The LSU softball team is in an NCAA super regional for the second consecutive season, a place it expected to be throughout an up-and-down season.
James Madison is in a super regional for the first time in as it hosts the Tigers in a best-of-three series Friday and Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The winner advances to the Women’s College World Series beginning next week in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Game 1 is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday (ESPNU/107.3 FM).
While the Dukes and the whole Harrisonburg community are downright giddy about the home team’s history-making season, the Tigers are a little more matter of fact about things after having swept Arizona in a super regional last season at Tiger Park.
“You can’t beat experience,” said junior infielder Sahvanna Jaquish, one of 15 Tigers who were part of last year’s WCWS team. “We’ve been there before, and we’re ready to go back.”
Going back to the WCWS won’t be easy. Despite the lack of super regional experience, JMU (49-4) is the No. 7 national seed and dominated its regional last week, going 3-0 and outscoring its foes by a combined score of 22-2.
The Dukes are familiar with the level of competition LSU faces in the Southeastern Conference having beaten Auburn and Tennessee and lost to Alabama — three of the 11 SEC teams that made the NCAA tournament.
“We played a couple of SEC teams this year already,” Dukes junior infielder Madyson Moran said. “SEC schools battle and they fight, so we’re really excited to play another SEC team, especially like LSU.”
No. 10 seed LSU also swept its regional, showing its versatility as it won by a combined score of 16-3.
“We have a lot of arms so you have to prepare for a lot of things,” Tigers coach Beth Torina said. “We do a lot of different things offensively — we slap, we run, we also hit for some power — so I think we’re definitely the team nobody wants to get.”
They’ve also evolved into the team pollsters expected them to be when they voted LSU No. 3 in the preseason poll. The Tigers lost 11 of their first 16 Southeastern Conference games as they played a front-loaded schedule with all but one of those games coming against teams ranked in the top 16.
“We’re the deepest team that I’ve had in my coaching career,” Torina said. “I think understanding how to use our personnel took some time. I’m glad we took some lumps if that’s what you want to call it, I’m glad we went through it and found the right personnel and the right combination to be successful.”
The Tigers lost just one starting position player and neither of its top two pitchers from last season. They gradually found ways to squeeze two unusually talented and mature freshmen — shortstop Amber Serrett and right-handed pitcher Sydney Smith — into the lineup.
Though Smith (12-3, 0.92) likely will be behind sophomores Carley Hoover (20-7, 2.25) and Allie Walljasper (1.-5, 1.89) in the pecking order against JMU, Serrett has become an anchor at shortstop.
“Our freshman class is amazing,” Jaquish said. “They just came right in and made an impact.”
Torina said the freshmen — as well as the veterans — are well prepared for the super regional format after playing eight three-game SEC series.
“We’ve been in this environment a lot, and our kids are comfortable in it, they’ve succeeded in it and they understand how to perform in it as well as having been in the super regional last year,” Torina said. “Those are the things that are going to be huge keys for us — that we understand how to win in these moments.”
Torina admitted the Tigers “had some confidence issues” earlier in the season, especially when they were swept at home by Florida and Kentucky, scoring two runs against the Gators and none against the Wildcats. But she attributed much of the lull to the inevitable valleys against such a demanding schedule.
“I think this has been a great team since Day 1 of the fall,” Torina said. “I think we had our mentality kind of questioned (at) midseason.
“But if anybody lost faith in this team it was not me, it was not this staff, it was not ourselves. It was people outside the program that didn’t understand.”
Torina and several players have said the Tigers struggle when they play uptight, but down the stretch they’ve managed to stay loose and it has paid off with 18 wins in the past 20 games.
“We’ve learned to walk that fine line of relaxed but serious,” sophomore outfielder Emily Griggs said.
Whichever team — the experienced Tigers or the neophyte Dukes — can best walk that fine line for the next two days is most likely to headed to Oklahoma City.
“I think about my freshman year when I had to watch (the WCWS) on my couch,” Jaquish said. “I remember that feeling and you never want to have that feeling again.”
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.