The Loyola Marymount Lions were not far from home, participating in the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, California. On paper, the matchup against top-5 LSU looked like a lopsided affair.
Over the last few seasons, the Lions have vaulted themselves into a higher echelon of non-Power 5 teams that can never be counted out of a game, even against top-level opponents. In 2019, the Lions earned a hard-fought victory over eventual Super Regional participant Northwestern, but had yet to take on a ranked opponent in 2020 prior to facing off against the Bayou Bengals.
Junior Linnay Wilson, the team’s defacto ace, was in the circle for her team, facing off against an LSU squad that had lost just once on the season to that point. Wilson spun a gem in the circle, recording a complete-game, 4-hit shutout that buoyed her team to the 1-0 upset victory.
As her team celebrated the impressive victory, LMU head coach Sami Strinz-Ward noted her team’s unconventional approach to the game: “We take a little bit of an unpopular view on things like this; we don’t do scouting reports,” Strinz-Ward said. “We don’t plan specifically for whoever we’re going to face, but we focus on ourselves and what we’re trying to do. We can see where they’re standing in the box, how they swing, and we know what we are successful with. And we try to do things that work to our strengths.”
While the LSU win was an impressive one, the Lions’ weekend was just getting started. One day later, the team faced off against Big Ten foe Michigan; Wilson again took the circle, and the right-hander again performed impressively, registering a 7-hit, 1-run complete game that ended with a 2-1 victory for her squad.
Speaking about her third-year ace, Strinz-Ward was specific in her praise. “I’m honestly more impressed with the Michigan game where [Wilson] only had two strikeouts, because that’s uncharacteristic for her, so she had to be gritty and gutsy to get outs, and obviously our defense did a superb job behind her… but for someone who’s growing and trying to firmly establish herself as an ace on the staff, someone who’s primarily a strikeout pitcher, to still be successful against a challenging opponent while not necessarily having her A-game, I was really proud of her for that.”
The pair of victories to begin the team’s stay at the Garman tournament not only turned heads across the softball world, but also highlighted a season that seemed to be on a positive track for the Lions. For coach Strinz-Ward, though, the victories were simply part of what has seemed to become a pattern for her program.
“When you’re a competitor, you have to expect to win,” Strinz-Ward said. “We’re not arrogant, but it’s the losses that hurt so bad, no matter who they’re against. You just keep rolling along, and I know it should be a shot in the arm to beat teams [like LSU and Michigan], but it’s like, well, we’re here to win. So winning can’t be surprising. And if it’s surprising, then that means we’ve got a losing mentality going on. That’s what’s challenging because I understand on paper, those are good wins, but for us, we want to install the mentality in our kids that a win over anybody is still simply a win.”
Even though her team’s season ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Strinz-Ward was nevertheless impressed with her team’s performance. “I know it’s exciting that we beat those teams that most people don’t think that we should be able to beat, but that’s how we train. So while it’s exciting, it’s not surprising to our staff. And I don’t think it’s surprising to our team. I think it helped build our confidence.”
Despite their season coming an abrupt close, the Lions officially finished the year batting .297 as a team, while catcher Molly Grumbo finished ranked in the top 20 nationally with a .487 individual average.