The Turning of the Tide on the Bayou
by Damian Foley
Change, in its purest form, is a good thing.
Despite a popular Confucian curse that wished great changes upon the unfortunate, at Tiger Park it is precisely the new faces that are buoying the LSU softball team's expectations as they prepared for the 2004 season opener on Feb. 6.
That is not to say the 2003 season was a failure – a season in which a team breaks the 50-win barrier and qualifies for the NCAA tournament could never be considered as such – but for the first time in four years, the purple and gold failed to take home any hardware whatsoever.
No divisional title. No SEC crown. No regional title.
The Tigers finished second to Alabama in the West. They lost to the Crimson Tide, 3-1, in the SEC Tournament final. Then, one day after setting a team home run record in a 9-4 win over Hawai'i in the first round of the NCAA Regional in Austin, Texas, they lost consecutive games to the University of Texas and Arizona State to head back to Baton Rouge empty handed.
"We got ourselves in a little bind in the SEC Tournament, we had Alabama beaten until the sixth inning and then got in the losers bracket, but how could I do anything but admire my team?" said head coach Yvette Girouard. "They played four games in twenty-four hours, got all the way to the championship game, and simply ran out of gas.
"In all retrospect, Texas should've won the national championship. I'm not displeased, I knew the SEC was going to be a battle and it certainly is going to be this year again, it's certainly not a given that LSU will win it all the time now, everybody has gotten so much better."
"I think we have a lot to prove this year," said team captain Julie Wiese. "Last year was the first time we had never really won anything, it was the worst feeling in the world. I think we have a lot to prove, we're really young and we're small in numbers, but we have the talent to do whatever we want, so that's not an issue, it's just getting it done."
Third baseman Wiese, along with second baseman Sara Fitzgerald, are the two players who have perhaps benefited the most from the changes within the program. The two seniors have been named team captains for the 2004 season, following a 2003 season in which the coaching staff elected to go without designated leaders.
"I tried to make the entire team take ownership of their team and accept the fact that they were all leaders," said Girouard. "That didn't quite work, so we tried something else this year, we went back to selecting captains and of course [the players] select them, so that's the reason for that.
"In reality, and coach Saban said it best – he's coached us all now, we're all quoting coach Saban – he said it best, he had a team that didn't need to be lead. They had a lot of guys that didn't need to be lead, and I think we've got that with this team too."
"I don't think I saw the label coming, but as for being a leader, Wiese and I are," said Fitzgerald. "We're the only ones who have been here, Wiese for five years and me for four, so we felt like the older ones who have been through all the ropes."
"It's a great honor, but I don't act any different than I would without it," Wiese said. "I feel like it's a great honor, it's nice for people to say, but I don't act any different."
The title of team captain will not make the task any easier for the two infielders, as they will be working with five new starting position players in 2004. Left fielder Megann Steege, first baseman Christy Connor, and catcher Jenny Reeves all graduated following the 2003 season, and right fielder Alicia Owen, shortstop Blair Smith, and utility player Tessa Lynam all left for personal reasons.
Beside Fitzgerald and Wiese, center fielder LaDonia Hughes will be the only returning position player in 2004.
While the vacant shortstop position has been filled by sophomore Lauren Delahoussaye, 2003 backup Leigh Ann Danos and true freshman Kristen Hobbs will split time behind the plate. Redshirt freshman Leslie Klein will join sophomores Camille Harris and Stephanie Hill, freshmen Emily Turner and Lauren Uhle, and transfers Lauren Castle and Amber Brooks in competing for the remaining three starting positions.
Initially, the left- and right-field positions look to be manned by Klein and Brooks, giving the Tigers speed in the outfield that they have not been able to boast of in some time.
"I think when Leslie Klein plays out there – and we're having to move her to first base because we can't quite find that combination over at first base right now – I feel that this is the best outfield we've had since the first year we were here," said Girouard. "That was a phenomenal outfield, and this outfield I would put maybe even with them or right under them. Their reads on balls are phenomenal, they take the correct angles, they may not quite have the arm strength that the first team had but they work their tails off every day. Probably they pleased me more than any group on the team, the outfielders."
"It's going good, that's one thing that this team does have, great team chemistry," Fitzgerald said. "We're around each other a lot; we like being around each other, which is good because you're around each other at least 20 hours a week. It's good, good team chemistry."
One of the new faces, Californian native Emily Turner, is pulling double-duty for the Tigers as she divides her time between the pitching circle and the troublesome first base position.
"I'm adjusting, it's still an adjustment," said the right-handed flamethrower. "I think I'm doing well. Sometimes I get flustered as any other freshman would, but I think I'm doing pretty well.
"Oftentimes I feel like I need more hours in the day to practice at both places, because I would love to play both, and it takes a lot of hard work. While I'm pitching, I'm also trying to beat out other girls at first base, and they're getting that extra time in, but I mean whoever does the best at the time should get the spot."
Turner is far from alone in the circle in 2004, as she is joined by incumbent ace Kristin Schmidt and transfer Lauren Castle. The newfound depth is something that thrills Girouard, who enters the season with three arms all more than capable of picking up W's for the purple and gold.
"Hopefully that's going to be a plus for us, and we certainly think it will be," Girouard said. "Schmidty's proven she can do it, she looks awfully good right now, and she's a competitor – she's a surprising competitor.
"Emily will turn out to be a power pitcher; she's a little banged up right now and a little bit behind the eight ball, but she's a great athlete and I think she's going to bounce back. Lauren Castle has done a great job in the outfield and she looks good at the plate, she's going to be a good threat for us, but Schmidty's still going to be the number one dog, and that's a comfort to know."
"It's awesome because we each bring our own pitching methods to the table," said Turner. "I have my speed, Kristin has her movement everywhere, and Lauren is pretty much both – she's unpredictable."
Rounding out the new faces is someone who will be very familiar to Tiger softball fans, as Lori Osterberg returns for a second stint as assistant coach at Tiger Park. Osterberg, who played under Girouard at ULL, left the team to return to her native Iowa after guiding the Tigers to a third-place finish in the 2001 Women's College World Series.
"Well basically the opportunity to coach with Yvette and James (DeFeo) was something that leaving the first time I knew that I would regret, and so just to know that I still have Girouard's trust and the opportunity to be loyal to her again was something that I couldn't pass up. It's just a great place to be, and I have no regrets coming back," Osterberg said.
"I consider myself one of the luckiest coaches in the world to be given a second chance at what I love to do."
Osterberg's last stint on the bayou was also the last time the Tigers made it to Oklahoma City for the WCWS, and the assistant coach was quick to sound out a warning that the purple and gold could be primed for a repeat performance, as the 2001 and 2004 editions bear more than a passing resemblance to each other.
"Both teams I would say loved to dress out in the purple and gold," said Osterberg. "They loved to be a Tiger. This team is the same way, game day they come out in their uniforms and it's the highlight of their life. That's how the team in 2001 was as well. Both teams have the "Believe It" mentality, where they believe they can go all the way. They see it, and when you see it, and you believe it, then it's more likely to happen. I know that we will [return to Oklahoma City], I know that good things are going to come out of this season. I know that in the end it's all going to be worth it. I just know it, and so do our players."
"The chemistry is good; we've got a good team, a lot of young talent," said Harris, echoing the warning. "We've got some freshmen who will play, but overall we're ready for Feb. 6."
LSU absorbs major losses,
Girouard: "we'll coach the people who are here"
By David Folse II
After another 50-plus win season in 2003, LSU head coach Yvette Girouard expected to reload this season for another run at the Women's College World Series.
Girouard and her staff did reload, but without as many bullets in their gun as they once thought.
In what turned out to be a very turbulent off-season for the LSU Softball program, the Tigers lost five players that were expected to contribute in the 2004 season. Tessa Lynam transferred to Baylor and Alicia Owen along with Blair Smith left the team. In addition, two LSU signees, Beth Provost and Rebecca Bailey also left the team before the start of the spring semester.
"Within probably the last year I have never seen anything like it," Girouard said of the player movement. "I think it is sort of a sign of the times. We're obviously disappointed in some decisions because sometimes I think when things get a little bit tough, we like for them to see it through and most of them didn't. It has kind of played havoc with our plans."
Despite losing five players, Girouard said one positive has come out of the situation that may be the biggest key to the Tigers success.
"We are going to coach the people who are here," Girouard said. "We have 14 top notch softball players and individuals. One thing that has come out of this is that this team is extremely tight. The team chemistry here has been incredible. That's exactly what a coach cannot give them.
"The intrinsic value of team chemistry is not something that you can just throw out lightly. It can destroy a team or make a good team great and it can make a great team very average if there is no team chemistry. I think that is definitely our strongpoint. We have great athletes."
One of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers open up the season ranked 15th, their lowest pre-season ranking in the three years Girouard has been in Baton Rouge.
"That's a compliment to what the team has done in the past," Girouard said of her team's pre-season recognition. "That poll means nothing to us right now; it's the final poll that matters. This team will get better every day. With the short numbers that we have, we obviously have to take care of ourselves. However, the first team I took to the College World Series had 13 players on it and I compare this team to that one."
While there will be plenty of new faces in the field for the Tigers this season, there will also be a new, yet familiar face in the coaching staff. Lori Osterberg, who helped guide LSU to the 2001 Women's College World Series, returns to replace the departed Ashley Ducote-Eddy.
A former player under Girouard at Louisiana-Lafayette, Osterberg's impact has been felt immediately thanks to her constant preaching of fundamentals in practice.
"We're really working on the fundamentals," Osterberg said. "We just work on making our game consistent across the board. All of our players are cutting out movement that doesn't need to be there and putting in stuff that does need to be there.
"I feel that people are becoming more accurate and consistent. That is all due to their improvement in fundamentals."
Thanks to a reduction in the core of the ball and reduction in the length and weights of the bats this season, Girouard expects pitching to regain its prominence as the most important aspect of a successful softball team.
"I think pitching is going to be a strong point again," Girouard said. "It seems like the game will swing back to being more in favor of the pitchers again. The ball has come down a little bit in its core; it is not as lively as it was. The bats are also meeting some different standards. People might not see the ball flying out of the park as much as they did last year."
The strength of the Tigers this season will lie in the outfield, which is very deep and extremely talented. With Camille Harris and Leslie Klein both back from injury, Girouard said she expects some big things out of her outfield.
"This is as good of an outfield that we've had since we got here," Girouard said. "Our first year of Trena Peel, Dee Douglass and Aleisha Perry we had a phenomenal outfield because not only were they good defensively, but they could flat out fly. They are not afraid to dive and they are not afraid to leave it all out there. I have supreme confidence in our outfield."
Working with the outfielders, assistant coach James DeFeo agrees with Girouard's assessment.
"With so much depth and players that we can play anywhere," DeFeo said. "I think we have one of the best outfields in the country. Not just depth, but speed and athleticism. Bar none we will be the most athletic outfield in the SEC if not in the country for sure."
Slated to start in right field is sophomore Camille Harris. The Tigers' leading hitter from a year ago, Harris' season was cut short when she suffered an arm injury against Auburn preventing her from taking part in the post-season.
"It's going to be great to have her back," Girouard said of Harris. "She's a nice player who really surprised all of us. We knew she was capable. What I love about her is that she has no fear. That's exactly what any coach would like in their player."
Harris said she was disappointed in how 2003 ended but looks forward to a healthy and successful season.
"I was a little mad, I really didn't plan on ending my season in a cast, but even getting injured I was still 100-percent behind my team," Harris said. "It was a little difficult at times, being in a cast and my hand being so stiff, I had to do a lot of strength and conditioning in the training room, but overall I'm back to normal."
In centerfield, senior LaDonia Hughes will look to build on a year in which she hit .284 leading the team with 24 stolen bases. Recovering from a broken bone in her hand in which she still played the entire season; Hughes is expected to thrive in LSU's lead-off spot.
Klein will make her much-anticipated debut in left field. Penciled in as the starter last year, Klein went down with a knee injury in practice, forcing her to miss the entire season. A left-handed hitter from Sunrise, Fla., Klein is back to 100-percent and is projected to be one of the top hitters in the lineup.
"She has every facet of the game," Girouard said. "I think that she is a five-tool player. She has a short game and a long game. She has got a great glove, good arm and good reads in the outfield. She's the complete ballplayer and she's a lefty."
DeFeo said Klein is one of those players that rarely comes along.
"She brings everything to the table," DeFeo said. "Speed, power and tremendous athleticism. She can do it all. She has a cannon for an arm, smart on the bases, lay down drag bunts, slap and she can also hit for power. She's a triple threat from the left side. People who haven't seen her play are going to be very appreciative of her game. She's going to remind a lot of people like Trena Peel."
In the infield, Julie Wiese returns for her senior season at third. The Baton Rouge native had a power-packed 2003 campaign, hitting .258 with nine home runs to go along with 33 RBIs.
"We expect great things out of her and she looks phenomenal," Girouard said. "It has set in this fall that this is it for her. She stayed around longer at the team Christmas party and doesn't want to leave the house. It has set in that this is it for her. She understands what this means for her and I would really like for her to enjoy playing softball her senior year and I think she has."
Expected to become LSU's all-time home run leader early in the season, in the fall Wiese received the honor of being named a team captain, along with second baseman Sara Fitzgerald.
Never one striving for personal recognition, Wiese said she did not expect the honor.
"No I didn't, last year coach Girouard didn't have captains. I figured it was going to be like that again. It's a great honor, but I don't act any different than I would without it. I feel like it's a great honor, it's nice for people to say, but I don't act any different."
At shortstop, sophomore Lauren Delahoussaye replaces Blair Smith. The Tigers top pinch-hitter a year ago, Delahoussaye knocked in the game-winning runs against Tennessee and Florida in the SEC Tournament propelling the Tigers to the title game.
Girouard expects the Lafayette native to make a smooth transition into the starting lineup.
"Lauren is definitely projected at shortstop for us," Girouard said. "She has been absolutely fantastic. She has come back in better shape knowing that the team needs her. She's got a cannon for an arm and has been making every play in practice. We couldn't be more pleased with her. She actually adds a better stick to the lineup when she is in all the time.
"Lauren has handled the pressure well. She was projected as the starting first baseman this year and would have done a great job, but we need her at shortstop. She played shortstop in high school and summer ball, so she will do fine."
Delahoussaye says she is feeling very comfortable in her newfound starting role.
"I think things are doing pretty good. I think I will fit in pretty well with the veterans," Delahoussaye said. "Last year I had to come into real pressure situations and contribute. Now it is going to be all the time. I've been hitting the ball pretty well. I'm doing all right. I had a pretty good fall."
At second base, the versatile Fitzgerald returns is back for her final year in purple pinstripes. Able to play either outfield or in on the dirt, Fitzgerald gives the Tigers a duel threat.
"With a player like Sarah, this is why this team reminds me of the first team I took to the College World Series. Sarah is an athlete that can play multiple positions," Girouard said. "She gives us some options."
At first base, several players factor into the mix. Junior college transfer Amber Brooks, freshman sensation Emily Turner, sophomore Stephanie Hill, or even Klein could get the nod in what could be a game-to-game, gametime decision .
Behind the plate, junior Leigh Ann Danos and freshman Kristen Hobbs will platoon at catcher. Danos struggled last year at the plate, hitting only .234 with four home runs. She will be pushed for playing time by the freshman Hobbs, who has exhibited a very strong arm behind the plate.
"Hobbs has a cannon," Girouard said. "She's not afraid to pick-off anybody at any time. She will hold the runner in check and make them think twice on running on us."
Schmidt happy to get some help
By David Folse II
A quarterback in football, the point guard in basketball and a pitcher in softball. What do these three things all have in common?
Without them, your team is in trouble.
The success of any successful softball team lies in their ability to have quality arms in the circle and this year the LSU Tigers have two very good arms on staff in senior Kristin Schmidt and freshman sensation Emily Turner.
Last season, Schmidt almost single-handily put LSU back in the Women's College World Series. The MVP of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Schmidt had a phenomenal 2003, compiling a 34-15 record and a sparkling 1.23 ERA. In 306 innings pitched, the Houston native struck out 345 batters and walked only 77. Opponents hit a miniscule .187 while Schmidt was in the game.
For her efforts, she was named a 2003 NFCA Third-Team All-American, Easton Second-Team All-American and a 2003 NFCA First-Team All-South Region.
As the 2004 season begins, so does Schmidt's assault on the LSU record books. She currently ranks second in school history in career complete games, strikeouts, shutouts and strikeouts per seven innings and is tied for second in saves. She also ranks third in career games started, innings pitched, wins, earned run average and opponents batting average as well as fourth in career appearances.
As any pitcher would, Schmidt said she is looking forward to changes that are being made in equipment, especially the balls and bats for the upcoming season.
"From a pitcher's perspective I think it's great," Schmidt said. "I know that it probably frustrates the hitters very easily. I'm all for better balls and better bats. Anything to keep the ball in the park."
A complete pitcher, Schmidt said she has been trying to fine tune some of the less than perfect aspects of her repertoire.
"I've worked really hard on the drop ball," Schmidt said. "I worked on improving that this fall with consistency. I think it is going to be a big factor."
Perhaps the biggest thing for Schmidt is the presence of Turner who will relieve some of the pressure off of Schmidt in terms of innings pitched.
"I really think that we are going to be good this year with Emily and myself," Schmidt said. "Emily looks fantastic. I think that she is going to be a great addition.
"It's going to be really nice to not have to throw 300-plus innings. I don't have to worry about if I am throwing in the second game after the first one. I feel really relaxed that there is two of us now and that there is going to be an equal carrying of the load."
While Turner may be the most talented pitcher of the two, Schmidt will be looked to for leadership in the circle and helping along with Turner's development.
Pitching behind former Tiger great Britni Sneed, Schmidt believes that what she learned from Sneed with help her tutor Turner successfully.
"Pitching behind Britni, I had so much respect for her I tried to be as much like her as I can," Schmidt said.
Sneed believes Schmidt will have no trouble leading the staff for the Tigers.
"I believe Kristin will be able to lead the pitching staff this year because of her experience," Sneed said. "She has pitched in some tough games where her back was against the wall and she came through. Kristin hits her spots really well and has a very effective change-up. She will do great for LSU this year."
Turner meanwhile comes in as perhaps the most heralded freshman since Sneed made her debut at LSU five years ago.
A power pitcher as well as hitter, Turner led her Bonita Vista High School squad to No. 1 national ranking in 2003. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, she posted a 25-2-1 pitching record from 2002-03 and allowed only seven earned runs with 109 strikeouts in 2002.
Girouard said Turner will be looked to for an immediate impact in the circle and well as at first base when she is not pitching.
"She's the complete athlete," Girouard said of Turner. "She has the chance to do a lot of things in her career. She's that talented. It's going to be a learning process. The good thing about this is that we Kristin Schmidt who is a two-time all-American. She can allow Emily Turner to grow and develop. That's the great thing about our pitching staff. Turner has the tools to be as good as anybody that we have had."
While the immediate comparisons to Sneed will be made, Girouard said the freshman still has a ways to go.
"Britni was far more polished at this stage and really came into her own her junior and senior year," Girouard said. "She separated herself from everyone else. Emily has the potential to be as talented in the long run."
Working with her at first base, assistant coach Lori Osterberg said Turner can be just as dominant in the infield as in the circle.
"She can make every play," Osterberg said. "Any play you throw at her, she'll make it. She's got a great glove, so physically she can handle it. She just needs to work on her reactions to different plays and what she needs to do, but that comes with experience and that is what she's getting."
Still making the adjustment to collegiate softball, Turner said the coaching staff has helped her tremendously.
"I'm adjusting, it's still an adjustment, Turner said. "I think I'm doing well. Sometimes I get flustered as any other freshman would, but I think I'm doing pretty well.
"I absolutely love the coaching staff. Sometimes they get on my case because I can be kind of flaky, I kind of mess up sometimes because I'm learning a lot more about the game, but I just take everything in with them because they're the most awesome coaches out there. In my opinion they're the best coaches out there. That's what made me choose this school in the first place."
While many freshmen have struggled to make the adjustment from pitching at 43 feet compared to 40 feet in high school, Turner said it has been a very easy transition.
"I thought I would never adjust to the 43 feet, but I'd say 2-3 months into it I didn't even notice it," Turner said. "In the indoor, he (assistant coach James DeFeo) actually clocked me and I was throwing at the same speed I did at 40 feet, three full feet back. I think I did a good job adjusting."
Pitching and also playing first base, Turner said she is still trying to balance out the two in practice.
"Often times I feel like I need more hours in the day to practice at both places, because I would love to play both, and it takes a lot of hard work," Turner said. "While I'm pitching, I'm also trying to beat out other girls at first base, and they're getting that extra time in, but I mean whoever does the best at the time should get the spot."
Pitching alongside Schmidt, Turner said the senior has provided valuable leadership and experience to her development.
"She's doing so much for me," Turner said of Schmidt. "If a pitch isn't working she's always able to provide tips for me. She teaches me different grips, she shows me alternate methods. She will say if something isn't working, "Do this…" kind of thing, she's been a great help. Not just on the pitching mound, but to the team too."
-LSU Sports Information Contributed to this Report