The Central Connecticut State softball team was thrown a curve Friday night in the Blue Devils’ opening game of the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional at LSU’s Tiger Park.
But it didn’t come from LSU All-American Rachele Fico, a Connecticut native. It came from Tigers coach Beth Torina, a standout college pitcher in her own right, in the form of junior Ashley Czechner.
Torina opted to keep her ace in reserve, then sent Czechner out to the circle and watched her nearly double her career high with 15 strikeouts while allowing just three hits in top-seeded LSU’s 3-2 win against No. 4 seed Central Connecticut State before 1,432 fans.
LSU (41-14) advanced to a noon matchup Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette (44-13), with the winner earning a spot in the championship game Sunday. ULL opened the regional earlier Friday with a 3-0 shutout of Northwestern State.
CCSU (35-14) will take on Northwestern State (40-14) in an elimination game at 3 p.m. At 6, the winner of that game will play the loser of Saturday’s first game.
While it wasn’t easy, 10th-ranked LSU survived thanks to Czechner’s impressive performance and a two-out, run-scoring single by second baseman Allison Falcon in the bottom of the fifth that proved to be the winner.
“Ultimately, we’re glad we’re walking away with the win … that’s most important,” said Torina, whose team snapped a three-game losing streak. “At this point in the tournament, everybody is a quality opponent.”
LSU learned that pretty early Friday.
After scoring twice in the bottom of the first inning on back-to-back errors by Central Connecticut State, which is making its first NCAA tournament appearance, the Blue Devils settled down and tied the game with single runs in the second and third innings.
LSU got its first run when Jacee Blades tried to sacrifice A.J. Andrews, who singled to open the bottom of the first. But CCSU pitcher Laura Messina threw the ball away, and Andrews easily scored from first. Then Blades came home when Bianka Bell hit a sharp grounder that shortstop Eileen Purcell misplayed.
After striking out the first five batters she faced, Czechner ran into a little trouble in the second when Evie Rentzel dropped down a bunt and raced around the bases when Czechner threw wildly to first.
After three consecutive strikeouts, which tied her previous career high of eight, Czechner gave up a solo home run to Arielle Bruno in the third to tie the score.
“At first, I was pitching pretty well, and then I had a rough couple of innings with the error and home run,” said Czechner, who improved to 11-1. “After that, I settled down and calmed back down and focused on throwing strikes and getting strikeouts.”
Czechner went the distance with 87 strikes among her 126 pitches. She fired 19 first-pitch strikes to the 26 batters she faced.
“She’s a great pitcher. She has only one loss on the year with wins against Alabama and Missouri,” Torina said. “She’s capable of doing that, and I felt confident in her and felt that it was a good matchup with Central Connecticut.
“We don’t just have a one-pitcher staff. So hopefully, we’re in a better spot (Saturday) because we have a fresh Rachele Fico.”
“We were expecting Fico,” Bruno said, “but it didn’t matter.”
The Tigers got the winning run in the fifth when Andrews led off with a hit off the leg of Messina (27-10). Blades sacrificed Andrews to second, and Bell fouled out before Falcon laced a single into left-center to send home Andrews.
“A.J. and Jacee do a great job getting on and getting each other over into scoring position,” Falcon said. “So I know that when I get up to bat, I always have a job to do. I was really excited to get a chance to do that job tonight.”