No. 3 Tigers host MSU in SEC opener

Fresh off a NFCA Tournament Championship and riding an 11-game winning streak, the 3rd-ranked LSU Tigers open conference play against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. <br><br> LSU will face-off in a double-header against the Bulldogs this evening beginning at 5:00 and in a single game Thursday at 4 p.m. The series will serve as the conference opener for both schools.

The Tigers (18-3) come into the series as the hottest teams in the country. LSU defeated No. 3 ranked California, 4th-ranked Washington, No. 6 Georgia, and 11th-ranked Florida State en route to capturing the NFCA title.


Pleased with her team's performance as of late, LSU head coach Yvette Girouard hopes her team can continue their winning ways with the start of Southeastern Conference play.


"We're probably the first team to start conference play," Girouard said. "The SEC is now in softball as good as any other sport. Athletic Directors have taken notice and they want their programs to be good."


Although LSU has dominated the series winning 22 of the 25 games, anytime the Bulldogs and the Tigers have gotten together has proven to be very exciting and high-scoring. LSU took two out of three from Mississippi State last year 4-3, 15-13 and loss the third game 6-2.


"It was almost like slow-pitch ballgames with them last year," Girouard said.


Firing on all cylinders, the LSU bats and the arms of Emily Turner and USA Softball National Player of the Week Kristin Schmidt have remained hot. Hitting an unheard of .363 as a team, sophomore first baseman Stephanie Hill leads the potent LSU attack. The Harahan native is hitting .459 on the season and has a team-high six home runs and is slugging over .800 (.836). Hill is also currently on a career-high 15-game hitting streak.


Another sophomore, designated player Lauren Castle is coming off a weekend that saw her named SEC Player of the Week. Castle hit .435 in 23 plate appearances in the Tigers run in the Tigers run to the NFCA title and knocked in the game winning run in the championship game against Florida State on an RBI double.


Castle and Hill are not alone as hot hitters for the Tigers this season as six of the nine Tiger starters are hitting over .300. The middle infield duo of second baseman Sara Fitzgerald and shortstop Lauren Delahoussaye are both hitting .397 on the season and left-fielder Leslie Klein and center-fielder LaDonia Hughes are hitting .375 and .371 respectively. Klein is the team leader in runs driven in with 24.


"We have everything in this lineup," Girouard said. "We have speed, power, the short game and the ability to make things happen. That is the beauty of what is going on right now. When you make the lineups you smile because there is not a lot of holes."


While any pitching staff would be happy with 7.2 runs per game of offensive support, the pitching staff has shown that it is also one of the most potent in the country. The trio of Castle, Schmidt and Turner is 18-3 on the season with a sparkling 1.83 ERA. In 134 innings of work opponents are only hitting .230 against them.


With Turner and Castle still maturing in the circle with the potential to be dominant, Schmidt continues to show why she is one of the best pitchers in the country. The senior from Houston, Texas is 10-2 on the season with a 1.81 ERA and has struck out 91 in 81 innings of work.


"Every now and then you see the signs of brilliance from Kristin," Girouard said. "Fast pitch pitchers can pitch so much more than baseball pitchers, but their arms still get tired. Even with 10 strikeouts against Florida State last week she didn't look that strong but the dog fighter in her made the big pitches when she needed to.


"Emily continues to get better. We said it from day one and probably will say it for her career, it is a learning process. She was truly raw when we got her. She didn't know how to pitch."


The Bulldogs (16-6) head into the series against the Tigers with a much improved team and still one of the better hitting teams in the conference.


Mississippi State is hitting .339 as a team and has three players hitting over .400. While LSU has played with the long ball on the season, smacking 26 home runs, the Bulldogs has chosen to play small ball. Mississippi State has 26 doubles and 18 triples on the season to only eight home runs.

Head coach Jay Miller's leading hitter is senior Kate Jaspers. The Prescott, Arizona native is off to a phenomenal start, hitting .484 on the season with four doubles and 15 runs driven in.


"They are going to hit the ball again," Girouard said of the Bulldogs. "They have a premiere player in Iyhia McMichael. She is as good as advertised. We just have to make sure that their best player doesn't beat us."


While Jaspers may be the leading hitter for the Bulldogs thus far, senior outfielder Iyhia McMichael may be Mississippi State's best player. Starting all 22 games this season, McMichael is hitting .470 and has seven triples and three home runs to lead the team. She is also the Bulldogs best threat on the basepaths, stealing 17-18 bases this season.

Never known as a haven for great pitchers, the 2004 Bulldogs are showing signs of becoming the best staff in recent Mississippi State history. With a team ERA of 1.14, junior Melissa Massey has emerged as the ace of the Bulldogs staff. Massey is 7-3 on the season with a 1.35 ERA. Kelli Miller (3-1, 1.06 ERA) and Stephanie Comeaux (5-2, 1.30 ERA) has also had solid seasons thus far for the Bulldogs.

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