LSU junior pitcher/designated player Shelbi Sunseri is one of nine players on this year’s youthful team with postseason experience, making her uniquely qualified to speak on playing softball at this time of year.
She contends it’s no different than at any other time of this season, a challenging campaign in which LSU remained COVID free to play against the nation’s top-rated schedule.
“Just keep it simple,” Sunseri said for emphasis. “My first regional I played in my freshman year, just hitting in it, it was important for me to just think about it as another at bat, another game. The same thing my sophomore year. I personally let our super (regional) at Minnesota get too big for me and that was a reason why we weren’t as successful. The biggest thing for the upperclassmen and the people that have been here are talking to the underclassmen about keeping it simple and really not making it bigger than what it is. Ultimately, it is just another game.”
LSU, which received a national (No. 7) seed, opens play in the Baton Rouge Regional as the top-seeded team when the Tigers (32-19) host fourth-seeded McNeese State (34-24) in the first game at 3 p.m. at Tiger Park which will have no capacity restrictions. The regional is scheduled to continue at 5:30 p.m. between second-seeded UL-Lafayette (44-10) facing third-seeded George Washington (37-9) at 5:30 p.m.
The LSU game will be televised by ESPNU and broadcast locally by 107.3-FM.
“Anxious, excited,” said LSU softball coach Beth Torina, explaining her team’s emotions. “The things you would normally expect. They do feel prepared. They worked hard, and you can draw some confidence from that. There’s a sense of anxiety. There’s a lot of young ones that haven’t been there before. Hopefully, we can turn that into excitement and fun and come out on the right end of this.”
A year after the NCAA cancelled the remainder of the season in mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic, Torina feels lucky her team played its entire 51-game schedule without a positive COVID test or contact tracing, making the start of postseason play even more meaningful.
“We were fortunate to get this national seed,” she said. “But we’re also fortunate to play on another week. It was so heartbreaking last year. We’re just happy to be playing softball this time of year. We’re happy to be in this final group. I know there are some great teams that didn’t get to play on this week.”
Torrential rains are another obstacle LSU has dealt with this week. The Tigers practiced outside in Tiger Park for first three days before being driven inside Thursday to their Mike Moore Performance Center, which has a full-sized infield, as well as using with the football team’s indoor facility.
“We’ve been super productive this week, so I think they’re very prepared,” Torina said. “We got a lot of accomplished and stuck right with our pregame routine that would have normally been doing outside.”
McNeese is making its seventh appearance in NCAA regional play with fifth-year softball coach James Landreneau taking his third team to postseason play. This also marks the fourth time in five trips where the Cowgirls have been sent to the Baton Rouge Regional where they’ve winless in three games against host LSU.
McNeese is riding a five-game win streak, having earned its latest automatic bid with a sweep through the Southland Conference tournament which included a 1-0 victory over Central Arkansas in the title game.
“When you get to the regionals you have to play mistake-free softball,” Landreneau said. “To win a regional you’re going to have to win close games. The only way to win close games is playing mistake-free. You can’t give away free passes on the offensive side you can’t walk, and somewhere somebody’s going to make a mistake and when they make a mistake. You have to be ready to capitalize.”
The Cowgirls feature a team built on speed. They’re tied for fourth nationally in stolen bases (125) and lead the country in double plays (43).
Sophomore designated player Kaylee Lopez leads the team in batting (.388) and senior shortstop Cori McCray is a source of power (.309, 10 HRs, 32 RBIs) and speed (21 of 26 stolen bases). Senior center fielder Toni Perrin (.308) leads the team in stolen bases with 27 of 32 attempts.
Senior Jenna Edwards, a graduate transfer from Valparaiso, is part of a 1-2 pitching tandem (9-2, 2.45 ERA, 103 IP, 73 Ks, 4 saves) with freshman Whitney Tate (13-7, 2.67, 135 IP, 52 Ks, 3 saves).
Tate was the losing pitcher in LSU’s season-opening 8-0 win over McNeese in which she allowed five runs on eight hits in 4.1 innings in a game played in cold conditions in February.
“It will be a completely new feel and a completely new game,” Torina said. “We know they’re talented. We know they’re capable of beating anybody out there. We’re going to have to show up and play well.”
Torina said her roster which was expanded to carry 28 players during the regular season and 25 during Southeastern Conference series, has been reduced to 20 by the NCAA for the postseason. She said five additional players can sit in the dugout but won’t be in uniform.
“I’m concerned about that and I hope that’s an adjustment we can make moving forward,” she said. “I used 17 players against South Carolina against South Carolina in the SEC tournament. It’s tough. It’s heartbreaking for girls that have been dressing and travelling with us the entire year.”
LSU had five players represented Thursday on the release of the NFCA All-South Region team.
That group included some of the team’s most consistent players this season in senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews (.365, 2 HRs, 19 RBIs, 26 stolen bases), freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants (.314, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs), senior third baseman Amanda Doyle (.277, 8 HRs, 33 RBIs), sophomore pitcher Ali Kilponen (14-7, 1.77 ERA, 118.1 IP, 109 Ks) and Sunseri (9-6, 2.10 ERA, 106.2 IP, 74 Ks).
Freshman outfielder Ciara Briggs (.329, 4 HRs, 16 RBIs, 11 stolen bases) adds another dimension to the Tigers, both on offense and defense.
“Every game from here on out for us this season will be a best foot forward,” Torina said. “We’ll be going with our best 9-10 (players) for every game on out. If it takes one pitcher the whole way, it’s one pitcher, which I don’t think that’s who we are. If someone gets hot, we’re going to go with it. It’s the best that we have, that we’re throwing at them every game and every opportunity they’re going to see the best that we’ve got.”
Baton Rouge Regional Schedule (All Times CDT)
May 21 3 p.m. #4 McNeese vs. (7) #1 LSU (ESPNU)
May 21 5:30 p.m. #3 George Washington vs. #2 UL-Lafayette (ESPN3)
May 22 2 p.m. G3: Winner G1 vs. Winner G2
May 22 4:30 p.m. G4: Loser G1 vs. Loser G2 Elimination Game
May 22 7 p.m. G5: Loser G3 vs. Winner G4 Elimination Game
May 23 1 p.m. G6: Winner G3 vs. Winner G5 Championship Round
May 23 3:30 p.m. (if nec.) G7: Winner G6 vs. Loser G6 Championship Round
Winner Advances to Super Regional (vs. Tallahassee Regional Winner)