett of New Orleans wondered out loud, “We’ve got seven better than that one?” 

A photo captured Andrews’ body completely stretched out and parallel to the ground and was voted the NCAA’s top image that week.

“I kind of didn’t know I was going to catch it,” said Andrews, who is working on a master’s in mass communications with an eye on broadcasting. “It was flying over my head faster than I thought. I just needed somehow to catch it. I left the ground, put my glove up and hoped I would catch it and I ended up doing it. It was a really cool picture.”

Andrews left similar indelible images and worked her way up the SportsCenter Top 10 rankings. She was credited with the No. 4 highlight for a terrific catch March 22 against Texas A&M and vaulted all the way to No. 2 on April 11 grab against Missouri.

“I’ve surprised myself with some things, I’ve been able to showcase some things as well,” she said. “I’ve played like I feel I’ve always played but it’s getting a little more recognition.  It’s just a better feeling knowing this game almost taken away from me and I had another opportunity. I’m just trying to make the most of it and enjoying each second that I’ve had.”

Each magnificent catch has seemingly endeared Andrews to a new segment of the population, thus expanding softball’s demographic reach.

She’s received shoutouts on social media from ESPN’s NFL analysts Ryan Clark and Marcus Spears, a pair of former LSU standout football players. But it’s been the feedback Andrews has received from youth league softball players wanting to emulate her that’s really captured her heart.

It’s taken Andrews back to her own youth, playing softball in Florida where other than her older sister AJ – who enjoyed a decorated career at LSU that carried over to the Akron Racers of the Women’s Pro Softball League – she yearned for role models in the game of softball.

“To have little girls tell me that I’ve inspired them to want to do that, it means the world to me and it makes me want to keep doing it,” Andrews said. “I take a lot of pride when I see Twitter posts and people tagging me with their child making diving catches. It makes me proud to think they believed they could do it because they saw me do it.

“I’ve had some young girls ask me about slapping,” Andrews said. “This year I’ve had a lot ask me how I make diving catches and what they should work on. It’s meant a lot to me. It’s kind of been my ‘Why’. It’s given me more purpose and doing it even more aside from wanting to do it for my team and change the momentum.”

The national publicity has validated her fearless, defensive prowess. It’s also helped bring into focus Andrews as an all-around player worthy of consideration of making her first All-America team.

She was first known for her ability to fly around the bases. As the engine as the leadoff batter in LSU’s offense, she put her God-given speed to good use on the base paths where she’s already surpassed her sister and is on course to leave as the program’s greatest base stealer.

“Do I think she’s an All-American?” Torina said. “One hundred percent. She’s deserving. When you take her total package with what you’re getting with her speed, defense and everything she brings, she’s an All-American.”

Andrews’ batting average has fluctuated from above .400 to .366 heading into the home series with Arkansas. She’s continued to flash her speed where she’s ranked second in the Southeastern Conference in stolen bases, but it’s been the additional work with LSU volunteer assistant Sandra Simmons that’s taken her game to another level.

Instead of having opponents squeezing the corners to neutralize her bunting or when the infield plays deep while implementing a shift to retire the left-handed pull hitter, Andrews has foiled that strategy. Her greater show of power in her slugging percentage has produced 12 extra base hits.

Included are the first two home runs of her career – one that didn’t leave the park and another that left no doubt.

“She really earned this and the power you’ve seen from her is just incredible and it’s made the biggest difference for her and our team,” Torina said.

All of these head-turning moments for Andrews transpired within the same week of the season in February, first she sent a sinking liner toward left field that bounced in front of a diving left fielder and went all of the way to the wall.

Andrews was timed in 11.68 seconds speeding around the base paths for an inside-the-park homer in a 11-3 victory over Southern Mississippi.

She followed that up four days later when LSU was closing out a series victory over then No. 7 Texas. In the second game of a doubleheader, Andrews crushed an 0-1 pitch off the scoreboard in right field for a 6-0 lead in a game the Tigers won, 7-2.

“The inside the park home run, I didn’t go back into the dugout and have that feeling that it was a real home run,” Andrews said. “Then when I hit that one against Texas, I definitely had that feeling. It was so cool and to have my teammates be almost excited than I was really special.

“I think about when I got to LSU and I just wanted to be the best that I could be. I’ve enjoyed my five years. The fact that I’ve happened to distinguish myself, now some people know me.”

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