JIM KLEINPETER: Beth Torina has LSU Softball Back on Course Going Down a Super Regional Road It Should Not Have Had to Take

LSU softball coach Beth Torina with her 2023 Tigers. 2024 started off unbeaten start. LSU came back to earth after starting 24-0, to go 16-15, but have now advanced to a Super Regional against Stanford on the road. PHOTO BY: LSU athletics

The scene could hardly have been more starkly different on Sunday: the LSU softball team rejoicing at its NCAA regional championship victory against Southern Illinois oozed exhilaration and confidence. If tears welled up, they were tears of joy.

It took only five innings and 86 minutes.

A year earlier they went into that final day needing to win one of two games against Louisiana-Lafayette. A long day ended with crushing disappointment, a “tent full of tears” but the wrong kind.

Over the weekend, the Tigers put those awful memories to rest but also slew a demon that had been following them the whole season. A hugely impactful season-ending injury to one of its best players, third baseman Danieca Coffey, and the second toughest schedule in the nation planted some doubt of as senior-laden team.

The result was a 12-12 SEC record and eight place finish but a No. 4 RPI, best in the SEC, including champion Tennessee. The real LSU softball team emerged in the regional and could be a factor as it enters the Super Regional at Stanford with a chance for its first Women’s College World Series berth since 2017.

Since the beginning of the season, the players wouldn’t dare refer publicly to that horrible day last May, only looking ahead to redemption. But it was always there serving the role as what not to do.

Taylor Pleasants, whose slump exemplified the frustration the team felt, provided the evidence of the team’s renewal. She hit a huge home run early in each of the two wins over SIU, and then verbalized what it meant.

“We talked about it before,” said Pleasants, perhaps the most underrated female athlete on campus full of women’s sports national champions. “It was not an ‘Oh my God, we can’t lose this and do it again.’ It was more of ‘We know what it feels like, we’ve been there, let’s not let it happen again.’

“It changed our mindset going into the game. Last year we were like ‘Oh we have an extra game if we need it.’ This year we were like, ‘No, we’re putting them away first game no matter what.’ It was a different mindset. We held each other accountable. One pitch at a time.”

You’d have to agree LSU really broke it out. The pitching staff threw two shutouts and allowed one run in 19 innings. Senior transfer Kelley Lynch came two batters from pitching a perfect game Sunday and one out from a no hitter. The offense hit three home runs Sunday and scored as many runs in one day as it did in its last nine SEC regular season games.

If you don’t follow softball, it can be hard to understand how a team with a 12-12 SEC record that lost six of its eight series can be placed as high as a No. 9 national seed. If you asked LSU coach Beth Torina, though, she would tell you the team was under-seeded and shouldn’t be traveling to Stanford for the Super Regional. And you’d see her point.

“I think our team’s resume was really strong,” said Torina, who made the statement unsolicited as part of her opening address. “I’m not sure why we’re going on the road. We had every number that says we shouldn’t have been. I think we did all the things we needed to do for this committee.

“We had the highest RPI in the SEC the entire season. I don’t know if we deserved more or didn’t but it’s disappointing a bit. The team is excited and ready for the next opportunity. We’ve done it the hard way many times, that’s kind of how we like to do it around here.”

That owes to the grinding schedule Torina annually puts her team against and it’s easy to think a team isn’t playing well when it goes against the best conference. LSU played each of the top four teams in the SEC. It beat No. 1 national seed and top-ranked Texas handily. But Torina also schedules strong midlevel teams in non-conference play like San Diego State, Southeastern Louisiana and Liberty.

As much as Torina swears by tough competition, she’s cognizant of the effect it has on her team’s psyche, something that requires her attention. And that’s why her team’s performance in the regional wasn’t exactly a surprise to her.

“I don’t know if anyone ever puts enough emphasis on what the No. 2 strength of schedule does to the mentality of the team,” Torina said. “The day in day out of facing the best of the best of the best of the best and never getting a moment to breathe really takes a toll on your team’s mentality.

“The nice thing about the SEC Tournament, that little gap between that and the regional, is you have some time to reset. You have some practice, you can get your team back a little bit, get them feeling good. The mentality of a schedule like that is really taxing. It takes a bit to build them back up. Hopefully the tournament and this weekend is what they needed to feel like LSU softball and themselves.”

Even playing at their best at the right time, the Tigers have their work cut out for them. Stanford is a perennial softball powerhouse and boasts two 20-game winning pitchers. The Cardinal struggled more than LSU to reach the Super Regional, coming from behind in the elimination game to beat Cal State Fullerton, 4-2, so scoring nine runs isn’t likely to happen in the best-of-three series. The way runs are apportioned, Torina might settle for nine in three games combined.

In her 13th season, Torina wasn’t exactly on the hot seat but after four WCWS in her first six seasons, she’s had none in the last six. LSU has an even chance of getting to Oklahoma City this year and breaking that drought. But even if they don’t, the program is back on course.

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Jim Kleinpeter
Jim Kleinpeter is a graduate of the LSU School of Journalism. He sportswriter for 37 years, including 33 years at the Times-Picyaune.
About Jim Kleinpeter 33 Articles
Jim Kleinpeter is a graduate of the LSU School of Journalism. He sportswriter for 37 years, including 33 years at the Times-Picyaune.

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