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Analytics, statistics and game tape make it clear. Or you can just have LSU head coach Beth Torina sum it up more succinctly: “We can pitch.”
Yes they can.
The Tigers return everyone from a staff that had a nation-leading ERA of 0.95 in 148.0 innings pitched last season. LSU limited opponents to a .156 batting average.
The fearsome foursome of senior right-hander Maribeth Gorsuch, junior right-hander Shelbi Sunseri and sophomore right-handers Ali Kilponen and Shelby Wickersham all had an ERA ranked top 35 in the country.
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Kilponen was 6-1 with a 0.58 ERA, 49 strikeouts and 15 walks in 36.0 IP. Gorsuch was 4-1 with a 1.15 ERA, 42 strikeouts and seven walks in 36.2 IP. Wickersham was 5-1 with a 0.40 ERA, 31 strikeouts and 10 walks in 35.1 IP, and Sunseri was 6-0 with a 1.20 ERA, 26 strikeouts and eight walks in 35.0 IP
“I don’t know if we have anyone that is just an ace. But when you put them all together as a group, they are very, very special,” Torina said. “They complement each other, and it’s really tough for people to prepare. I think our greatest strength is in our depth more than in any one person we have on this staff.”
LSU was 21-3 when the 2020 season was cut short because of the coronavirus. Although the offense was extremely productive, the pitching staff had more to prove to outsiders.
“I think there were a lot of question marks about them last season about how they would step up and who would be the one to fill some voids still left from the Hoover and Walljasper era,” Torina said. “But I am glad we stayed the course with kids that have grown in our program and we didn’t look elsewhere. I think they have benefitted from being a part of the program for multiple years and learning and growing. I am excited about what they are capable of.”
Part of what makes the formula work is the staff’s strong chemistry. There is no jealousy about the amount of innings pitched or attention given to any one pitcher.
“They have a really special dynamic amongst them. They are just teammates and they cheer for each other and pull for each other. It is not selfish,” Torina said. “They are competitive, but they still understand you are on their team and the success you earn means the team has success. It’s created this really cool feeling in the bullpen of encouraging and cheering for the person on the mound next to you when she throws a great pitch. They encourage that growth and praise it rather than feeling they need to beat that.”
The Tigers welcomed nine freshmen to the program this year, boosting the roster size to 30 because of the 2020 seniors that were given an extra year of eligibility and decided to return.
It means some freshmen may not be in the same roles they envisioned when signing with the program.
“The first year is going to be different than they initially expected. They are still out there competing and pushing. They may still earn spots initially thought to be open,” Torina said. “But they are pushing the people that returned, and I think they still have chances to be on the field. It’s really up to them and their work and their buy in and how they can really get in touch with our system and learn it and embrace it and move forward in it.”
Right-handed pitcher Morgan Smith was an Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year nominee at Pinnacle High in Phoenix. She was 15-0 in the circle as a junior with 187 strikeouts and hit .503 through her final two prep seasons.
“We have all really liked what we’ve seen from Morgan,” Torina said. “She is a two-way player that can do so many things.”
Danieca Coffey, an infielder from Texas, led her high school team to a state championship as a junior, batting .430 with 35 RBIs.
“She is a really dynamic offensive player,” Torina said. “She can beat out a bunt and hit it over the fence.”
Ali Newland batted .567 with 16 home runs and 45 RBIs as a senior at Bremen Hall in Georgia.
“She is a kid that can do a lot of different things,” Torina said. “She is very intelligent and can catch, play outfield, play infield. She is just very valuable to us as a utility player.”
The Tigers batted .344 as a team in 2020 with 200 hits, 172 runs and 155 RBIs in 24 games.
Shortstop Taylor Pleasants didn’t wait long to break out as a freshman, batting .383 with four home runs, 21 RBIs and 23 runs scored. The 6-foot Houston native’s first college home run was a walk-off to beat then-No. 13 Oklahoma State.
“I would put her up against any player in the country. She is extremely special,” Torina said. “I can’t say enough about her. She gets it on every level. She is the first to the field, she is extremely intelligent in the classroom and is a great human being.”
Sophomore first baseman Georgia Clark batted a team-leading .429 with four home runs, five doubles and 19 RBIs.
Senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews hit .408 with three doubles, two triples and 24 runs scored. The Florida native stole 18 bases in 19 attempts to move into second place all-time at LSU( 118).
Sophomore catcher Morgan Cummins batted .400 with seven doubles, four home runs and 21 RBIs.
Sunseri batted .328 with five doubles and 18 RBIs. Freshman outfielder Ciara Briggs batted .393 and senior third baseman Amanda Doyle drove in 14 runs.
“They are all working and growing. Some of them may not have had outcomes that stand out this fall, but they are trying to grow and stay in the process of working on something,” Torina said. “They are not trying to win a national championship this fall. They are trying to win it in June.”
Sophomore second baseman Taylor Tidwell has returned to the field strong after batting .351 with three home runs, four doubles and 14 RBIs in 37 at-bats last season.
“Hands down, without a doubt she’s had a great fall,” Torina said. “She was a little streaky last year, but she has really worked and she has been an outstanding leader. No question about it.”
Some situations require a calm and collected voice. Other moments need energy and hype. LSU has players for all roles.
“We have a lot of people in a lot of different roles when it comes to leadership. There is not one person necessarily filling every gap to lead,” Torina said. “Players have different strengths that they bring.”
One player Torina knows can provide a reasoned perspective is Doyle.
“She is as consistent as any player I’ve ever had,” Torina said. “She is level-headed and keeps us grounded.”
LSU’s team motto this year is “Make It Count.”
From the Covid reminder of not taking anything for granted to the motivation to always improve, the motto was selected for many different reasons.
The Tigers have put leaders up on the scoreboard in the stadium each day, ranking players 1-30 in categories like fielding percentage, quality at-bats, etc.
“We are trying to measure everything we do and grade things and score things,” Torina said. “It has been interesting to show them areas they are doing well and some areas they need to improve. It’s just been a fun and different way to look at it.”