Whether starting or relieving, LSU softball pitcher Ali Kilponen seizes the challenge

LSU pitcher Ali Kilponen ran the gamut of emotions in two relief appearances in last weekend’s Southeastern Conference-opening series at Tennessee.

Kilponen inherited a runner in relief of starter Shelbi Sunseri who allowed the tying run in the sixth inning of Saturday’s doubleheader. She got three straight outs to end that inning, retired the Volunteers in order in the seventh and armed with a one-run lead in the eighth, got a game-ending double play to pick up the win in 2-1 victory.

Three hours later, Kilponen was summoned in the bottom of the sixth in relief of starter Maribeth Gorsuch and got the final two outs of the inning to preserve a 3-2 lead.

Tennessee tied the game in the seventh on a pair of hits and run-scoring groundout and won the game 4-3 an inning later on a lead-off homer in the eighth, one of the hazards Kilponen has learned in being a relief pitcher.

“I like them both,” Kilponen said of either role as a starter or relief pitcher. “I love having the ball in my hand. The relief situation is almost fun to go into because the pressure’s on. You don’t have time to think. You stick to your training.”

Three days later, Kilponen (4-2, 1.49 ERA, 42 Ks, 1 save) displayed her resiliency. She thrived in a starter’s role, going six innings to get the win in a 12-1 road victory over Southeastern Louisiana in what was the Tigers final preparation for this weekend’s SEC home opener against Texas A&M at Tiger Park.

No. 12 LSU (16-7, 2-1 in SEC) hosts the Aggies (18-3) in a three-game series that begins Saturday at 6 p.m. and continues Sunday at 5 p.m. and Monday at 6 p.m.

The weekend also commemorates the SEC’s ‘All for Alex’ campaign to honor former Mississippi State softball player Alex Wilcox who died in the summer of 2018 from ovarian cancer. The league’s 13 teams will wear teal jerseys or have teal accents as part of their uniform.

“It’s my favorite day of the year,” said LSU softball coach Beth Torina, whose mother Betty is an 11-year survivor of ovarian cancer. “Hands down it’s the most significant day we play all year. It’s a big day for the SEC and the fight against ovarian cancer.”

LSU exploded in Sunday’s finale with a 11-3 run-rule victory over Tennessee, a successful first step where the majority of the team’s starting lineup was getting their first taste of league play.

Now the question is, can the Tigers follow that up with a successful home series against a Texas A&M club that’s won eight straight after Thursday’s 5-1 road win at McNeese State.

“I do like how they’re continuing to grow,” Torina said of her teamn. “I do hope we continue to make it an uphill climb as we’re taking on each series. That would be the ideal situation, is that we’re still trying to find ourselves the entire length of the season so that we’re at our best when we get to the end.”

Philosophically, that’s the manner in which Torina recruited Kilponen out of Highlands Ranch, Colo. where the 6-foot right-hander experienced plenty of success at Valor Christian High. She led her school to three Class 4A state championships and another state runners-up finish, completing her sterling career with an 87-4 record and 556 strikeouts over her last two seasons.

Kilponen was a three-time All-State selection and three-time Colorado Pitcher of the Year but after decommitting her senior year, wound up attracting the attention of Torina and signing with LSU.

“She knew because I went to a small school I hadn’t had much coaching and still thought I could play for one of the top programs in the nation,” Kilponen said of Torina said. “That’s one of the things that stood out the most. That from day one, she believed in me.”

Kilponen considered herself more of a raw prospect, someone who didn’t benefit from some of the same resources as top pitchers with access to pitching coaches in more populated areas of the country.

That didn’t deter Torina who saw plenty of ability in Kilponen and ample tools to work with, beginning on a journey as freshman three years ago, one that showed signs of evolving during last year’s coronavirus-shortened season and again this year.

“We talked two years ago, and I said, `Your moment’s not now, your moment’s in two years’ and I think we’re seeing that developing and blossoming into something special,” Torina said. “She’s really worked hard and grown and is still not the pitcher she’s going to be. She’s still going to grow and throw harder. She’s going to keep blossoming and become one of the best of the best.”

Kilponen started in seven of 15 appearances in 2019, put together a 5-3 record with a 3.55 ERA and struck out 44 batters in 47 innings. A year ago, she emerged as one of LSU’s top pitchers with a 6-1 record, including a win over nationally ranked UL-Lafayette, and had a pair of saves and her 0.95 ERA was part of the Tigers nation’s-leading earned run average.

She had four complete games and two shutouts, highlighted by her role in a combined no-hitter along with Taylor Edwards and Victoria Abrams, earning the victory in the game in which she struck out five.

Kilponen’s role has varied again this year with five starts in 11 appearances. She is tied with Sunseri for the team lead with four wins with a pair of complete-game victories over Central Arkansas that featured a career-high 14 strikeouts and a 7-2 win in the series-clinching game against then seventh-ranked Texas.

“My freshman year was more of a building year, learning how to pitch, learning the mechanics, learning how to spin,” Kilponen said. “One of our first conversations (with Torina) was that it was going to take a couple of years to become the pitcher that I want to be. If that was being a starter or reliever, I was ready for both.”

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