Scott Rabalais: Softball season couldn’t have started any better for LSU _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU starting pitcher Carley Hoover pitches in the first inning against Ohio State during last Friday's season opener at Tiger Park.

Constance Quinn slid into second base Friday night, a bubble gum bubble leading the way.

If the LSU Tigers are feeling the pressure of colossal expectations — or were dismayed by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budgetary saber rattling — they certainly weren’t showing it.

No. 3-ranked LSU started the 2016 softball season with a pair of 9-0 run rule wins over an Ohio State team that was also getting votes in the national polls and North Florida.

For a Tigers team aiming to still be playing on the last day of the season, its first day couldn’t have started better.

LSU slogan in 2015 was “The Power of One.” The Tigers showed Ohio State and North Florida they have the power to be number one.

And the pitching.

And the overall hitting.

LSU returns five All-Americans from last year’s team that tied for third in the Women’s College World Series and goes into this season ranked only behind the teams that played in the championship final: two-time reigning champion Florida and Michigan.

With the floodlights gleaming off in the distance at Alex Box Stadium as the Tigers baseball team went through its one-week-to-go practice, it was a reminder over at Tiger Park that baseball-like expectations await the LSU team that plays here as well.

If there was pressure, it only served to propel the softball Tigers forward. LSU batted around en route to scoring five runs in the first inning against Ohio State on a mild and near-perfect night. What followed was a 4 1/2-inning mercy rule victory by a 9-0 count as starting pitcher Carley Hoover spun a two-hit shutout over five innings of work to help LSU conserve energy heading into Friday’s nightcap with North Florida, which featured a one-hit shutout by freshman Sydney Smith.

(Gov. Edwards’ minions send word he would appreciate more run-rule games to cut down on LSU’s light bill.)

LSU returns all but one starter in the field this season and both of its ace pitchers. No one returns more All-Americans, a list for LSU that includes perhaps the nation’s best power hitting duo in Sahvanna Jaquish batting third and Bianka Bell batting fourth (a change from 2015 when Jaquish hit clean up behind Bell all season). Jaquish and Bell may be the best power duo in the country, combining for 35 home runs last year.

Bell said at LSU’s softball media day she isn’t worried about bettering her numbers from a year ago.

“My only goal is to win the Women’s College World Series,” she said.

It’s something LSU has never done, and the Tigers will likely have to go through Florida to win both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA titles. But a season like last year which began with a 25-0 run and ended so close to the top puts LSU in a prime position in terms of confidence and experience.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the national championship,” said Jenna Kreamer, who launched a moon shot grand slam in the second inning against North Florida. “Our first inning (against Ohio State) it felt like we had 100 quality at bats in that inning. It shows all of our preparation.”

“We can match up through the lineup,” coach Beth Torina said. “That’s the biggeest strength of our team.”

The only question mark — and in terms of the constant change of college athletics it isn’t much of one — is who will be the permanent replacement for lone departed starter A.J. Andrews in center field. Emily Griggs, last year’s left fielder, started in center against Ohio State while freshman Amber Serrett earned an early tryout in left. Griggs returned to left against North Florida and sophomore Sydney Bourg moved in to center, flashing some leather with a diving line-drive catch in the third.

“I don’t think you could ever replace a player like A.J.,” Jaquish said. “She was the strongest leader on our team last season. But someone will step up.”

If they do, LSU could be blowing bubbles in Oklahoma City the last day of the season.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.