The last time LSU’s softball team played a game, Ali Kilponen was the winning pitcher with nine strikeouts and freshmen Taylor Pleasants and Savannah Stewart combined to drive in every run in a 6-1 victory over South Alabama.
Before LSU could board a plane and open Southeastern Conference play at South Carolina three days later, the NCAA cancelled the remainder of the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Tigers finished ranked fifth in the country with a 21-3 record.
Fast forward to Thursday and the start of LSU’s Tiger Classic which represents 337 days since the Tigers’ last action.
Fifth-ranked LSU is scheduled to open its 2021 season at 5 p.m. against McNeese State on Thursday at Tiger Park. The Tigers will continue play in the four-day event with a doubleheader Friday against Duke at 4:30 p.m. and Central Arkansas at 7 p.m., Saturday at 5:30 against Kansas and conclude Sunday at 12:30 with Central Arkansas.
“There’s always so much anxiety this week and it’s magnified so much after last year and after how things ended,” LSU softball coach Beth Torina, who begins her 10th season with the Tigers. “These girls haven’t been in a game in almost 11 months. It’s really exciting and just needed. We need to see some other colors out at Tiger Park. We’re ready for it.”
As if the start of the season needed any additional curveballs, the local forecast doesn’t appear conducive to a spring sport with heavy rain expected and plunging temperatures into the 30s and 40s over the next four days.
The instability brought on by the wet and frigid forecast has already impacted Torina’s pitching plans.
“We were leaning one way,” Torina said. “Seeing how the schedule might change, we may have some options on paper of what we might do in the event of a rainout.”
There’s no hiding the level of excitement for a team that’s not only nationally ranked and picked second in the Southeastern Conference, but LSU returns its entire starting lineup from a year ago thanks to a one-time COVID exemption from the NCAA allowing seniors an additional year of eligibility.
The Tigers, like most Top 25 teams nationally, feature a stacked roster of 29 players that will provide plenty of depth in a season expected to unfold unlike any other trying to avoid contracting COVID-19.
“It’s going to be very different and it’s going to be a challenge,” LSU junior two-way standout Shelbi Sunseri said. “But at the same time, we’re ultimately getting to play the sport that we love and we’re getting a season. The little things that we have to change here and there, doesn’t compare to us last year when we didn’t have a season. It’s going to be challenging but it’s going to be worth it and rewarding.”
Torina said the adjustments to playing a sport in a COVID world will be ongoing.
She said players will follow a specific seating chart and will be spread out in the dugout, grouped in pods together with their roommates while wearing masks. Players also have a scheduled time they can enter the locker room to put on their uniforms.
Pregame introductions will no longer include handshakes or high-fives but instead feature a bumping of forearms when starting players run out of the dugout to their respective positions in the field.
She also said players are no longer allowed to leave the dugout after home runs to offer congratulations to their teammates at home plate.
“It’s a challenge to find a balance between safety and normalcy,” she said. “We’ve got to play ball, too. We’ve got to be ourselves. We’ve got to find this line of how we can be safe, but still operate with some kind of normalcy and competitiveness.”
Torina remained true to a tradition she first introduced in her first season to LSU that relies on the team’s input on starting personnel which in turn provides a sense of ownership.
She’s issued lineup cards to everyone of her players at the start of the week with specific instructions to compile their own starting lineups, hand them back in for Torina to study and compare to her lineup.
“One time there was a player in Year 2 or 3 that I didn’t have on my card,” Torina said. “She was in almost every lineup. We played her, she was a gamer and was an All-SEC player. It happens. They see things differently. They know the game, too. They have opinions and they have thoughts. They’re smart about softball. It’s cool to include them in the process.”
Sophomore pitcher Shelbi Wickersham believes the task, while growing in difficulty this season with an expanded roster, provides players with a glimpse into the challenge Torina faces each season in pairing down such a talented roster into a starting lineup.
“I like how she allows for us to put our input in,” Wickersham said. “We have to think hard about it, too, because we have so many good players on this team. It’s hard to decide whose name to write down and it makes us appreciate our team and the decisions coach Beth has to make because we understand how difficult it is. We realize there’s a lot of people out here you could switch out anyone at any position and we would still have a great team.”