EUNICE — LSU-Eunice softball coach Andy Lee says he wasn’t sure at the start of the season how his team would respond to playing in the formidable shadow as the one cast by last year’s national championship team.

Now that the regular season is over, Lee is surprised about the success of the Bengals, who are ranked No. 1 nationally and are the top seed in the NJCAA Region 23 Regional Tournament, which begins today at Jones (Miss.) Community College.

The Bengals open the tourney at 4 p.m. Thursday against Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (35-18). Other teams in the tourney are No. 2 seed Jones (46-2) and Pearl River Community College (27-18).

Jones is ranked No. 2 in the nation. The regional championship game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, with the top two teams qualifying for the May 14-17 national tournament in Clinton, Miss.

LSUE is 55-2, and the Bengals have lost both games by a combined two runs.

Lee said he wasn’t sure whether his team would have the season it has experienced thus far.

“I didn’t think we could top last year’s team, but they have had a great regular season. Sitting here at 55-2, I would have never thought that. I’m really proud of them.

“They have exceeded my expectations and a lot more,” Lee said Tuesday as he watched his team batter the outfield fence with long line drives during batting practice.

Lee said he has tried to create a softball program around defense and pitching, something that statistics indicate has been evident all season.

What he didn’t anticipate, Lee said, is the type of offense the Bengals have produced.

LSUE has hit 76 home runs and driven in 431 base runners.

Outfielder Emily Nolan has 15 homers, a school-record 84 RBIs and a .901 slugging percentage.

While the offense has averaged nearly nine runs per game, the pitching and defense haven’t diminished, said Lee.

Freshman pitchers Raven Cole and Destin Vicknair have combined for a 48-2 record with a combined 324 strikeouts. Cole has a 0.74 ERA, while Vicknair, who played at Reserve’s Riverside Academy, has a 0.80 ERA.

Defensively, LSUE has committed only four fielding errors all season.

Sophomore outfielder Ashley Suberville, the MVP of last year’s Junior College World Series, said there has been pressure this year meeting the expectations of a program with so much success.

“The standards here are pretty high, and seeing our record (the year) as it is right now is pretty crazy,” said Suberville, who played at Dutchtown. “As a sophomore, I know what it takes to get to this level and coming in we wanted to be the first time (at LSUE) to win a national championship two years in a row.”

Suberville said that approach impressed the freshmen, who participated in the fall program.

“Once they saw the (championship) rings, they wanted one too,” Suberville said.

Suberville said this year’s team has taken a different approach than last year’s national champion.

“Last year, we were kind of laid back. This year, we know what needs to be done. We all know what it takes,” Suberville said.

Like the rest of the positions, Lee said he perhaps misjudged the abilities of his two freshmen pitchers.

In addition to her pitching, Vicknair is also an offensive threat, batting .431 in 144 at-bats.

“Destin throws a lot of strikes, throws it hard and spins it well. She’s also one of our better hitters,” Lee said.

Lee said because Cole is hard to hit because of the speed of her pitches.

“She has great velocity and challenges the hitters often,” he said. “A lot of kids at this level can’t keep up with her pitches.”

While Cole features speed, Vicknair said she attacks batters with change ups, screwballs and curves.

Vicknair said it was a bit unnerving for her, becoming a starter on a team with an abundance of talent.

“I was definitely nervous about it,” Vicknair said. “I know what (the players) expected. I think they were also nervous about me. Now I feel as if they are confident.”