Q&A: LSU softball’s Torina discusses 2020 season, looks ahead to 2021

If all had gone according to plan, the Louisiana State University softball team would likely be in Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series right about now.

With a 21-3 overall record and riding a six-game win streak in early March, the Tigers were clicking on all cylinders and poised to make the program’s first WCWS appearance since 2017.

Then, the season just came to an abrupt end.

Just a couple days after LSU’s 11-1 victory over South Alabama on March 10, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the NCAA to cancel the remainder of the spring sports season, putting a sudden end to what could have been a magical season for the No. 4 Tigers.

In the 24 games prior to the cancellation, sophomore infielder Georgia Clark and senior outfielder Aliyah Andrews led the way offensively. Clark started every game and was hitting a team-high .429 batting average with four homers (tied for team-high) and 19 RBI. Andrews was hitting .408 with a team-high 29 hits, 11 RBI and was 18-of-19 on stolen base attempts in her 23 games.

As a unit, the pitching staff posted a 0.95 ERA with 151 strikeouts and a .156 batting average against over that span.

Senior Maribeth Gorusch (36.2 innings pitched, 1.15 ERA), sophomore Ali Kilponen (36.0 IP, 0.58 ERA), sophomore Shelby Wickersham (35.1 IP, 0.40 ERA) and junior Shelbi Sunseri (35.0 IP, 1.20 ERA) each made six starts in the pitcher’s circle.

“It was devastating, there’s no question about it,” said ninth-year coach Beth Torina of the season being cut short. “I don’t think any of them could have imagined a blow like this — I don’t think it ever crossed their minds.”

Torina, a former University of Florida pitcher from 1997-2000, has accumulated a 381-158 record at the helm of the LSU program, including four Women’s College World Series trips and consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearances in ’18 and ’19.

She now finds herself in uncharted waters as she adjusts to coaching her players from her own home while battling through the global pandemic.

We spoke to Torina via phone Friday afternoon, discussing how the pandemic has changed her and her team’s every day schedule, her thoughts on the 2020 season and the program’s future in 2021 and beyond.

How have you been coping with the shutdown, both professionally and personally, so far?

BT: It’s been a definite change for us, that’s for sure. I’ve been teaching kindergarten, so that’s been interesting. I’ve been enjoying my time with my daughters — I have three of them — that I don’t normally get, but of course we miss the time with the team. We try to check in with them weekly — we do a team Zoom call every week .It’s been tough not being able to be around them and continuing the strong season we were having.

How has it been teaching your three daughters during the shutdown?

BT: It’s been challenging, but fun. We’ve had a great time just being together, and I try to keep them on a pretty good schedule and try to keep them on track. I have three daughters, so two kindergartners and one in preschool.

They’re all close in age, has that helped you with teaching them?

BT: Oh my gosh, yes. And it helps that they’re in kindergarten because I understand the math. It’s not the common core or anything like that — I know how to add and subtract, so I’m good there.

Have you ever experienced anything like this during your softball career — whether it was as a coach or a player?

BT: No definitely not, this is completely unprecedented and something that I don’t think anyone has ever gone through before. So, it’s uncharted territory and we’re all just trying to navigate it together and make the best of it as we can.

After getting off to such a strong start, and then having their season suddenly come to an abrupt end, how did the girls handle the news?

BT: It was devastating, there’s no question about it. I don’t think any of them could have imagined a blow like this — I don’t think it ever crossed their minds. Honestly, I don’t know that it crossed mine either. So yes, I think they were devastated, but they also see the bigger picture and understand why it was so important for them to stop playing.

What did you say to them when the news broke?

BT: This team has just done so many things right and they have made history in so many ways, but of all the great things they’ve done this is by far the most important thing they’ve done. They sacrificed their own season for their country, their loved ones and other people.

You had a team-wide Zoom chat with author Jon Gordon in April? How was that?

BT: Yes, we’ve read a book a week for about five weeks and we got two of the authors on a call with us. We got Jon Gordon and we read one of Brian Cain’s books and got him on the call as well, so it was really fun to get their take on their books and hopefully the girls learned a lot — I know I did.

LSU’s softball team zooms with author Jon Gordon in early April (via Beth Torina’s Twitter account).

Is the book club something you did prior to the pandemic as well, or is it a new addition to keep the girls busy and engaged?

BT: When this thing started we kind of sat down and said what the things we wished we had time for when we’re in season — where are the areas that we wish we could grow, but we never have time for — and one of them was their mental training, so we’ve tried to use these books for that. We have a vision training program they’re going through as well. It’s something we’ve wanted to do but never really had the time.

You had five seniors listed on this spring’s roster (Andrews, Gorusch, Amanda Doyle, Akiya Thymes, Claire Weinberger). Have any of them discussed whether they’d like to take the NCAA up on their extra year of eligibility offer and return for one last season in 2021?

BT: Yes, right now they’re all planning to return, so we’ll have them all back. We’ll have a very large roster, but I think it’s going to be exciting and hopefully it provides a good challenge for us on a daily basis at our own practices and creates a really solid team moving forward.

Considering the talent in this senior class, how exciting will it be to have them back next spring and have them pick up where they left off?

BT: It’s very exciting. I think they have done so much in their careers already, they’re super-talented and phenomenal group of players. Aliyah Andrews is one of the best players in the country, Maribeth Gorusch put together such a solid season and is such a good leader for our pitching staff. Amanda Doyle has played virtually every game of her career to this point.

So, I think those guys are going to be a really solid core for us and we’ll add nine freshmen to the group. We have a big group of talented players and I think the combination of all of them is going to be really hard to beat.

What are your thoughts on this incoming freshman class?

BT: It’s a special class — they’re a super talented group of players. Many of them were brought in to replace some of those seniors, so it probably may not look like how they pictured it, but I hope that some of the their best competition will be right there on our own every afternoon at practice. If you can beat the competition on our own field, then they’ll be able to handle other teams a lot better.

In addition to the book club, are there any other coaching techniques you’ve learned during this shutdown that you’re hoping to utilize heading forward?

BT: Oh yes, definitely. We’ve talked a lot about just growing where you are. Instead of looking where the grass is greener, just try to water your own grass and developing the spot where you’re at and where your feet are. I think that’s a really good lesson.

This may not be where I was supposed to be today — hopefully, we would have been sitting at the College World Series today. But, I’m really trying to enjoy my time at home with my family and hopefully all of our players are doing the same thing.

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