The LSU history book has no shortage of incredible athletic performances. Fournette, O’Neal, and Bregman are just a few players who supplied excellence in Baton Rouge. Of course, these experiences come with a catch. Frequent exceptionalism can become the expected norm, and, in college that norm has eligibility limitations. Once the norm departs, you quickly realize what normal, what regular, actually looks like.
LSU’s 2018 softball season will be the final year for pitchers Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper and the end of what will be considered one of the best era’s in program history. Hoover and Walljasper, who were both named to the Softball National Player of the Year watch list earlier this week, have been the backbone behind three consecutive appearances in Oklahoma City and have sustained the Tigers as one of the best programs in the nation since they arrived at Tiger Park.
In 2017, the LSU pitching finished 15th nationally in ERA, marking the third straight year the Tigers have finished in the top-15 in the category. Within the SEC, the Tigers were near the top in most areas, ranking fourth in ERA, opponent batting average, and strikeouts. 2017 wasn’t all smooth sailing, with the staff ranking a disappointing 10th in the conference in hits allowed and sixth in walks.
A big contributor from a season ago, Sydney Smith, transferred to her home state University of Minnesota. The reasons for Smith’s departure were not exactly clear. Even with the departure of Smith, the Tiger pitching staff as figures to be strong again.
Carley Hoover (SR. RHP)
Even when Walljasper has had a series of strong outings or Smith maintained a sub-1 ERA, there has never been any doubt about Hoover being the ace of the Tiger staff and after three spectacular seasons there is little reason to doubt 2018 will be any different.
2017, Hoover did see a slight decline in her strikeout rate (though it still led the team) and walk rate, but also posted a career best in hits per seven and ERA, proof of an improved ability to get outs without relying solely on the strikeout. Hoovers success on the mound is credit to her power as a hurler. She has a great fastball which helps set up her breaking pitches.
Health will likely be a lingering question at least early in the season. After missing some time near the end of 2017, Hoover had surgery on her knee and missed all of Fall camp recovering. All reports suggest Hoover is ready to go, but there will likely be a little caution early in the year with LSU’s best player.
Expect Hoover to finish her Tiger career strong. With her improved ability to get batters out with contact, and a potentially improved LSU defense, Hoover could take her performance in the circle to an even higher level.
Allie Walljasper (SR. RHP)
One excellent starter isn’t enough for a team with title aspirations. For the last three seasons, Allie Walljasper’s consistent excellence has been as key as Hoover’s dominance, in getting the team to the Women’s College World Series.
Walljasper lacks Hoover’s power, but that doesn’t mean she lacks effectiveness in the circle. Like Hoover, Walljasper is peaking going into her senior season having finished a junior year with a career best in ERA, strikeouts, and opponents’ batting average all while also tossing the most innings of her collegiate career.
If there was an issue in 2017, it might have been fatigue. With an injured Carley Hoover in the later part of the season, Walljasper pitched in 10 of 12 games for the Tigers from April 28 to May 20th. That may have had an impact in the postseason, with Walljasper surrendering three or more earned runs in three of her final four appearances.
2018 likely won’t see Walljasper suddenly become a strikeout-heavy pitcher, though her uptick in strikeouts is perhaps a sign that she can be that much more effective at getting outs without forcing contact. Having what amounts to a second ace in Walljasper is a luxury that most teams would kill for. Walljasper’s ability to pitch at a high level will heavily dictate LSU’s season long success.
Maribeth Gorsuch (SO, RHP)
With the departure of Sydney Smith, Gorsuch is poised to assume the third starter position. While the third starter might not see lots of action come SEC play, having an effective third option is important for midweek games and early weekend series when LSU plays four or five games over the course of three days.
A quick glimpse at Gorsuch’s 2017 stat line won’t inspire confidence, initially. An ERA of 5.00 in 28.0 innings on 29 hits and an ugly 16 walks. Look a little deeper and you can find reason for optimism. Her 26 strikeouts over those 28-innings equated to a strong 6.5 K/7 (Hoover was 7.4/7 last season, Walljasper, 4.2/7). That ERA around five was also a little more indicative of her early season struggles, when she surrendered nine runs in her first two outings.
Of course, assuming a full-time third starter role would still constitute a major jump for Gorsuch. Even just in terms of innings. As the third starter the last two seasons, Smith threw 96 innings in 2016 and 107.2 in 2017. Expect Torina to test Gorsuch early in order to figure out if the sophomore is a viable third starter option.
Shelbi Sunseri (FR, RHP)
In June, Sunseri was described by Torina as “the most decorated” player in the recruiting class and praised her ability to contribute both at the plate and in the circle.
Torina’s comments about Sunseri’s accomplishments are by no means an understatement. She was a four-time district MVP in Texas, three-time all-state selection and three-time all-American selection. In her senior year she had 215 strikeouts in 155.5 with a 1.21 ERA and 24 wins.
Don’t think that because Sunseri is a freshman she isn’t going to get a shot as the third starter. As recently as 2016 Torina had then freshman Smith locked in as the starter over the more veteran Baylee Corbello. Torina stated on Media Day that Sunseri will probably be more of a hitter early, but expect Sunseri to get a look or two early in the season.