Czechner steps up for LSU rotation

When softball fans sporting the purple and gold gaze down at the mound in Tiger Park on Thursday night during the season opener, they will notice a different face manning the No. 1 spot in the LSU rotation.

For the past two seasons, pitcher Rachele Fico was the star of the program. She could be found in every crucial contest, and she was the workhorse for a squad that made both a College World Series and a regional appearance during her time at LSU.

The Oxford, Conn., native combined for 44 wins, 55 complete games and 453 strikeouts between 2012 and 2013. She finished as an NFCA All-America first team player, a 2013 USA Softball Player of the Year Top 25 Finalist, an All-SEC second-team player twice and a 2013 All-Louisiana first team nominee.

Replacing her production and leadership on the mound won’t come easy.

Senior starter Ashley Czechner has a different goal in mind.

“You don’t replace a pitcher like Rachele Fico,” Czechner said.

“We’re hopefully going to leave a legacy here of our own in a different way, whether that means becoming an All-American or winning a World Series. Just whatever we can do to help this program is what we want to do.”

So when No. 10 Texas steps to the plate in the season opener, it will be Czechner who will take the mound for the Tigers. Fico hasn’t left the program just yet, though.

Fico, who is still at the university studying sports commerce, has been working as a player coach throughout the offseason and through preseason practices.

Czechner said it can be easier hearing instructions from a former teammate as opposed to a coach.

“She helps us so much in the bullpen with her experience, and maybe if coach (Beth) Torina isn’t really getting through to one of us with what she’s saying, I know Fico can maybe say it in a different way,” Czechner said.

“I still go to her when I have a question about a pitch or something,” she said. “I’m just really glad she’s here to help this team.”

Torina was perfectly fine with having her former ace stick around for another season.

The pair formed a solid relationship during Fico’s career, and Torina often lets her former player take the pitchers under her wing.

Now it will be Czechner’s job to lead a pitching staff that includes two freshmen, Kelsee Selman and Baylee Corbello.

Czechner’s career began in 2011 at Maryland, where she went 12-3 with a 1.74 ERA and 123 strikeouts as a freshman reliever.

She moved on to Chattanooga State Community College the following year to become a starter.

She was the NJCAA’s Pitcher of the Year and All-America first-team selection after finishing 37-4 with a 0.72 ERA and 370 strikeouts en route to an NJCAA National Championship.

Last season with LSU, she finished 12-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 85 strikeouts as the No. 3 starter.

Torina will be counting on Czechner to carry the load in 2014, starting Thursday night against Texas.

“Ashley’s just such a competitor, and I think that’s what’s really going to get her through,” Torina said. “It’s not about fundamental skill or how hard it is. It’s truly her competitive drive, and that’s something we don’t see a whole lot of at practice. When the lights are on, it’s on for her.”

The Longhorns bring three players back into the lineup who hit better than .300 last season. Senior shortstop Taylor Thom batted .382 with 15 home runs and 66 RBIs in 2013.

Torina said playing a squad like Texas so early in the season will help prepare the Tigers.

“I think it’s really important that the SEC has become the who’s-who list in college softball,” Torina said. “We don’t ever get a break, so it’s nice to get our kids prepared facing similar types of pitching and offenses. So when we do get into that tough part of our season against SEC play, we’re prepared.”

As for Czechner, she’s just ready to get back to the mound and get the 2014 season rolling.

“I do know a couple of girls on the Texas roster, and they’re such good people,” Czechner said. “They’re so talented, and I’m really excited to see them.”