A long road swing is mercifully coming to an end for the No. 12 LSU softball team, and with it comes the beginning of Southeastern Conference play.
The Tigers (17-4) end a 13-game coast-to-coast road trip this weekend when they travel to Starkville, Miss., to face Mississippi State (15-4).
LSU has won seven of 10 games so far on the road trip, the only losses coming against the 10th-, 15th- and 16th-ranked teams in the country. This weekend will mark the third time zone the Tigers have played in since late February.
“I don’t know that (traveling so much) helps us,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “We understand how to travel but it has been a long trip. Even when we weren’t on the road, this month has been a grind.”
What does help, Torina said, is preparing for just one opponent for the duration of the weekend rather than three or four other teams.
“Playing one opponent is going to be a chance for us to breathe,” Torina said. “Not having to prepare for so many different things, different pitchers, different looks. It’ll be nice to allow them to focus more.”
Though she’s only a freshman, this won’t be infielder Bianka Bell’s first trip to Starkville.
Her sister, Briana, is a hot-hitting outfielder for the Bulldogs, and her oldest sister, Brittany, played at Mississippi State from 2008-12.
Bell said she started the obligatory family trash-talking early in the week, sending her sister a text warning her not to rest on her off day. She said her parents plan on attending the game.
“They’re trying to split the house,” Bell said. “They’re going to be wearing half LSU and half Mississippi State (clothing). But they’re probably going to (cheer) more for me because I’m the favorite child.”
Winners of nine straight, the Bulldogs should present a challenge for the Tigers, both from the plate and the circle.
Powerful junior sluggers in Sam Lenahan and Logan Foulks join Briana Bell to form a trio of tough outs at the plate.
Each is hitting better than .350 on the season, with Lenahan pacing the club with a .383 batting average and 18 RBIs.
The three have combined for 12 of Mississippi State’s 17 home runs this season, with Lenahan and Foulks accounting for five apiece.
Junior-college transfer Allison Owen (9-1) has taken care of business in the circle. She’s earned SEC pitcher of the week honors for the last two weeks, totaling a 0.44 ERA with 93 strikeouts against only two walks this season.
Opposing batters have managed a .092 batting average against Owen in 2013.
Senior southpaws Kylie Vry (1-2, 0.91 ERA) and Stephanie Becker (4-1, 3.05) round out the Bulldogs’ rotation.
LSU has its own group of players off to a fast start. Sophomore A.J. Andrews and junior Jacee Blades have each tallied a .377 batting average at the top of LSU’s order, and junior Allison Falcon has consistently knocked them home.
Falcon leads the team with a .409 batting average and 16 RBI this season.
The Tigers are coming off a semi-disappointing weekend at the Diamond-9 Citrus Classic.
Though LSU emerged from the weekend with a winning record (3-2), the team didn’t play up to the standards it set early in the season — particularly on defense.
The Tigers gave up five or more runs in each of their five contests. They’d only given up five or more one time in their previous 16 games.
“The pitchers pitched well enough for us to win all the games, but we couldn’t make the easy plays,” Bianka Bell said. “We’d prolong innings and it just looked really bad.”
Torina is confident her team left last weekend behind, however.
“We definitely encountered some adversity in Orlando,” Torina said. “But I feel like we have a good plan of action and all the girls understand something specific that they’re going to focus on this week.”