LSU’s long, winding road
Thrills, chills and spills all led resilient Tigers to WCWS
OKLAHOMA CITY – The script for Louisiana State’s season reads like a made-for-television movie. However, the strength of characters involved in the plot makes for something much more significant than a less-than-stellar two hours of television.
The story opens with the end of an era.
After the 2010-11 campaign, Hall of Fame coach Yvette Girouard announced her retirement after 1,285 career victories, 11 years leading the Tigers. Her first team, in 2001, advanced to the Women’s College World Series. LSU returned again in 2004; and three times, including 2011, advanced to NCAA Super Regionals.
|WOMEN'S COLLEGE WORLD SERIES|
June 1 Highlights
Alabama 2, Arizona State 1
Oklahoma 3, California 0
Getting to Know
• LSU | UC | USF | OU | UO | ASU | UT | UA
• Two better than one for Bears
• How a Kiwi changed the Ducks
• Bulls following plan to the letter
• Previewing the Women's College World Series
The next scene features another star.
Patrick Murphy, who built a softball juggernaut at Southeastern Conference rival Alabama, was set to change zip codes after accepting the job in Baton Rouge. But three days after agreeing to lead LSU, three weeks after Girouard’s retirement, Murphy decided to stay in Tuscaloosa.
“I just broke down. I couldn’t believe the promises he made to us personally, the promises he made to all our fans,” LSU pitcher Brittany Mack told The Advocate’s Scott Hotard last June. “It came right back up in our faces. It was hard. All the seniors started calling each other thinking what are we going to do now and who’s going to want us?”
A young and rising star then took center stage.
Beth Torina finished her collegiate career at Florida with a pair of 20-win seasons in the circle. Just a decade after entering the coaching ranks, at 32, Torina became the youngest softball coach in SEC history on June 22, 2011, when she was announced as Girouard’s successor. Previously, Torina was on the staffs at Stetson and Houston. From 2008-11 she was head coach at Florida International, leading the program to its first NCAA appearance in 2010.
Circumstances change all the time. Of course, there were bitter feelings at first. But those around the program quickly accepted Torina, who, obviously, became the “right one for the job.” Murphy addressed the topic briefly during Wednesday’s press conference, congratulating LSU for their run to the WCWS.
The cupboard in Baton Rouge was hardly bare, leaving a nice supporting cast for a first-year coach to work with.
Mack, a 2011 All-American from Round Rock, Texas, was one of eight returning seniors. Her off-the-field relationship with Baton Rouge’s Miracle League Association at Cypress Mounds, a group that helps special needs children, has made her a community favorite.
Another of those seniors, Californian Juliana Santos, knows a thing or two about plot twists.
As an 11-year-old she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Doctors removed a foot of intestines and a “softball-sized” benign tumor soon after her diagnosis. In February 2011 Santos had another surgery. Taking medications has become as commonplace as fielding grounders for the shortstop. A team captain, she is the first to wear the ‘C’ on her uniform.
Katie Guillory, a senior outfielder from Lafayette, La., never got a chance to contribute – on the field – this season. In February she tore her ACL. A leader in the dugout, Guillory is also a fan favorite with her ‘Who Wants to be a Gullionaire’ promotion at home games which includes some LSU trivia and a prize.
Senior Heidi Pizer, from Oregon, has provided more fun, creating the “Rally Phone” at the SEC Tournament and the “Rally Cone” at Regionals. Any item in the LSU dugout, at any moment, might provide a prop for a rally.
Another rising star, Allison Falcon, missed the entire 2011 season thanks to an ankle injury. The Donaldsonville, La., native has come back as a sophomore to hit .252 in 50 games while playing a strong second base.
Ten states are represented on a very diverse LSU roster.
The opening scene of the 2012 movie was anything but smooth. Rain delays, cold weather, and a Penn State rally saw an 0-1 start. Michigan put the Tigers at 0-2. March opened with three losses in four games. The month of May began with four consecutive losses, the fourth coming to Florida for a quick exit at the SEC Tournament.
But the plot changed yet again with four consecutive regional road victories and two wins in three tries against Missouri in Columbia.
On Thursday, the opening day of the 2012 Women’s College World Series, Torina went with one-half of her one-two punch, junior right-hander Rachele Fico, who teamed with Mack to pitch every inning for the Tigers this spring.
A team which entered the week hitting just .221, lowest among the WCWS participants, facing one of the nation’s top hurlers in Jolene Henderson (36-2), and with the motto of “Whatever it Takes,” almost got it done against the top-seeded California Bears.
Falcon led off the second with a single and eventually scored on Morgan Russell’s two-run single. Fico battled, striking out six in 5.1 innings, but the Bears rallied to tie it in the fifth. A three-run sixth put the top seed up for good and sent LSU into an elimination contest against South Florida on Saturday morning.
Facing adversity is nothing new for the Tigers; they’ve been through too much to cash in their chips just yet.
“Our players have done a great job of focusing on being selfless,” Torina said. “They’ve been about doing things for one another.”
With their backs against the wall, with the favored Tigers of Missouri ready for the knockout blow in a best-of-three Super Regional one weekend ago, Simone Heyward, a light-hitting sophomore, cracked a three-run double to spark a 3-1 win and a starring role in the final eight.
“We’ve been in this situation before, having to come back to win a game,” Santos said. “There isn’t going to be any panic with this team.”
LSU, now 39-24, faces South Florida, which lost to Oklahoma in its opening-round contest. Like California, the Bulls will throw quality at LSU -- sophomore lefty Sara Nevins entered the WCWS with a 1.03 ERA.
“I’m actually really glad we have the [day off], honestly, because we’re facing a very different type of pitcher,” Torina said after Thursday’s loss. “I think [LSU] functions much better when we feel we have a plan, and we have some time to prepare and do that.”
Will LSU’s movie continue Saturday? Will the Tigers’ wide array of talented characters find a way to extend the season?
“These kids have so much heart, so much fight and enjoy the game so much,” Torina said Wednesday. “I know why we’re here goes way beyond talent and ability and all those things. I think we’re in the top eight in the country in heart and desire and want for it, and we have eight seniors who didn’t want it to end. I know in my heart why we’re here is the desire of these kids more than the ability.
“Not saying we’re not talented, but I think if you’re measuring teams with heart, we’re in the top eight. And they’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
The next chapter of LSU’s season begins at noon ET Saturday.