Missouri softball welcomes sliding LSU to town

Ben Miglore

LSU softball started the season with lofty expectations after a preseason top-five ranking. It comes to Columbia this weekend having proved those projections wrong.

The school was picked to finish second in a powerhouse Southeastern Conference in the preseason coaches’ poll..

But through the first two months of the season, LSU has dropped from No. 5 down to No. 17 in the national rankings and at 22-12 has the third-most losses in the SEC.

Some players have played to par. Shelbi Sunseri and Ali Kilponen, two of LSU’s primary starting pitchers, have both been excellent in the circle with ERAs of 1.89 and 1.67, respectively. Sunseri also hits often and is tied for second on the team with six homers. Aliyah Andrews has excelled, leading the team with a .345 average and stealing 19 bases in 20 attempts.

Despite the high projections, the Tigers of Baton Rouge are trending in the wrong direction as they travel to face the Tigers of Columbia. For the most part, LSU has struggled at the plate, with a team batting average of .263, good for 12th in the SEC. Despite Kilponen and Sunseri’s efforts, the pitching is not ranked much higher. The team ERA of 2.65 is 10th in the conference.

Missouri on the other hand has exceeded preseason expectations slightly. Voted eighth in the conference, it is currently fourth. Projected at No. 23 in the NCAA, they are now No. 19.

The jump for MU comes from an explosive offense led by freshman shortstop Jenna Laird. Laird has the sixth-highest average in the SEC at .439 and has only gotten better during conference play. She is hitting .471 over Missouri’s nine SEC games so far. Laird also impresses with her defense. She has been praised by her coach, Larissa Anderson, for an ability to read the barrel and contact zones to track where a ball is headed and get there to make a play.

While much of the offense is rolling right along, Cayla Kessinger has struggled to fill her expected role. After being named a second-team All-American in the shortened 2020 season, she was projected to be even better this year. She was part of the preseason All-SEC team but has not played like it. She is seventh on the team in hitting, batting .314 through 35 games of 2021 after hitting .429 in 2020.

With just five hits in SEC play so far, Kessinger has largely needed to be lifted by her teammates.

Considering where the rest of the offense is without Kessinger at her peak, if she can click into gear alongside them, the Tigers might just explode.