The eyes of Texas softball are upon Tiger Park starting Friday for a three-game series with LSU

LSU freshman Ciara Briggs went 4 for 7 with two RBIs and a homer to help the Tigers to a doubleheader sweep Saturday over North Carolina State.

There’s only one way LSU softball coach Beth Torina knows how to help prepare her youthful team that’s full of potential.

Keep feeding them fastballs.

For the fourth consecutive weekend and a week before the Tigers embark on the start of Southeastern Conference play, No. 13 LSU gets the opportunity to match itself against one of the nation’s top programs.

The Tigers (11-5), whose regular starting lineup consists of six freshmen or sophomores, face their third top 10 opponent of the year when No. 7 and undefeated Texas (9-0) visits Tiger Park for a three-game series beginning at 7 p.m. Friday that will be televised by ESPN2.

The two teams will meet in a doubleheader Saturday that starts at 3 p.m. and will be carried by SEC Network-Plus.

“We’re going to get a well-prepared and well-coached program and we’re going to have to bring our best game,” Torina said. “There’s no question.”

LSU has already played seven games against ranked competition, winning twice including victories over then ninth-ranked UL-Lafayette in last week’s LSU-UL-Lafayette Invitational.

The Tigers sandwiched wins over the Ragin’ Cajuns around consecutive losses to No. 10 Oklahoma State.

With the start of SEC play a week away at Tennessee for a three-game series March 12-14, LSU believes the Texas series is perfectly timed.

“We’re really excited to play Texas,” LSU senior pitcher Maribeth Gorsuch said. “They’re a good team and they’re going to prepare us for our upcoming SEC schedule. When we play ranked teams like that, it helps us get prepared, especially the next week we play Tennessee. We’re extremely excited. We love the competition. We love to compete with teams like that. It’s something the whole team’s really excited about.”

Unlike LSU, Texas third-year coach Mike White has a more veteran including three transfers from Oregon where White coached for nine years and took the Ducks to five Women’s College World Series.

Texas was ranked No. 1 nationally in the final poll for the 2020 season which was cut short by coronavirus pandemic. The Longhorns, picked second behind Oklahoma to win the Big 12 Conference, return 15 letter winners from a team that led the nation in batting (.377) and doubles (62).

“They do have a lot of experienced players, a lot of kids that have played in big situations,” Torina said. “They may not have all been at Texas with a couple of kids from Oregon that were in the World Series. They have an experienced offense, an experienced set of core players.”

Despite having 14 games this season cancelled because of inclement weather, Texas’ recipe to success has been a potent offense with a .384 batting average with 17 homers and a pitching staff that has a 2.33 ERA.

Junior second baseman Janae Jefferson (.464) began the season on the USA Softball National Player of the Year watchlist. Center fielder Shannon Rhodes, an Oregon transfer, bats .455 with 5 homers and 15 RBIs.

Sophomore Shea O’Leary (2-0, 1.19 ERA, 12 strikeouts, 17 innings) and freshman Ryleigh White (3-0, 1.29 ERA, 16 strikeouts) are two of the team’s top pitchers.

“I’m excited that we have another Top 10 opponent,” LSU senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews said. “It feels like everybody we’ve played has been in the top 10 so far. It’s a challenge, but it’s a privilege, it’s an opportunity and it’s something we love to do. We love to be able to go out there and compete. Just put everything we have on the line. It’s always exciting to play a really good opponent and it’s going to be a really good series.”

Andrews, the reigning SEC Player of the Week, has surged to the top of LSU’s lineup with a .400 average, complete with her first career homer in Tuesday’s 11-3 win over Southern Mississippi. She also tops the team with 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts.

Freshman outfielder Ciara Briggs also has a .400 average (2 HRs, 7 RBIs, 6 stolen bases) followed by freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants at .333 with 4 homers and 18 RBIs (ranking her 10th nationally) and senior third baseman Amanda Doyle at .306 with 6 homers (ranking her 11th nationally) and 16 RBIs.

Junior Shelbi Sunseri (3-2, 1.01 ERA, 21 strikeouts, 27.2 innings) and sophomore Ali Kilponen (1-1, 1.47, 25 strikeouts, 19 innings) lead a pitching staff that’s lowered its ERA to 2.21.

“We’re young and they’re going to be some ups and downs with younger players, but we’re also extremely talented,” Gorsuch said. “Just because they’re young, they’re going to make mistakes and that’s OK, but they work extremely hard and in the end that’s going to pay off. They love to compete.”

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