LSU softball finds power in numbers

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- LSU softball players, from left, Allison Falcon, Bianka Bell, Tammy Wray, Kellsi Kloss and Sandra Simmons, photographed Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- LSU softball players, from left, Allison Falcon, Bianka Bell, Tammy Wray, Kellsi Kloss and Sandra Simmons, photographed Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.

“It goes back to confidence, and we’re able to bring that confidence to the plate.” Tammy Wray, LSU junior third baseman, on the team’s power surge this season

The LSU softball team is proving it this season: Ladies really do dig the long ball.

With 15 home runs in 16 games, the No. 11 Tigers (14-2) have surpassed their 2012 total of 13.

“We’ve been swinging a lot better than we were last year — the numbers prove it,” junior third baseman Tammy Wray said. “It goes back to confidence, and we’re able to bring that confidence to the plate.”

It didn’t look like LSU would be much of a power threat at the outset of the season. Seven of LSU’s 13 round-trippers last year came from departing seniors Ashley Langoni and Juliana Santos. Junior Allison Falcon was the only returning player with multiple home runs; she hit three in 2012.

Falcon already has matched last season’s total. After going on a season-long home run drought last season, Wray has knocked three out of the park as well.

LSU coach Beth Torina was quick on the draw when asked for the reason behind the spike in power numbers.

“I have a good hitting coach,” she said.

That is Howard Dobson, and he has implemented a program designed to force players to consistently find the sweet spot.

Other than game days and the day before, the Tigers only use wooden bats in batting practice. With wood, players can feel the smooth sensation of a purely hit ball and the sting of one hit outside the sweet spot.

“It’s literally all we swing with,” Wray said. “It really helped us focus on the contact point. … You know when you’re hitting it right as opposed to hitting it wrong.”

This is the first season the Tigers have used the wooden bats. It was tough sledding for a while.

“If you hit it anywhere but the middle, it’s going to sting, it’s going to crack,” freshman first baseman Sandra Simmons said.

“At the beginning of the fall, we were cracking quite a few (bats), but toward the end of the fall and the spring, we’ve only cracked a couple.”

Dobson said the concept isn’t novel, but repeatedly finding that spot is what has bred success.

“To actually find the sweet spot, know where it is and consistently hit the ball on that sweet spot — the ball seems to go a lot further,” he said.

The coaches may have been asking for too much at the outset, Torina said, outlining programs that took players longer than usual to comprehend. Now that they’ve got the hang of it, the results are showing.

“The returners are a year into the system,” Torina said. “I think we maybe didn’t put enough into how long it was going to take for them to understand the concepts of our philosophy change. It’s them having another year under the belt, and then we have some real talented freshmen.”

The three regular freshman contributors — Simmons, infielder Bianka Bell and catcher Kellsi Kloss — have combined for seven home runs, including Simmons’ game-winning grand slam against BYU last weekend. Simmons and Bell each have a pair of home runs, and Kloss has three despite playing in just eight games.

The power numbers are a result of an aggressive plate mentality, Torina said — one that puts life into her team and the fans.

“The freshmen … swing hard and swing fearless. That goes throughout the lineup, too,” she said. “If you watch Bianka swing, when she swings and misses the entire stadium goes crazy. They all gasp because she swings so hard.”

LSU’s hitters will get a tough test this weekend as they play five games in the Citrus Classic in Kissimmee, Fla. LSU begins with No. 10 Oregon at 10 a.m. Friday before facing Syracuse, Penn State, No. 14 Michigan and No. 15 Louisville. The Tigers are 2-2 against ranked teams this season.

With senior Rachele Fico and junior Meghan Patterson having stellar seasons in the circle, LSU could be in line for a big season if it continues its big-fly binge.

“With our pitching staff,” Dobson said, “we’re always within one swing of either taking the lead or taking the win in the very last inning.”