Opening day in any sport is always treated with an emotional sigh of relief accompanied by supercharged enthusiasm.
That goes double for 2021 teams who saw their seasons end almost a year ago.
That’s where the LSU softball team is as the seconds tick down toward the start of the 2021 season Thursday with a 5 p.m. clash against McNeese State at Tiger Park. It’s the first of five games this weekend of record-breaking anticipation.
“There’s always so much anxiety this week and it’s magnified so much after last year,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “Some of these girls haven’t been in a game in 11 months. We need this, we need to see some other colors out here at Tiger Park. We’ve scrimmaged each other 30 times someone told me, so we’re ready.”
Eleven months ago is when the COVID-19 pandemic put a screeching halt to the season LSU started 21-3. The Tigers enter as the nation’s highest-ranked Southeastern Conference team, No. 5, but also saddled with pandemic-related restrictions on habits as simple as home run celebrations and infield glove taps.
A 29-player roster bursting with talent will battle not only opposing teams but the protocols to prevent spread of the coronavirus and traverse it with as little disruption as possible.
“We’ll just have to navigate it day by day and see what the season holds,” sophomore pitcher Shelby Wickersham said. “We’ll do everything we can to stay the course and stay COVID free. We want to follow the rules because we want to play. We want to show what we’ve been working on since August.”
The Tigers have a lot to show. Every player returns plus a few talented enough that Torina will be forced to find a place for them to play. The pitching staff will go at least five deep. The lineup will have power, speed, defensive talent and experience.
“It’s a really tough job on who is going to play, who has earned the amount of time,” Torina said. “This year is even harder with the roster size. It’s tougher to decide.”
“I think this team has everything it takes, it can play defense, it’s a well-rounded offense with enough power in the middle of the lineup. There’s speed on both ends and throughout. I expect them to be capable in a lot of different ways: offensively, defensively and with pitching.”
Leading the way is three-year senior starter Aliyah Andrews, a preseason All-SEC pick and defensive stalwart who is closing in on the LSU career stolen bases record. Andrews batted .408, second on the team last year, and has a .402 career on-base percentage.
The corner outfield spots are the places where Torina has the most deciding to do. Savannah Stewart made the SEC All-Freshman team in 2019. Ciara Briggs won a spot in the shortened 2020 season by batting .393 and stealing nine bases in as many attempts. Her speed makes her a defensive asset.
Also in the running are senior Taryn Antoine and freshman Morgan Smith, whom Torina said will be hard to keep on the bench.
“That’s where the greatest amount of competition lies,” Torina said. “A lot of kids are pushing the envelope. You will not see a set outfield lineup any time soon, definitely not this weekend.”
The infield appears set with senior Amanda Doyle making a successful transition from first to third, the power-hitting Georgia Clark taking over at first and a pair of Taylors, Pleasants and Tidwell, at shortstop and second base, respectively.
Clark batted a team best .429 and tied for the team lead in homers with four. Tidwell got off to a good start and batted .351 before suffering a sliding injury and Doyle is the glue that holds it all together. Freshman Daniec Coffee is one of the newcomers who will get playing time at second and third.
Pleasants is a potential superstar. She stepped into perhaps the toughest position as a freshman and excelled from the start, matching Clark’s four homers and tying for the team lead in RBIs with 21 while batting .383. Her on-field ability may be surpassed by her desire to get better.
Torina said Pleasants seldom leaves Tiger Park, even participating in online classes in between swings in the cage or taking ground balls.
“You can barely come to Tiger Park and not find her somewhere, working and trying to find ways to get better,” Torina said. “She’s never satisfied with the spot she’s in. Defensively she’s increased her range. Offensively she’s continuing to gain confidence, cover the entire zone, be a tougher out and swing for more power than she already did. She wants to win the national championship, be the best player in the country, be on Team USA, do all kinds of things. She’s a special one. She can do all of it.”
Returning at catcher is Morgan Cummins, who last year tied for the home run and RBI lead and batted .400.
The most accomplished returning player is Shelbi Sunseri, who earned All-American honors in 2019 when she hit 17 home runs and had 60 RBIs in leading LSU to the Super Regionals. She’s also one of the team’s top pitchers after going 6-0 with a 1.20 earned run average last year.
She’s joined by senior leader Maribeth Gorsuch, who threw a perfect game last year and sophomores Wickersham and Ali Kilponen, whom Torina called the most improved pitcher on the team. Smith will split time between the outfield and the circle.