Last year Beth Torina was able to experiment with the lineup and defense out of luxury. With almost all the regulars returning, there was opportunity to maximize the returning talent. This year, with more newcomers, Torina will have to experiment out of necessity. Early experimentation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With a group of veterans and a very talented group of freshman, there should be a capable player in every spot of the lineup.
The storyline, at least early, will be how the newcomers are deployed. Torina has lots of players to choose and lots of ways to arrange them. Second base, left field and first base could all have different starters for the first few games. At second and in left, there appears to be a strong push by the freshmen to supplant the veteran. First base is one of the few true vacancies where the returning starter is gone and the backups are required at other positions.
Whatever decisions Torina chooses to make about the lineup, the players chosen will have to adjust quickly as the out of conference schedule is not too kind. LSU will play eight teams that qualified for the WCWS last year including, McNeese and Oklahoma State on opening weekend. The out of conference schedule includes four teams ranked in the preseason Top 25. LSU also won’t have the luxury of long stretches of games at Tiger Park with three weekend road series in the first two months of the season. By comparison, last year LSU had just one weekend road series over the same amount of time.
Things won’t get much easier during conference play. The run through the SEC begins with LSU heading to Auburn to take on the No.2 ranked Tigers. Next, No.10 Georgia comes to Tiger Park and then Mississippi State the following weekend. The Tigers head out on a two weekend road trip with games against No.7 Bama and an Ole Miss team which was just a few votes shy of cracking the top-25. The schedule could be slightly more manageable at the end of the season, with No.15 Tennessee and No.19 Missouri coming to Baton Rouge and then a final road trip against South Carolina. LSU will avoid Florida, Kentucky, and A&M, three teams which gave the Tigers problems last year.
While the schedule may seem daunting, it is important to note only one regular season opponent, Auburn, is actually ahead of LSU in the polls. Not to say other SEC foes won’t be tough competition, but LSU is an elite team in an elite conference.
The big reason the Tigers are one of those elite teams is the pitching. LSU’s big three of Carley Hoover, Allie Walljasper and Sydney Smith are as good any trio in the country. Even last year, when the defense was not good, the LSU staff was still outstanding. The only real question seems to be how Torina will manage the innings of her staff. Whether that includes lowering the innings for Hoover, increasing the innings for Smith or Walljasper or even getting Maribeth Gorsuch some notable innings.
Of course, what ultimately doomed the Tigers in their loss to Oklahoma in the WCWS wasn’t the pitching so much as the defense and the hitting. It appears that the defensive woes are behind the team as some of the worst offenders are now graduated and there appears to be an influx of defensive upside with this new recruiting class.
Early on, patience will be key. Based on what Torina has been saying, the freshmen will be playing a bunch. Defensively, with some of the younger players adjusting to new positions, don’t be too quick to think the 2017 defensive unit will be as frustrating as the 2016 group just because of some early struggles. On offense, the streakiness the LSU lineup had a year ago may continue as the young players adjust to college pitching.
The comments from players and coaches this year suggest this team is ripe with talent, but perhaps not as flush with experience. If anything, this team is the definition of reload not rebuild: a championship caliber pitching staff surrounded by a promising, somewhat unknown lineup.
All that said, the goal for this team is still Oklahoma City and a championship. This unit might not be as vocal about their title aspirations and there might be more uncertainty regarding this year's team, but all the pieces say this team can compete for a WCWS championship. 2017 should be another great year for Tiger softball.