Bianka Bell insists there is no rivalry. Sahvanna Jaquish begs to differ.
The pair of LSU softball sluggers claimed the top two spots in the school’s single-season home run column last year, with Bell’s 18 homers edging Jaquish’s total by only one. After Jaquish initially broke the record with 17 in 2014, she and Bell spent all last season jockeying for the team lead and the high mark.
Coach Beth Torina said they’re both striving to lead the team in homers, and Jaquish characterized her relationship with Bell as a “friendly rivalry.” Rivals or not, their race to the top of the record book embodies the internal competition Torina hopes to see from her team this season.
“Some good advice I got as a coach once is to make sure we’re constantly competing, always competing within ourselves and who we play,” Torina said last week. “I think that’s going to make us better in the long run.”
No. 3 LSU hopes to make the long run all the way back to the Women’s College World Series, where it finished third last season to cap a breakout campaign. The 2015 squad shattered numerous school records — Jaquish and Bell snagged their fair share — but the Tigers want to leave the past behind them, starting against Ohio State on Friday evening.
A year after playing the second-hardest schedule in the nation, LSU is in for more of the same.
The Tigers will face nine opponents ranked in USA Today’s preseason Top 25, drawing weekend series against four ranked Southeastern Conference opponents and No. 20 Washington. Even the Buckeyes, whom LSU will host at 5 p.m. in Tiger Park, got votes in the preseason poll.
But Torina doesn’t have much cause for concern.
She brings back three pitchers, two of whom were All-Americans last year, to a staff strengthened by the addition of coveted recruit Sydney Smith. On offense, seven everyday starters and a host of key reserves return from the highest-scoring squad in school history.
The Tigers drove in 428 runs during their historic 2015 season, thanks in part to Bell and Jaquish’s home run rivalry.
“We’re definitely both on the opposite side of the spectrum of hitting,” Jaquish said. “But we complement each other in a really good way. She can hit pitches that I can’t and I can hit pitches that she can’t, which is really great for our team.”
Bell said she and Jaquish aren’t competing as much as they’re pushing each other as players and leaders. Torina and Jaquish agreed, but both maintained a rivalry exists.
“As much as those two pull for each other, I think they’re always trying to be the one that has the most (home runs) as well,” Torina said. “They may not admit that, but I think it’s a true statement.”
There’s another competition raging only 43 feet away from the Tiger Park batter’s box.
Torina spoke of the relationship between sophomore pitchers Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper much like that of Bell and Jaquish. After Hoover and Walljasper combined for 34 of LSU’s 52 wins as freshmen, Torina praised their ability and willingness to play off each other’s strengths.
“They understand that they’re better because of each other. ... I think it’s pretty genuine that they understand that they are each other’s biggest asset on this team,” Torina said. “It’s really cool for me as a coach. I hope that’s something that kind of goes throughout our entire team.”
If that sentiment spreads, the Tigers could be in for another stellar season. They return more than 80 percent of last year’s hitting, defensive and pitching production, and they’re buoyed by a pair of fierce but friendly rivalries.
Though Torina enjoys the internal competition among her players, she said they’re ready to get the season started.
But that doesn’t mean the old rivalries will fade away.
“When (Bell) hits a home run, I get a little chip on my shoulder,” Jaquish said. “I feel like it’s the same way around. But we love each other.”