During what’s become her new normal, LSU softball coach Beth Torina briefly stepped away from her role as the mother of three daughters to attend to what amounts as “office-type” work related to her program.
Even in the time since the NCAA canceled its spring championships March 12 in the wake of a growing coronavirus health scare, thus bringing an abrupt end to the 2020 season, Torina was finishing what she refers to as a time management plan.
In order to complete her task, Torina had to look at her team’s schedule to that juncture – an impressive 21-3 record and No. 4 national record – but also cast a glance toward the future.
At the time of the NCAA’s announcement, the Lady Tigers were on the brink of the start of SEC competition with a road series at South Carolina, followed this past weekend with what would have been a home series with Mississippi State, beginning March 21 with the team’s 8th Annual Strikeout Ovarian Cancer game.
“Saturday was supposed to the teal walk and that hurts my heart as well,” Torina said.
Torina’s brainchild, which she formulated in tribute to her mother and ovarian cancer survivor Betty Dieter, has served as a vehicle to help promote awareness for the malady. She’s organized a two-mile walk for charity which has grown to more than 1,000 participants, including cancer survivors, and raised more than $75,000.
This year’s installment with LSU hosting Mississippi State had grown to include the memory of former Lady Bulldogs player Alex Wilcox, who died of ovarian cancer June 26, 2018.
All SEC teams were going to take part in a campaign “All of Alex” by wearing teal jerseys.
“It’s just sad to me,” Torina said.“Just thinking about not having the opportunity to do some of those cool things we had scheduled.”
For starters, like maybe lead another LSU team to the Women’s College World Series for the fifth time in her ninth season.
After 24 games, she certainly liked the signs the Lady Tigers were starting to display after what turned out to be the final game of the season – an 11-1 run-rule victory over South Alabama on March 10.
Sophomore Ali Kilponen (6-1) turned in a complete-game effort, striking out nine in five innings, freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants homered and drove in three runs along with senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews.
LSU had registered five wins over ranked teams, including a victory over No. 8 Louisiana-Lafayette and two over No. 13 Oklahoma State. The Lady Tigers also competed very favorably with No. 2 Washington in a 3-1 setback at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, CA.
“We were ranked fourth in the country and from everything we had seen, we had lived up to that,” Torina said. “Every time they had been tested, they seemed to step right up to it. I don’t know if we’ll ever know how good this team could have been. I think they had earned the right to be ranked fourth in the country.”
Two days following the win over South Alabama, LSU practiced as usual in preparation for its trip to nationally ranked South Carolina and the start of a 24-game SEC season.
A day later the trip to South Carolina was cancelled because of growing COVID-19 concerns, prompting Torina to conduct what evolved into a lively practice considering the team wouldn’t open SEC play as scheduled.
During the spirited workout the NCAA had issued a release on the cancellation of its spring championships, something Torina was able to read but opted to finish practice before sharing the jarring news with her team.
“I was already envisioning where that could be the team’s last time together on the field,” she said. “We let them enjoy it and then sat in the dugout as they do after every practice and we told them that would be the end for now.
“It was pretty devastating. The entire team was pretty upset. A lot of tears shed by both them and us. It was really hard. Just thinking about everything they had worked for and the spot our team was in was such a good spot. This was a really solid group. It was tough. We’ve moved away from the initial shock and understood there’s a much bigger thing going on here and we have to do our part.”
For one of the first times in a career that’s spanned 13 years and includes 512 victories, including 381 at LSU, Torina was stumped in trying to come up with answers for curious team members.
“The hard part as the head coach, people look to you for answers,” she said. “Most of the time, even if we don’t have a great one, we fake something. We can usually give them the answer. In this case it was hard to not have any answers for them. Not be able to have a solution to the problem. That was probably the hardest part.”
Just like that, a program had begun turning its attention to the 2020 season since the end of the 2019 campaign – a Super Regional sweep at the hands of Minnesota – was over more than a month into competition.
A young nucleus of 16 players – which speaks to an even brighter future of underclassmen – joined forces with eight upperclassmen that featured seniors of Claire Weinberger, Amanda Doyle, Maribeth Gorsuch, Akiya Thymes and Andrews for what turned into a competitive fall and carried into the start of the season.
“Since the last day we finished at Minnesota, we had kids working for these moments from that point on,” Torina said. “You have kids that have been working for this for their whole lives. It’s not just the seniors but the freshmen and sophomores that wanted these opportunities their whole lives and they finally get here and it’s hard when that’s take from you.”
Torina is in agreement that senior athletes should be granted an additional year of eligibility which the NCAA is currently exploring.
She said Andrews is the only player in her five-member senior class that’s completed her undergraduate degree and believes the native of Oldsmar, Fla. would return if given the opportunity.
“I think all the players should get the year back,” she said. “I don’t know how all of it works. It won’t be ideal but none of this is ideal. I think everybody’s going to have to have some tolerance and some empathy and kind of roll with what we’re given.”
Instead of facing South Carolina in what would have been the second game of an SEC-opening weekend on March 14, LSU’s players instead cleaned out their lockers and braced for their final good-byes to teammates that were returning home, coaches and support staff.
They got one final pizza party – complete with ice cream – where Torina wanted everyone to deliver warm farewells to a group of four seniors who would not be returning for next season – the program’s beloved managers Summer Trusty, Trey Trevino, Zach Jermain and Ryker Chason.
“We took a minute to shower them with as much love as we could,” Torina said. “They’ve given their heart and soul to the program who won’t get the opportunity to return. They’re a huge part of what we do and are part of the family that makes us work. It was sad, thinking they won’t be able to finish their time with us.”