LSU softball coach Beth Torina decided to tap into the best source she knew when it came time to pick the brain of someone adept in the art of winning SEC tournament championships.
Torina said she took LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri to lunch in search of advice the Tigers veteran baseball coach could share on what he believed it took to succeed in the SEC tournament.
It’s a subject Mainieri’s previously mastered with six postseason tournament titles, including five in a seven-year span, while Torina’s still in search of her first in her 10th season. She has taken the softball program to a pair of SEC tournament finals in 2016 and 2017 but was unable to break through in losses to Auburn and Florida, respectively.
“Coach Mainieri’s teams have had so much success in the SEC tournament,” Torina said. “I said tell me your secret. How do you win this tournament or play so deep into this tournament? He’s like, ‘Just try to win one game’.”
It’s a mindset Torina said her team has adopted when fifth-seeded LSU (31-18) meets 13th seeded South Carolina (26-25), a 3-1 winner over Auburn, at approximately 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the first round of the single-elimination SEC tournament at the University of Alabama’s Rhoads Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
The game will be televised by the SEC Network and broadcast locally by 107.3 FM.
“We talk all the time with the kids about trying to win the first pitch,” Torina said. “Try to win the moment, a one pitch a time mentality.”
LSU is tied for the all-time lead in SEC tournament titles, winning four of its first five in the initial eight years of the event and adding another in 2007.
The Tigers, who are tied with Alabama and Florida with five tournament crowns, have not won the event since 2007 and were back-to-back runners-up in ’17 and ’16 under Torina.
LSU is the winningest SEC program with 43 tournament wins and in winning percentage (.652). The Tigers, who won four titles under Hall of Fame coach Yvette Girouard, have also made the most appearances in the finals (11) and have the most runners-up (6) finishes.
“I think the tournament has changed in the way people view it in the last few years since we started getting all 13 teams in,” Torina said. “We all want to win. We wouldn’t go there if we didn’t want to win. Some people approach it differently.
“It’s also an absolute gauntlet. You have to really get some breaks. It’s a real challenging place, you have to get some breaks, you have to get some luck. You have to have a deep pitching staff. We’ll go and have fun. We’re going to really just win game one. That’s the plan.”
Torina has watched her team that’s started six underclassmen most of the season mature throughout a challenge-filled year.
One such rising star is freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants (.327, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs), who was selected Tuesday by the SEC to its first team and Newcomer of the Year. Senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews (.368, 2 HRs, 19 RBIs, 26 stolen bases) was also a first team choice and member for the third straight year on the league’s all-defensive team.
Junior Shelbi Sunseri and freshman outfielder Ciara Briggs (.326, 4 HRs, 16 RBIs, 10 stolen bases) were also all-defensive team selections.
LSU competed against a schedule that’s the nation’s highest in strength of schedule since 2007. The Tigers also have the nation’s fifth-best RPI, compete in the nation’s highest-rated conference RPI wise and have the nation’s second-most Top 25 wins (15).
It’s all part of glistening resume the NCAA Selection Committee may look favorably upon when it unveils 16 host sites and 64-field team field Sunday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.
LSU was one of 20 schools that were part of the NCAA’s predetermined host sites that was announced in April.
“I feel great about our resume, I feel like we’ve done a lot of great things,” Torina said. “I like what we’re putting forward. I have no idea what they will value in a year like this. I hope what we’re putting forward is a very strong case for our team.”
There are few constants in LSU’s lineup such as Andrews, Sunseri, senior third baseman Amanda Doyle, sophomore outfielder Savannah Stewart and sophomore catcher Morgan Cummins that were part of the team the Tigers took to the 2019 SEC tournament where they lost to Florida, 3-0.
Andrews, Doyle and Sunseri were also starters on the ’18 team that went 1-1 in tournament play, making this year’s trip a new experience for the vast majority of the team’s roster.
“They’ve never been in the postseason, they’ve never been in the SEC tournament,” Torina said. “The nice thing about the SEC tournament is like it’s a warm-up for the next week. You feel that postseason pressure without it actually being, ‘our season could end Sunday feeling’. This is like a free shot at that postseason feeling.
“Our team has had some trouble when they’ve been in these spots before. People think we look flat, but they just want it too much. They want to win that bad. They work so hard. I probably haven’t had a team that collectively works as hard as this group. They get themselves in a spot where they want things too much. I think it’s going to interesting as it is always when you have young kids. You just never know what you’re going to get. Hopefully, we can talk them through, walk them through it and the seniors can lead the way.”