Tigers, Cajuns open LSU/UL Lafayette Invitational Thursday

LSU pitcher Shelbi Sunseri came in relief Friday and didn't allow a hit in 1.1 innings of work in a 7-5 loss to Kentucky in the first game of their 3-game series in Lexington, Ky.

No. 11 LSU’s softball team goes from a rivalry that existed within the Southeastern Conference against Alabama to an in-state rivalry with a kick.

Before the coronavirus pandemic took its toll and cancelled all spring sports, LSU and UL-Lafayette staged a couple of epic battles last February that were separated by a run apiece with each team winning on their respective home fields played before a total of 5,346 fans.

The reprisal of that series won’t be able to generate the same environments because of reduced capacity being enforced in both venues but that’s not to suggest that when LSU (7-3) visits No. 9 UL-Lafayette (5-0) Thursday in the first game of the LSU/UL-Lafayette Invitational there won’t be fireworks between the two I-10 rivals.

The two teams meet at 6 p.m. at UL-Lafayette’s Lamson Park on Thursday and return to Baton Rouge for a 3 o’clock meeting Saturday at LSU’s Tiger Park.

“It’s just a game,” LSU freshman outfielder Danieca Coffey deadpanned.

LSU softball coach Beth Torina, who is 4-5 against UL-Lafayette during her tenure in Baton Rouge, found a different perspective for this year’s matchup.

“Having such a talented program just an hour away from you, it’s inevitable to have a type of rivalry, a challenge there,” Torina said. “A lot of the girls know each other, they’ve grown up together, so I think it’s kind of inevitable when you have somebody that’s that a talented program that’s just an hour away from you.”

LSU’s weekend goes deeper than just two games with UL-Lafayette. The Tigers will also host No. 10 Oklahoma State (9-0) in a doubleheader Friday at 4 and 6:30 p.m. and will meet Buffalo (0-4) on Saturday at 5:30 after facing UL-Lafayette.

“It’s a huge weekend,” Torina said. “Both teams being ranked so highly, what an opportunity for our team to prove something about who they are, where they want to be. Another opportunity to grow and test our players. Also, an opportunity to see things we need to continue building on. We’re trying to play our best softball late in the year, so we want all these opportunities early to keep finding ways to get better as we move forward.”

LSU is looking forward to another weekend filled with supreme competition, the kind that can help in the development of a young team such as the Tigers.

LSU is scheduled to play four games against ranked opponents following last weekend’s performance in the Easton Bama Bash in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Tigers twice defeated Liberty University but lost twice to the fifth-ranked Crimson Tide 5-2 and 13-5.

“I think we were prepared when we went to Alabama,” LSU junior pitcher/designated player Shelbi Sunseri said. “I think we just let certain atmospheres distract us, kind of influenced how we played. We didn’t play relaxed. We didn’t play LSU softball like we know how to do.”

Torina believes her team gained a measure of confidence in Tuesday’s return to the field against Central Arkansas where the Tigers got complete-game, shutout victories 3-0 and 2-0 from pitchers Shelby Wickersham and Ali Kilponen.

The Tigers’ offense was limited to a total of nine hits and only scored in three of 18 innings but made the most of their scoring opportunities which included a two-run homer from Taylor Pleasants in the opening inning of Game 2.

Moreover, after committing eight errors in four games in Alabama, LSU played improved defense without an error behind Wickersham and Kilponen.

“Coming off the two wins, and just seeing how we played at Alabama, we really understand to just be relaxed and we have to play LSU softball no matter what atmosphere, no matter the situations,” Sunseri said. “I think we are prepared. This weekend will be really good for us and there will be a lot of excitement to see.”

Oklahoma State is led by Chyene Factor (.542, 2 2Bs, HR, 6 RBIs) and pitcher Kelly Maxwell (3-0, 0.00 ERA, 24 Ks) in three appearances covering 12.1 innings.

LSUs final opponent of the weekend, Buffalo, is paced by Madison Fernimen (.364, 3 2Bs, HR).

Last year’s matchup was the first meeting between LSU and UL-Lafayette outside of NCAA postseason play where the Tigers had dropped six of 10 games to the Cajuns who visited Tiger Park for regional play in 2018, ’17, ’13 and ’10.

UL-Lafayette is led by Ciara Bryan’s .526 average with a pair of doubles and homers and 6 RBIs. Senior right-hander Summer Ellyson, the losing pitcher in last year’s game with the Tigers, took advantage of the NCAA’s additional year of eligibility is off to a 2-0 start with a 0.54 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 13 innings.

LSU’s offense, which averages six runs a game, has a .289 batting average with 18 homers. Coffey, who’s played in six games, is batting .500 with a homer and 8 RBIs followed by outfielder Ciara Briggs (.423, 2 HRs, 6 RBIs), third baseman Amanda Doyle (.355, 5 HRs, 14 RBIs), Sunseri (.308, 3 HRs, 6 RBIs) and Pleasants (.300, 4 HRs, 11 RBIs).

Sunseri is off to the best start in the circle for the Tigers with a 3-1 record, 0.40 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 17.1 innings.

Besides the proximity of the two schools, Torina believes another element that adds to the game is the familiarity of the two teams.

LSU’s Taryn Antoine and UL-Lafayette’s Carrie Boswell were high school teammates at Alexandria Senior High, while Coffey and Raina O’Neal share the hometown of Richmond, Texas.

The two teams both have eight players from Texas on their respective rosters with an emphasis on the Houston area where the Tigers have six players, the Cajuns five.

“It’s a mutual respect between the two schools. I think it’s a lot of fun,” Torina said. “It’s always fun being challenged and having some other things on the line. These guys have known each other for a long time. It’s a good experience for all of them.

“I know the environments won’t be what they were last year when we played this with all the huge crowds,” Torina said. “I think it will still be really exciting. I’m sure we will still have plenty of people in purple and gold and they’ll have their group out there. I still think it will be an exciting atmosphere.”

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