The thought of LSU softball coach Beth Torina having to say farewell to her seniors provided a cause for pause.
“I’m getting emotional thinking about it,” Torina said during a Zoom news conference Wednesday.
No. 16 LSU (29-17, 11-10 in SEC) will conclude its regular season with a three-game Southeastern Conference series against Auburn (26-19, 6-15) beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday – a game that will be televised by ESPNU.
The series will continue at 6 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
LSU will also fete a group of six players, including four seniors and a junior from this year’s team and a senior from the 2020 team that didn’t get to finish the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would say well done to them, they have done so many things,” Torina said. “What they’ve been through has been hard and they’ve tackled it and done it with flying colors.”
Three members of this year senior class were part of LSU’s last team to compete in the Women’s College World Series with center fielder Aliyah Andrews, third baseman Amanda Doyle, pitcher Maribeth Gorsuch and former outfielder Claire Weinberger, a 2020 senior.
In addition, the Tigers will honor senior Akiya Thymes, the program’s first six-year letter winner, along with junior outfielder Taryn Antonine, who is leaving to attend graduate school at another school that offers a postgraduate program she’s looking for.
“A big chunk of this group’s been in the College World Series, had a huge presence in the Baton Rouge community, they’ve had massive improvements in our academics,” Torina said. “I think you can see where they’ve woven themselves into different parts of this program and not just the softball history books. They’ve done a lot of good things to help the culture of this program and they’ve done it when it’s been hard.”
The group will be broken up and introduced together in pairs with Antoine and Doyle on Friday, Andrews and Gorsuch on Saturday and Antoine and Weinberger on Sunday.
Following the conclusion of Sunday’s game, they will be brought together as a group, Torina said.
“This is a bonus, this is all extra time,” Torina said. “They have big goals in front of them they’re ready to go accomplish.”
Torina shutters to think where this year’s LSU team would be without the aforementioned group of seniors, who all took advantage (except Weinberger who moved into the workforce) of the NCAA’s additional year of eligibility so that seniors could return for a fifth season.
The Tigers were 21-3 at the time the 2020 season right before the start of SEC play at South Carolina.
With stalwarts such as Andrews and Doyle agreeing to return and key veterans such as Gorsuch and Thymes, Torina was able to bring back her entire ’20 starting lineup which included seven freshmen that didn’t get to experience SEC play.
With LSU playing the nation’s top-ranked strength of schedule – a schedule that’s been rated the most difficult nationally since 2007 – the Tigers have relied on the steadying hand and leadership from their seniors to navigate such a demanding season that’s included a 11-14 record against Top 25 teams.
“I can’t imagine what the team would have looked without them,” Torina said of her seniors. “I can’t imagine how we would have gotten through some of the things we’ve had to get through. How we could have tackled this schedule? They’ve led us the whole way. They have been the leaders.”
For only the second time in conference play that group will have to help LSU rebound from a series loss where Top 10 ranked Arkansas claimed a share of the league championship with a 4-1 victory on Monday.
LSU, which is seventh in the SEC standings, is looking to close the regular season on a high note and possibly improve its seeding going into next week’s postseason tournament at Alabama.
“I think we’re building every time we take the field,” Torina said. “We’ve shown we can win in a lot of different ways. We faced some of the best pitching in the league last weekend. Our offense had been on a good roll coming off Kentucky, Missouri and N.C. State. They had scored a lot of runs. We’ve just got to bounce back from seeing good pitching. I think we’re in a good spot. We know we’re battle tested.”
Auburn, which has lost its last three games and seven of its last eight and is in 11th place, is ranked fourth in the SEC in pitching with a combination of freshmen in Shelby Lowe (13-7) and Maddie Penta (8-8) that lead a staff that’s got a 1.84 earned run average.
The duo of the left-handed Lowe, noted more for her tight spins, movement and off-speed pitches, provides a challenging match with the right-handed Penta, regarded more as hard thrower. They’ve combined to strike out 265 batters.
Andrews ranks 11th in the SEC in batting (.377) and is second in the league with 25 stolen bases in 27 attempts. Freshman outfielder Cierra Briggs is next (.336, 4 HRs, 16 RBIs, 10 stolen bases) and freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants (.306, 10 HRs, 42 RBIs).
Sophomore Ali Kilponen (13-6) is ninth in the SEC in ERA (1.69) and has 101 strikeouts in 103.2 innings. Junior Shelbi Sunseri, who lost a 1-0 decision to Arkansas last Friday, is 7-6 with a 2.17 ERA.
“Ultimately what we can control is playing well and that’s what we have to do this weekend,” Torina said.