Tigers softballers happy to start SEC play after memories of last season being halted

The lasting memory for LSU softball coach Beth Torina was her team wheeling their equipment to the bus for a ride to the airport last March 11, 2020 for a flight to Columbia, S.C. and the highly anticipated start of Southeastern Conference play.

The Tigers were ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams and off to a 21-3 start when that trip and subsequently the remainder of the season were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“They were packed and ready to go nowhere,” Torina said. “That’s the thing that stays in my mind. Today, to see them get loaded on a plane, is going to really be a big relief. A good moment for us to move forward.”

A year after missing out on league play, No. 12 LSU (13-6) embarks on the start of a 24-game SEC schedule, traveling to face No. 22 Tennessee (17-1) in a three-game series that begins at 5 p.m. Friday and will be streamed live by SEC Network+.

The Tigers and Volunteers are also scheduled for games at noon on both Saturday (SEC Network TV) and Sunday (SEC Network+).

“It’s really exciting,” LSU freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants said. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, but I think that I’m prepared.”

Pleasants represents a group of players for LSU – a youthful mix of freshmen and sophomores – eager to make their SEC debut or get their first significant playing time in arguably one of the nation’s toughest leagues.

She’s been able to rely on the sage words of seniors such as pitcher Maribeth Gorsuch or fellow seniors Aliyah Andrews and Amanda Doyle on what to expect in such a series where the intensity will be ramped up considerably and the margin for error narrowed.

“They’ve definitely talked about it and how the atmosphere’s so much different and that it’s way more intense,” Pleasants said. “We’ve got to block out the outside noise, stick to our training and what we’ve been practicing and what we’ve been working on.”

On the heels of the start of SEC play, LSU tried its best to replicate a three-game conference series last week, hosting then seventh-ranked Texas. The Tigers rallied from a loss in Friday’s opening game, which was delayed by weather and resumed Saturday, with a dramatic 2-1 victory in eight innings and 7-2 verdict in the doubleheader.

“Our practices this week have been really sharp,” Pleasants said of the carryover from a victory in the series. “They’ve been a little shaky in the past, but this week it was really smooth. I think we’ll be good.

“I feel like last week is where it really started. The atmosphere was like what a SEC-type atmosphere is like. I don’t think I’ve heard Tiger Park get that loud when Shelbi Sunseri hit that (game two) home run. I think our momentum will keep growing and it will go into this weekend and be a good running start into the SEC.”

Pleasants is one of five position players – along with second baseman Taylor Tidwell, sophomore first baseman Georgia Clark, sophomore catcher Morgan Cummins and freshman left fielder Ciara Briggs – that will either start for the first time or see extensive action in an SEC weekend.

Sophomore pitchers Ali Kilponen and Shelby Wickersham have worked a total of 63 innings during their careers in conference play, but are expected to have bigger roles this season.

“It’s going to be a learning experience,” Torina said. “We’re lucky that our veterans are very vocal, they’re very experienced, some of them five or six years. Those guys will lead the way and we’ll count on them.”

Torina has certainly done her best to prepare her entire team for the long haul of an SEC season, which features 11 ranked teams in this week’s various polls.

The Tigers have gone 4-6 in 10 games against ranked teams, which includes last week’s series win over Texas.

“Early on in SEC play, I think it’s going to make a difference,” Torina said of her team’s rugged schedule. “As the season continues to move on, I don’t know if it’s going to make that big of a difference because everyone’s so good.”

By comparison Tennessee, the preseason choice of the league’s coaches to finish fourth, has played a schedule void of any ranked opponents. The Vols suffered their lone loss (2-0) to Miami of Ohio at home Feb. 20.

Tennessee is led by one of the league’s hitters in right fielder Amanda Ayala (.448, 6 HRs, 18 RBIs) and reigning SEC Player of the Week center fielder Kiki Milloy (.417, 10 HRs, 19 RBIs, 12 stolen bases).

The Vols are led in the circle by 5-foot-10 right-hand junior Ashley Rogers (8-1, 0.70 ERA, 94 strikeouts, 50 innings pitched), a first team All-State performer in 2019.

Andrews (.426) leads LSU and ranks 14th in the SEC in batting and is second in stolen bases (11). She’s followed by Briggs (.360), Pleasants (.339, 4 HRs, 21 RBIs), Sunseri (.273, 4 HRs, 8 RBIs) and Doyle (.267, 6 HRs, 17 RBIs).

Sunseri (4-2, 0.98 ERA, 28 strikeouts, 35.2 innings pitched) is 12th in the league in earned run average, while Kilponen (2-2, 1 save, 1.56 ERA, 33 strikeouts, 27 innings pitched) gives LSU the flexibility of either starting or coming in relief.

This year’s matchup marks the first time LSU, which is 19-4 in SEC-opening games, has faced Tennessee since 2018 when the Vols swept the series at Tiger Park.

“All of the memories on my phone are starting to pop up from last year around this time,” Pleasants said. “It really gets you not to take anything for granted. That’s our theme: ‘Make It Count’. I think we’ve done a good job of that this year.”

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