Blue Devils come in from cold

When Nicole Springer woke up Tuesday morning, it was a crisp 39 degrees in her hometown of New Britain, Conn.

Nearly 1,500 miles and 50 degrees later, she and the rest of the Central Connecticut State softball team arrived in Baton Rouge that afternoon to a significant change of scenery.

“A little weather change isn’t going to be bad,” Springer said with a chuckle. “I’ll work on my tan lines.”

The Blue Devils’ trip to LSU for the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional not only marked the first visit to Louisiana for a majority of the players, but more importantly, represented the program’s first trip to an NCAA Regional in its 28-year history.

And as comical as the tight-knit group of 27 girls may be off the diamond, they made it clear that they plan to take care of business on it.

“We want to compete,” said Springer, a senior. “It’s just another game. We’re not going to let someone overpower us, because we’re just us as good as anyone out there.”

The 2013 CCSU squad has already penned its name in the school record books this season, capturing its first Northeast Conference Championship last weekend after a school-record 35-win season.

It was the third straight year under coach Jeff Franquet that the Blue Devils have set a new benchmark for wins in a season; they chalked up 29 wins in 2011, and 31 wins a year ago.

“When I interviewed here 41/2 years ago, I looked them straight in the eyes and I said, ‘Within three or four years, we’re going to win a conference title,’ ” said Franquet, who took over a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 1990. “Our expectations are to win this conference every year. If not, then why are we here?”

The fourth-year coach immediately turned around a 9-14 club from 2009 into a 19-win team one season later.

Central Connecticut owns a .729 winning percentage (35-13) this season, with heavy bats in the heart of the order and proficient pitching in the circle, mainly from sophomore starter Laura Messina (27-9).

In her second year on campus, the right-hander is already the winningest pitcher in Blue Devil history with 49 victories. Messina has 12 shutouts and 239 strikeouts this season, bringing her career totals to 19 and 446 — both school records.

“She is a competitor,” Franquet said. “She’s worked her tail off since she’s gotten here, and she deserves every award and reward that she’s gotten to this point. She’s been a game-winner since she’s gotten on this campus. I absolutely have the highest level of respect for Laura. She’s as good as they get.”

Messina has started in every conference game for the Blue Devils this season, and Franquet said she’ll be in the circle throughout the postseason.

The Marlton, N.J., native is slated to pitch in Central Connecticut’s regional opener against No. 9 LSU at 6 p.m. Friday, and Franquet said she won’t leave the circle until the Blue Devils advance or are eliminated.

“I just love being out there,” Messina said. “I want to compete. I would love to go down there and win, but just to be on that field with LSU and with somebody that is going to compete for a national championship is just an awesome feeling. It doesn’t matter who the team is or what they have on the front of their jerseys. It’s all about how we come out and how we play.”

Central Connecticut may be unfamiliar with LSU, and Tigers fans may not know a thing about the Blue Devils, but Franquet — who once coached LSU’s Beth Torina in a summer softball league years ago — has a feeling his team will fit right in.

“Humor is a big part of our demeanor,” Franquet said. “We’re going to have a lot of energy; our dugout is going to be fired up. I promise you, everybody down there is going to love our team.”