Back home for a weekend series (at last), Tigers face Kentucky
On the heels of a 13-game road trip and a midweek drubbing of Nicholls State, the No. 13 LSU softball team is set to face No. 17 Kentucky for a three-game series, which begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Tiger Park.
Having faced seven top-25 opponents before Southeastern Conference competition began, coach Beth Torina said she hopes the Tigers’ schedule has prepared them for what’s to come.
“Once we get into SEC play, it seems like everyone is a ranked opponent,” Torina said. “Every game we take the field, it’s tough. Whether they’re ranked or not, when you’re in the SEC, they’re good.”
After opening conference play by taking two of three games from Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., last weekend, LSU (20-5, 2-1) will be tested in earnest by the Wildcats (19-4, 2-1), led by sixth-year coach Rachel Lawson.
“They have one of the best coaches in the country, so they’ll be well-prepared, intelligent and solid,” Torina said. “We know we can expect that from them, so we have to just play our game and make sure we get our team prepared for what we’re going to see from them.”
LSU heads into the weekend after claiming an 8-0 victory over Nicholls State on Wednesday, highlighted by an eight-run first inning and a dominant performance in the circle from junior Ashley Czechner, who allowed just one hit in pushing her record to 5-0.
But Kentucky did one better in its midweek competition. The Wildcats struck for 12 runs in the first inning on route to an 18-0 victory over No. 22 North Carolina on Tuesday, while freshman pitcher Katie Henderson (2-0) threw a no-hitter in her second career start.
Fellow freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley (12-1) has a team-best 2.02 ERA over 83.1 innings.
“They have a couple of freshman pitchers that have thrown well for them this year that we don’t know a whole lot about yet,” Torina said. “We’ll do our homework to see what we can do to get a good offensive plan against them.”
Also in the circle for Kentucky will be junior Lauren Cumbess (4-1), who holds a 2.56 ERA and is also the Wildcats’ leading hitter, batting .386 with 19 RBIs and three home runs.
LSU will counter with a pitching staff that’s been as solid as any in the conference, led by senior Rachele Fico (12-3), owner of a team-best 1.73 ERA and 127 strikeouts over 97 innings.
Fico had starring roles in both of the Tigers’ wins at Mississippi State, including a remarkable 14-inning shutout last Friday. The Oxford, Conn., native struck out 22 batters in the 1-0 victory, setting the program record and equaling the SEC mark for strikeouts in a game.
At the plate, LSU is led by junior Jacee Blades, who after three consecutive weekends on the road said the Tigers are happy to finally be back in front of a home crowd for three games at Tiger Park.
“Our fans are always there for us and get us pumped up,” Blades said. “We play better when they’re cheering and screaming for us. We’re excited to have that.”
Also leading the charge is leadoff batter A.J. Andrews, who has team highs in hits (31) and runs (21).
LSU holds an 32-6 series record against Kentucky, but last year’s series was a break from the historical pattern. The Wildcats swept LSU last season in Lexington, Ky.
The Tigers were no-hit in the final game of the series by then-senior Chanda Bell, and they scored just four runs on the weekend.
Saturday’s game is scheduled for 4 p.m. and will be televised on CST. The series finale starts at noon Sunday.