BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU softball didn’t look like a world-beater in its NCAA tournament opener, but it didn’t need to be as the top-seeded Tigers squeezed by No. 4 Fairfield with a 2-1 win in the Baton Rouge regional.
The Tigers offense was borderline non-existent for most of the game, being held in check by Fairfield starter Destinee Pallotto outside a pair of unearned runs in the first inning. LSU was limited to three hits — two after the first inning — and did nothing with runners on base. The Tigers were 0-for-7 with runners on base, 0-for-7 with two outs and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
“This time of year, a win’s a win,” said LSU coach Beth Torina. “Fairfield played well. They really gave us a great game. I’m proud of how our team battled.
“I do think it’s huge to have the first one under your belt. It’s a tough game; you’re tight, you’re nervous. A lot of that factors in it. Once you get rolling it gets a little easier, not that tomorrow will be easy.”
An early error provided the opening the Tigers exploited against the No. 4 seed.
Fairfield pitcher Destinee Pallotto appeared to wiggle out of a jam with runners at second and third in the bottom of the first inning when Shemiah Sanchez lifted a two-out fly ball to right field. But Stags right fielder Amanda Ulzheimer muffed the catch, allowing both runners to score.
“It might have been a little sun, little wind, little nerves,” said Fairfield coach Julie Brzezinski. “We fought on after that. We picked her up the best we can.”
The Tigers would have had more nervous moments against a capable underdog if the sophomore pitcher wasn’t on her A-game. Smith wasn’t dominant, but she pitched into the seventh, allowing one run on three hits and one walk and a strikeout.
Carley Hoover earned the save, recording the final three outs after Fairfield scored its lone run a Kristen Ball’s RBI single with nobody out in the top of the seventh. Hoover walked Molly Roche with one out to put the tying run in scoring position, but retired the last two Fairfield batters to seal the game.
A second-round game against No. 2 seed Louisiana-Lafayette at noon Saturday. The Ragin’ Cajuns advanced with a 6-0 win over McNeese State behind a no-hitter by pitcher Alex Stewart that featured top-notch defense.
Notably, it’s the first time these power programs have faced each other since the Ragin’ Cajuns won the 2013 Baton Rouge regional. ULL coach Michael Lotief was forthright about the role he has played in making the game so difficult to schedule.
“I’ve been the cause of a lot of the drama,” Lotief said. “I’ve caused my share of it.”
However, his own brush with mortality due to throat cancer has changed Lotief’s perspective.
“Hopefully we’re at a different stage as the sport is growing,” he said. “What we’re trying to do as bearers of this sport, we’ve got other issues to fight. We’ve got issues to fight about opportunities for female athletes. We’ve got issues to fight about growing our sport. I’m going to spend my years I’ve got left fighting those issues.
“I would love to play LSU on a regular basis. If we do or we don’t, we’ve got a great program and they’ve got a great program. No matter what happens tomorrow or what happened 10 years ago, they’re gonna have a great program and we’re gonna have a great program.”
Torina echoed Lotief’s sentiments.
“I think it will be a great game,” Torina said. “They’re so talented. They’re so consistent year-in and year-out. I know it’s been awhile. I think we’re excited to take the field and the atmosphere that will be here. It’s so cool for the game of softball just to imagine what the atmosphere will be like.”
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