By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BATON ROUGE, La. – Beth Torina has always made the sport of softball look easy.
Whether it was as a player at Florida, where she still stands as one of only five players in school history to win 60 or more games and ranks in the top 10 all time in winning percentage, ERA, saves and complete games; or as a coach, most notably at Florida International, where she was a two-time Sun Belt Coach of the Year recipient, led her team to 129 wins over four seasons and directed the Golden Panthers to their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
But LSU’s first-year head coach says that’s far from the truth.
“The game has always been a big challenge for me,” Torina said earlier this week. “I wouldn’t say I was the most athletic, I just tried to outwork people. The game has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of it.”
Hard work has always been Torina’s defining trait and she expects it’s something that will rub off on her team, when it raises the curtain on the 2012 season on Friday in Baton Rouge against Penn State.
The 22nd-ranked Tigers will depend heavily on a senior class that is hungry to take LSU’s program back to the highest level before they graduate.
“We have eight seniors who are really highly motivated to do something for this program,” Torina said. “They want to leave their mark on LSU and I want to help them accomplish that.”
When longtime LSU head coach Yvette Girouard, a 2005 National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee, announced her retirement, she provided a short list to athletics director Joe Alleva of the candidates she would recommend to replace her.
Included among those on the list was Torina, whom Girouard had tried to hire when Torina was the top assistant at Houston, which won the 2007 Conference USA Championship.
Torina was then working for Houston head coach Kyla Holas, who had been the assistant coach overseeing the pitching staff when Torina played at Florida. The connection runs even deeper, as Holas had lettered for Girouard at Louisiana-Lafayette and was a three-time All-American.
Torina appreciated the opportunity but had a strong desire to be a head coach, soon taking over the program at Florida International. Torina may not have joined Girouard’s staff at LSU, but the legendary leader kept her eye on the rookie head coach and thought she would be a perfect fit as her replacement in Baton Rouge four years later.
“That was amazing,” Torina said. “She has been a mentor for me for a long time. I’m so glad that she’s still in Baton Rouge. I can see her and visit her and seek her advice. I’m very appreciative of that.”
Torina didn’t need a lot of time to think when she was offered the opportunity to take over the LSU softball program.
To her, it all made sense.
“This job is kind of a no-brainer,” Torina said. “We have one of the best facilities in the nation, this is one of the premier athletic departments and Baton Rouge is such a great place to live and work.”
But it wasn’t just the infrastructure, it was about opportunity. The fact that, at LSU, everything is in place for the Tigers to top the conference and the nation, was a draw. When speaking about facilities, Torina is largely referencing Tiger Park, one of the nation’s top softball facilities that opened just in time for the start of the 2009 campaign.
That Torina knows the only thing standing between her program and its goals are hard work is just what gets her competitive juices flowing.
“We want to be a College World Series team year in and year out,” Torina said. “We want to be at the top of our conference and in the nation and do the kinds of things that this program deserves. We have the facilities and the support of this institution to be able to do that.”
Some might shy away from the challenge of competing in the Southeastern Conference, a league that has six teams ranked in the 2012 preseason top-25 polls and has placed at least one team in the semifinals or championship series of the Women’s College World Series every season since 2007.
Typical of Torina, she doesn’t see that as an obstacle, but an exciting challenge.
“I’m excited about the challenge,” Torina said. “It’s a little bit intimidating because some of the greatest coaches in softball coach in the SEC. That part is definitely challenging. But it’s fun because there is such great support for softball at the universities in the SEC. They give us everything that we need in order to be successful.”
Before she has even coached her first game in the SEC, Torina has one distinct edge over every one of her coaching peers within the league.
She is the only head coach at each of the SEC’s 11 institutions to have also played within the conference. Though Torina acknowledges that it’s a different era than the pitching-dominated, slap-hitting small ball philosophy used in her playing days, she hopes to be able to relate her experiences to her current players.
“The SEC has changed a lot since I played, but it’s nice that I also played at a big university and I can understand how they feel,” Torina said. “I try to relate to them as much as I can but, ultimately to compete at this level, they have to be pretty motivated athletes. There’s only so much I can do to get them to that point, they have to be great kids and great people first.”
It has always been a people-first approach for Torina.
She never expected to go into coaching. It was only by a twist of fate that she entered the profession, but it’s something she has never regretted.
“Honestly, I didn’t know I wanted to be a coach,” Torina said. “It was not in my life plan. I was in my internship for occupational therapy and the head coach at Stetson, Frank Griffin, asked me if I wanted to be a graduate assistant. I didn’t have a job at the time and I knew it was an opportunity to get my masters degree, so I did it. I’ve never looked back on that decision.”
It’s likely for that reason that Torina has taken seriously her role as a mentor to her student-athletes in all aspects of their lives.
“I try to get to know my players really well,” Torina said. “I try to treat them as people first and players second. I like to know what’s going on in their life outside of the field. I know they have other things going on and I try to treat them as people.”
Just as her player’s life balance is important to Torina, so too is balance in her team’s approach.
“My game strategy is just a very balanced approach – an equal emphasis on offense and defense; some speed mixed with power,” she said.
Torina will make her on-field debut with the Tigers on Friday, but she has already made a big impact in the lives of her players since arriving in Baton Rouge.
“I enjoy being with the kids and motivating them,” Torina said. “I really enjoy helping them as people and teaching them about life.”