LSU softball coach Beth Torina agreed winning the first game in Sunday’s NCAA Regional championship against UL-Lafayette would have made life so much simpler.
But that’s not how this year’s Tigers team has rolled, rebounding to win five series after dropping the opening game.
“Would it have been easier to win one, sure it would, but somehow that doesn’t work out for us,” Torina said after her team’s 8-5 victory in the winner-take-all game to clinch the Baton Rouge Regional before a Tiger Park crowd of 2,285. “It’s awesome in hindsight. We would have loved to win the first game, but the lesson learned by our team is so valuable. I think our team just does hard things and does them well.”
LSU (35-20), which has won its last four ‘if necessary’ NCAA regional games, now hosts No. 10 Florida State in the Super Regionals where the best-of-3 series begins at 6 p.m. Thursday. It marks the second time in nine Super Regionals the Tigers will host and the first since 2015.
But they got there the hard way.
In Sunday’s first game, LSU, the nation’s No. 7 overall seed, was shut out 2-0 by the Ragin’ Cajuns before overcoming a one-run deficit in the first inning of the second game behind Georgia Clark’s two-run single. Winning pitcher Ali Kilponen threw her second complete game of the day to help the Tigers to advance to their sixth straight NCAA Super Regional.
“We’ve been here too often, and our kids just seem to excel,” said Torina, whose team outhit the Ragin’ Cajuns 9-6 with a pair of homers. “They understand how to fight and battle and have no quit in them. They’re not afraid of this moment either.”
In the opener, LSU was shutout for only the fourth time this season when it was blanked on three hits by UL-Lafayette’s Kandra Lamb, a 6-foot-2 right-hander from Australia.
But in the mid-afternoon rematch with Clark equaling a school record with five RBIs in a NCAA tournament game, the Tigers knocked Lamb (17-5) out in the third inning after taking a 3-1 lead on five hits. They continued their success and established a 7-1 advantage against UL-Lafayette’s ace Summer Ellyson after four-run fifth inning which Clark capped with a three-run homer.
“Going into that at bat, I just missed a rise ball and I knew the change-up was coming,” Clark said of her two-run single off Lamb in the first. “As soon as I saw it get big, I threw my hands right there and tried to knock it right back up the middle.”
In much the same manner when LSU opened Saturday’s game against UL-Lafayette, Aliyah Andrews (2-for-3) and Ciara Briggs (3 for 4) each registered infield singles. Following a sacrifice by Taylor Pleasants and pop-up from Amanda Doyle, Clark gave the Tigers the lead back for good at 2-1 with a two-run single up the middle on a full-count change-up.
It was just the start of a memorable day for Clark (2 of 2), who became just the third player in program history to drive in five runs in an NCAA tournament game, joining Sandra Simmons and Rachel Mitchell.
“She came up to me after the first game and said she had me the second game,” Kilponen said of Clark. “She got that hit and looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got you, I told you I’ve got you’. She’s just an amazing player and I’m glad that I don’t have to face her.”
Pleasants may have picked up the impetus for her plate appearance in the bottom of the third where she appeared to object to a slide at second base on a force out by Jade Gortarez in the top half of the inning.
She stepped into the batter’s box following the first out of the frame and unloaded a solo homer on a 1-0 pitch to right-center field – her team-leading 12th of the season – that went several rows up in the stands for a 3-1 LSU lead.
Two batters later, following a walk to Clark, Lamb (17-5) exited after allowing three runs on five hits in 2.2 innings in favor of Ellyson who closed out the inning.
LSU continued its offensive onslaught in the fifth against Ellyson, who didn’t make it out of the first inning in Saturday’s 10-3 loss to the Tigers.
LSU loaded the bases with walks to Andrews and Pleasants and an infield single to Briggs, when Doyle sent what turned into a sacrifice fly to shallow right where the speedy Andrews scored to make it 4-1.
Clark worked the count full against Ellyson and then provided her team with the separation it needed with her three-run homer to right-center field.
“Having that opportunity to see them a second and a third game essentially, we did really well with what we wanted to do in the game plan,” Clark said.
UL-Lafayette closed the Tigers’ lead to 7-3 on a two-run sixth-inning homer from pinch-hitter Bailey Curry and added two more in the seventh when Kilponen settled down to get a ground ball to second baseman Taylor Tidwell – her eighth assist of the game – for the final out.
Kilponen (15-8) allowed five runs (four earned) on six hits, struck out five and walked four. After completing the opening game in 75 pitches, she wound up throwing 127 in the clincher and 202 in the doubleheader.
Kilponen’s best work, though, came in the first inning when she allowed a lead-off homer to Ciara Bryan. Then she issued a walk, watched right fielder Taryn Antoine muff a fly ball and then walked two more batters that eventually loaded the bases.
In between, LSU’s Morgan Cummins became the first catcher this season to throw out UL-Lafayette’s Kaitlyn Alderink in 16 steal attempts, recording the second out on a well-timed throw to a diving shortstop Pleasants who was covering third base. Kilponen’s high-wire act ended with a strikeout of Kendall Talley staring at a change-up.
“I wondered how we even pulled that off,” Torina said. “I have no idea how we did. You have some kids make some great defensive plays. You talk to the team and there’s nothing really pretty about the game. Who cares? It was good enough. Was it pretty? No. We don’t care. We’re playing next week and we’re one of 16 teams left.”