After opening Southeastern Conference play against the No. 6 Alabama and No. 11 Texas A&M, the LSU softball team goes even higher in the rankings this weekend.
The seventh-ranked Tigers (26-5, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) play No. 1-ranked and two-time reigning Women’s College World Series champion Florida (30-1, 5-1) in a three-game series at Tiger Park, beginning with a doubleheader at 4 p.m. Friday.
It won’t stop there.
The next two weekends bring No. 12 Georgia and No. 15 Kentucky teams, but first things first.
“Playing in the SEC is like a mini-World Series,” infielder Sahvanna Jaquish said.
Speaking of the WCWS, that’s where LSU and Florida last met when the Gators prevailed 4-0 last May in Oklahoma City. The Tigers won two of three in Gainesville, Florida, during the regular season.
“It’s crazy,” said LSU coach Beth Torina, an alumna of Florida. “You’re paddling just to stay afloat.”
The Tigers won two of three at home against Alabama to start SEC play, then lost two of three at Texas A&M last weekend. Torina noted that LSU’s league record is the same as Auburn, which is ranked third in the country. (By the way, Auburn is another SEC team LSU ran into in the WCWS as is Alabama.)
Torina said the Tigers beat themselves in two of their SEC losses.
“We definitely can play better,” she said.
LSU has the worst fielding percentage in the SEC (.950).
“It’s no secret right now that we need to sharpen up our defense a little,” catcher Kellsi Kloss said.
The Gators have the best fielding percentage (.986) in the country.
The Tigers made six errors and allowed six unearned runs in their loss to Alabama. They made an error in both of the losses at Texas A&M.
LSU also was hurt by uncharacteristic pitching against A&M.
Ace Carley Hoover (10-1, 2.31) allowed seven hits and six runs in taking the loss Friday. On Sunday, she relieved Allie Walljasper (4-3, 1.65), who gave up four runs in 1.2 innings after getting a complete-game victory Saturday. Hoover allowed five runs, four earned, in 4.1 innings of relief.
“She will tell you that she wasn’t as prepared as she would have liked to have been for last weekend,” Torina said. “She had a lot on her plate.”
Hoover, like her teammates, had an unusually heavy workload for class leading up to spring break, and the Tigers traveled to Ruston for a midweek game before they headed to Texas A&M.
“There were a couple of mechanical things where we tried to get out here this week and do better,” Torina said. “I think she will be more prepared this week. She’ll be ready to go.”
Hoover has a strong track record of bouncing back from rare subpar performances. The outings at A&M were two of just six in the sophomore’s 32 career starts in which she has allowed as many as four earned runs.
After allowing five runs in a loss at Florida last season, she rebounded with a two-hit shutout against No. 6 Oklahoma.
After allowing four earned runs in a loss at Missouri, she came back later in the series to throw a four-hit, five-inning shutout in a run-rule win.
Hoover allowed five earned runs in LSU’s season-ending loss to Michigan in the WCWS.
After allowing five earned runs in a win against UCLA on Feb. 21 she rebounded by allowing three runs in a complete-game win against Texas Tech.
“Those games (against A&M) are in the past, and that was a different opponent than we’re going to face this week,” Hoover said, “so I’m really just focused on who we’re playing next.”
Hoover went 1-2 with a 5.93 ERA in three appearances against Florida last season. Walljasper allowed five runs in three innings in her only appearance against the Gators.
Florida, which leads the country with an 0.87 team ERA, has a diverse rotation that features three 10-game winners in left-hander Delanie Gourley and right-handers Aleshia Ocasio and Kelly Barnhill.
“They have a lefty, they have a downball pitcher and they have an upball pitcher,” Torina said. “They’re all really, really good and I think trying to compete against all three of those in one weekend is going to be a huge challenge. We’ll have to come with three different game plans.”
The Gators also have what Kloss called “a crazy diverse lineup — no two batters are the same.”
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.