LSU heads west for Mary Nutter Classic

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The No. 11-ranked LSU softball team faces its toughest challenge to date.

This weekend, the Tigers travel to the West Coast and start a 13-game road swing with the prestigious Mary Nutter Classic.

LSU (10-1) will face two Pac-12 powers in No. 14 Arizona and No. 16 UCLA, along with BYU, Ohio State and UNLV.

The Tigers start off with Ohio State at 5 p.m. Friday, followed by a 7:30 p.m. game against UNLV.

LSU is off to a fine start, having won 10 of its first 11 games — the program’s best start since an 11-0 mark to open the 2007 season.

“This weekend will be a really good test for us, a really good test for our young kids and a really good test for our pitching staff,” coach Beth Torina said. “We’ll find out a lot about ourselves this weekend. Hopefully, we’re up for the challenge.”

So far, the Tigers are hitting .289 as a team, some 70 points higher than their mark from last season. Already, seven players have combined to hit 10 home runs.

Bianka Bell, a freshman who made the Purple & Gold Challenge All-Tournament team last week at Tiger Park, has hit safely in five of her last six outings.

She a .407 batting average, two homers and six RBIs.

Allison Falcon, a junior, has produced a .375 average with one home run and six RBIs. Six of her team-leading 12 hits have gone for extra bases.

Tammy Wray has a team-high nine RBIs, already matching her total from last season.

Lauren Houston has turned in team-leading .583 batting average, going 7-for-12 in her six starts.

“A lot of our lineup has a home run at this point, which is exciting to see,” Torina said.

Meanwhile, right-hander Rachele Fico has been dominant in the circle. The senior right-hander has compiled a 6-0 record, including four shutouts and a sparkling 0.38 ERA. The 6-0 mark is the best start for a LSU pitcher since Cody Trahan opened the 2010 season by winning her first eight decisions.

Fico has amassed 51 strikeouts against five walks in 36.2 innings.

Last weekend, the Oxford, Conn., native became the sixth pitcher in program history to eclipse 600 career strikeouts.

She is eight strikeouts away from moving past Dani Hofer (2006-09) for fourth place on LSU’s all-time list.

“Getting to 600 career strikeouts was an exciting moment for Rachele,” Torina said. “I think she’s going to continue to climb up that list throughout the season as she gets more and more innings. She deserves everything she gets. She’s an amazing competitor, and it’s fun to watch her every day.”

Meghan Patterson has checked in with a 3-1 record and a 1.06 ERA, tossing a complete-game shutout in two of her starts.

“Meghan had some huge strikeouts, which is something that Rachele is known for,” Torina said. “When she gets runners on base, she’s really able to shut the door. I think that’s something that she has learned from sitting and watching Rachele do it for the last couple of years. What a great skill for a pitcher to have to be able to step up when the pressure is on. Meghan has really come through for us, and I’m really happy for her.”