When LSU plays Auburn in its opening game in the Women’s College World Series on Thursday, it will have been 31 days since the Tigers played a game anywhere other than Tiger Park.
But LSU is headed to the only place it would rather play than Tiger Park — ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, where it will try to win the program’s first national championship.
“It has been an amazing three weeks for this team,” coach Beth Torina said. “I feel like starting back in the fall this team was on a mission. They worked so hard, and they truly earned this moment.”
The Tigers have had ups and downs since they last played away from home, run-ruling Missouri 9-0 in five innings April 27 to avoid a series sweep.
The following weekend, they hosted Auburn in the final series of the regular season. LSU entered the weekend still alive for the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship but, after losing the first two games, it needed a win in the finale to hang on to the fourth and final bye in the SEC tournament, which began three days later at Tiger Park.
The Tigers got that bye with a 7-1 victory, but their stay in the tournament lasted just one game: Tennessee beat them 7-5 in the quarterfinals.
LSU split its first two games in the Baton Rouge regional two weeks ago, then won three straight elimination games — one against Nebraska and two against Arizona State — to host a super regional for the first time.
This past weekend was the smoothest LSU has had since it swept a series against Ole Miss on April 3 and 4. It swept Arizona 8-0 in five innings and 10-5 to return to the WCWS for the first time since 2012.
“I think our kids have a great mentality right now,” Torina said. “I think they’re really confident. I think they’ve learned in the last few weeks how to fight through some adversity, and I think they understand what they’re capable of.”
The Tigers (50-12) were 38-5 at Tiger Park, 7-7 on the road and 5-0 at neutral sites.
Though they will be playing in unfamiliar surroundings, they will be surrounded by familiar faces. Their side of the bracket is a mini-SEC tournament.
In addition to the rematch with Auburn, which won the SEC tournament, they will have a rematch in their second game, no matter what happens Thursday.
The winner of the LSU-Auburn game will play the winner of Thursday’s opener between Florida and Tennessee on Friday, and the losers of those openers will meet Saturday in an elimination game.
Although the Tigers lost to Tennessee in the SEC tournament, they won two of three games against the Volunteers on April 10-12 in Knoxville. LSU won two of three against Florida, the defending WCWS champion and the SEC regular-season champion, March 13-15 in Gainesville.
“I don’t know if you can feel confident against anybody from the SEC,” Torina said. “They’re all so talented. But it’s so exciting to see how strong our league is and see the representation in the College World Series. It really shows the gauntlet that this team has gone through, especially in the last few weeks. They’ve played a who’s who list.”
That final road game at Missouri started a hot hitting streak for first baseman Sandra Simmons, who was named MVP of the super regional after driving in one run Saturday and five Sunday.
The streak started when she was 2-for-3 and drove in three runs against Missouri. During the past 13 games, she has batted .514 with 15 RBIs in just 37 at-bats, a run-producing rate more than double what she had prior to the streak. She was batting .294 before this run.
“She’s had great at-bats all season,” Torina said. “She’s continued to get better and better as the season went on. She’s been a huge role player for us down the stretch.”
Only three Tigers — seniors A.J. Andrews, Dylan Supak and Kaylie McCasland — have played in the WCWS, so the rest of them might want to heed the advice that Torina gave freshman Allie Walljasper during a visit to the circle during a two-run Arizona rally in the first inning Sunday.
“She just said to settle down,” Walljasper said, “make sure I got my nerves down and to act like I’ve been here before.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.