LSU’s softball team returned to campus Jan. 5, underwent coronavirus testing and remained isolated until the results of those tests were known.
For a program that wasn’t forced to miss any of its 30-plus workouts in the fall, the Tigers got the green light Jan. 8 for a four-week stretch of workouts leading to to a potential Feb. 11 season-opener.
“I hope it turns out to be fortunate,” LSU softball coach Beth Torina said after the conclusion of fall workouts. “I hope that it doesn’t come get us in the spring just because we avoided it. I hope we can continue down this path. A lot of people said we couldn’t do it this fall, and we did.
“My thoughts are we’ll just do it again in the spring. We just try to be careful and conscious and continually remind the players to make good choices and the things they need to do on and off the field. I’m sure there’s a great deal of luck involved in it as well.”
The Southeastern Conference hasn’t released the framework for the 2021 regular-season schedule or what it would possibly look like for its league members, a decision that was expected by the end of December.
LSU is scheduled to host a tournament Feb. 11 that would include McNeese State, Duke and Kansas. Big 12 Conference foes Oklahoma State, Kansas and Texas are also on the schedule, but an early-season national event in Clearwater, Fla. was cancelled, Torina said.
A year after the Tigers were limited to 24 games (21-3 record) because the remainder of the season was cancelled amid the COVID-19 health scare, there’s a great sense of anticipation surrounding this year’s season.
“We’ve told the girls that whatever schedule they give us we’re going to be ready; we’re going to play hard; we’re going to give it everything we can,” Torina said. “Whatever chance we have to win, if we’re playing dominoes against somebody, we’re going to try to win that.”
Torina and her staff deftly tried to handle the challenge of an expanded roster of 29 players, thanks to the NCAA extending an additional year of eligibility to senior athletes in spring sports.
For LSU, that translated into the return of four of its five seniors led by third baseman Amanda Doyle, center fielder Aliyah Andrews, pitcher Maribeth Gorsuch and outfielder Akiya Thymes.
Torina also brought in one of the nation’s top signing classes with eight new freshmen that will join forces with last year’s seven-member freshmen group for a total of 15 players alone in that class.
“We have a group of seniors that can influence a group of freshmen they would have never gotten to, that they can continue to grow the program and preach the core values of what we’re all about with another class,” Torina said. “We talked about the only thing we were guaranteed was today, so we were going to go out and play it hard. We learned that lesson way too real last season. Everything matters, everything counts.”
Torina, now in her 10th season at LSU and 15th overall as a collegiate head coach, acknowledged that conducting fall practice was unquestionably different, but quite possibly the most rewarding.
She said the team was grouped into six groups, mostly with their roommates, where they remained together throughout the entire fall. Each team practiced three times a week and scrimmaged twice per week, concluding with the two-game Purple-Gold series.
“We missed that full team feel,” Torina said. “But I was proud of how we kept our team safe and proud of how we challenged them. It was fun doing something different.”
The loaded nature of LSU’s roster produced endless combinations of lineups and positions that will get sorted out over the next month.
One thing for sure, though, LSU has a deep and talented roster that has Torina beaming for good reason.
“I think our depth will be one of our strengths,” she said. “With all the things going on added to it, like staying healthy and being virus free, our depth will prove to be something that will be a strength for us.”
There’s no greater example of LSU’s depth than in the circle where the Tigers return senior Maribeth Gorsuch, junior Shelbi Sunseri (also a candidate at designated player when not pitching), sophomores Shelby Wickersham and Ali Kilponen and welcome highly-touted freshman Morgan Smith of Phoenix, Ariz.
“It’s not out of the question if we have a normal schedule to see five different starters in a tournament, to see three starters and a couple of relievers in a SEC series,” Torina said.
Torina said Doyle enjoyed her best fall and anchors an infield that returns second baseman Taylor Tidwell, second-year freshman Taylor Pleasants at shortstop and sophomore Georgia Clark at first. But that group will also feature competition from incoming freshmen Anna Jones, Raeleen Gutierrez, Presleigh Pilon, Kennedi Houshmandzadeh, Danieca Coffey and Ali Newland.
Sophomore Morgan Cummins was the starter at catcher a year ago, but freshman Hayden Brown made quite an impact in the fall at the plate, Torina said.
Andrews is part of a veteran outfield that also features junior Taryn Antoine in right field and sophomore Savannah Stewart in left, but Torina also touted the ability of first-year freshmen Ciara Briggs of Yorba Linda, Calif.
“We tried to get them to understand before they left that the decisions and work them put in during the six-week break could truly win them the national championship,” Torina said. “We referred to it as the Win-Ter season. If they made the most of that time, and they use it better than anybody else in the country, maybe that’s the difference.”